27 NOV 2021


It's time to recognise the central role that engineers play in steering human civilisation, including preventing societal collapse, by creating a new role of Chief Engineer, appointment by government, says Clare B Marshall.

As my nephew currently pens his application for an apprenticeship in engineering, I cannot think of a better time to become an engineer.

This was underlined when listening to Dame Jo da Silva’s recent appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Inspiring insights into not only a truly remarkable individual and her contribution to society on an international scale, but the engineering profession as a whole.

Engineers and engineering are pivotal to solving the world’s challenges and minimising the impact of potentially catastrophic events. 

Engineers and engineering are also central to avoiding the risk of societal collapse, also identified as  “global de-complexification” in An Analysis of the Potential for the Formation of ‘Nodes of Persisting Complexity.  Published by Nick King and Aled Jones of the Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, this is a hugely interesting study into causes of collapse and the need for resilience – some of which they argue can be learned from certain geographical locations (aka “nodes of persisting complexity”). 

The UK features in the top five ‘nodes’ more likely to withstand high risk events (albeit the UK “presents a more complex picture and potentially has less favourable characteristics overall”). Less surprising is New Zealand’s number one position in the rankings, due to “favourable starting conditions”. Such conditions are predicated on both geography and ‘keeping it local’: future climate, carrying capacity (e.g. food, water resources), energy supplies, manufacturing capability, less complex structures (e.g. seeking out simpler solutions to fundamental problems) and taking a long term view to protect long term survival. 

Much research and analysis has been undertaken and the full report deserves attention. Aled Jones and team report on the attributes of resilient geographical locations; those which are more likely to act as “lifeboats” if, and when, one is needed. Resilience is key therefore, yet the study argues that such starting conditions are largely outside human control and are more evolutionary in nature. 

"Having worked closely with some of the world's best engineers, I know they understand resilience and how it is a key measure in managing risk and its velocity."

This suggests some are within human control and I would go further to suggest many are. Many of the resilience-enhancing conditions identified in the study can be influenced through foresight and by engineering the future now and at speed. 

Having worked closely with some of the world’s best engineers, I know they understand resilience and how it is a key measure in managing risk and its velocity. Resilience is key to sustainable development. Through sustainable development the world’s mega challenges - including climate change, the refugee crisis, water shortage or deluge (as the case may be), local food and energy resources - can be managed. 

Ingrained resilience can be achieved by rising above geopolitics and placing centre stage collaboration, shared experience and risk response planning. This is key to tackling these challenges, as recently evidenced (with some notable absentees) in the negotiations and outcomes at COP26. But there is much more to do, and at pace. 

To underline the importance and urgency, isn’t it time to recognise the central role of engineers in steering human civilisation, including steering us away from societal collapse? Isn’t it time to elevate the standing of the engineer through the creation of a new role, appointed by government? The Chief Engineer. It would certainly appear an essential step for those countries wishing to become nodes.  

What a great time to be an engineer. And I wish my nephew every success with his apprenticeship application.

Clare B Marshall is the founder of the business consultancy 2MPy.


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