Beyond Brunel – Engineering’s Image Problem

Beyond Brunel Pic 2

Tom Agar suggests Engineering needs to become more glamorous – and that placemaking can help

Think about physics. It might not be your favourite thing to think about, or perhaps it’s been a while (unless of course you are Edward Witten, in which case you probably do this a fair bit already), but bear with me for a minute.

What do you think of when you think about physics? Planets? Atoms? Albert Einstein?

You have probably thought about physics a lot more recently than you have thought about engineering.  Scroll through BBC iPlayer or YouTube and you’ll find countless shows that delve into the wonders of nature. Popular science books on astrophysics, particle physics or string theory are regularly at the top of non-fiction bestseller lists. Physics is very much in vogue and has been having its moment for a while. After years of hard work in bringing big ideas about space and time into the popular sphere once again, we can confidently assert that science is cool.

Not only is it cool, but science communication is big business. In the 1970s, Carl Sagan had to work hard to convince broadcasters that his idea for the world’s first astronomy show, Cosmos, was commercially viable. It went on to be the most watched television shows in the history of American public television, setting off a chain of events that led to the Big Bang Theory. Now, a sitcom about physicists from CalTech has won 9 Emmys, a Golden Globe, and has been one of the highest rated TV shows for a decade.

Other areas of science have witnessed a similar renaissance. Mathematics has conquered Hollywood, with movies like A Beautiful Mind bringing John Nash and Game Theory to the big screen. The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing’s remarkable code breaking efforts during the war. Hidden under the surface of Moneyball, Brad Pitt’s baseball drama, is a story about Big Data.

Physics and mathematics have done a remarkable job of making difficult, technical subjects accessible to the layperson. Applications to study these subjects at A-Level or University are rising, as a new generation of young people is captivated by individuals working in these fields who they can relate to in some way because they’ve seen them on the Internet. Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, Brian Cox, or Peter Higgs are talking about contemporary scientific research to schoolchildren, young adults and the broader public in sold out events. The BlueDot Festival is a new annual music and science festival happening at the Jodrell Bank Observatory in the Peak District, themed around space, astronomy and science more generally.  This year it attracted headline music acts to boot.

Now think about engineering. It certainly has been a while since you thought about this one. What do you think about when you think about engineering? Bridges? Trains? Isambard Kingdom Brunel?

Me too.

Recently, Fourth Street attended an open evening at the Institute of Civil Engineering in Westminster.   This evening focused on tunnelling, including the remarkable achievements of the Channel Tunnel, Crossrail and the London sewer system. It was an engaging and interactive evening, including virtual reality tunnel tours, LEGO building workshops, and even an opportunity for a tunnel selfie, which I foolishly declined. Tunnelling innovation, from ancient history to the present day, was all on display.

But some stereotypes are harder to shake than others. One poor member of staff was dragooned into dressing up in a 19th century black frock coat, waistcoat and full-height top hat. None of the tunnel exhibits had much to do with Brunel, but there he was, ambling around and chatting amiably to the engineering students, academics, and professionals. His appearance, when surrounded by 21st Century technology, was incongruous and rather strange.

This is part of a much broader image problem with engineering. When asked to name a famous engineer, very few can go far beyond Brunel, Stephenson or Telford, all of whom were dead by 1860. Some may suggest modern engineers such as James Dyson or Steve Jobs, but only because they are product engineers that have become synonymous with consumer goods we cherish.  Of all the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) only engineering seems to have an image that is stuck in the 19th Century – which is odd, as we can see brilliant feats of engineering all around us, every day.

This thought is not to undermine Brunel, Stephenson, or Jobs in their achievements. They all deserve their places in history as unique characters and inventors, whose legacy and achievements have accelerated fields as diverse as architecture, electronics and city-planning. Their stories must be told. But physics has progressed beyond Newton and Galileo – why can’t engineering?

We need to tell the stories of today’s engineering; to engage living, breathing engineers from across different disciplines. When working engineers get talking about their latest project, their passion and enthusiasm can be infectious. We need to harness a lot more of that and ease up a little on the 19th Century, cigar-smoking train builders. Fewer top hats and monocles please, and a few more hardhats and high vis jackets. That will paint a far more compelling picture of engineering that today’s kids can engage with.

It’s time we used our remarkable engineering history and heritage to tell a more compelling and contemporary story.  With our bridges and tunnels, observatories and laboratories, follies and factories we have a huge opportunity to change the way that engineering is perceived.

Let’s create innovation hubs that focus on problems and achievements in modern engineering. Let’s tell the story of the Millennium Bridge and why it wobbled – and how and by whom it was fixed. Let’s bring children into the factories building electric car engines, or invite speakers like Robert Ayers to talk about Thrust SSC and other land-speed record cars as part of broader event programmes.

Place-making can have a key role in helping engineering to follow in the footsteps of the other sciences and break beyond Brunel, educating and building skills in people, and having fun along the way. Museums must continue to portray the history of engineering, but doing so in a way that comes right up to the present day and beyond, brought to life by ambassadors for the subject. Workspaces engaged in engineering should open their doors, becoming transparent to the public and inviting people to have a look and wander.

A Formula 1 car, a skyscraper, or the Channel Tunnel have just as much capacity to amaze as the rings of Saturn or Fermat’s Last Theorem, and it’s time we built attractions that cultivate that amazement. It might sound strange at the moment, but in ten years’ time we might then be watching an award-winning comedy sketch show about tunnel engineers, or the latest blockbuster movie about the against-the-odds successful design and construction of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. And hopefully, there won’t be a steam engine or top hat in sight.