A Call for Socially Conscious Engineers

Prof. Turok’s address for the graduation ceremony of the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment (2014).

“Engineers must be mindful of the socioeconomic impact of their work.”

It is a great honour for me to speak at my old alma mater, particularly to engineering graduates.

On my first day as an engineering student and at my first lecture in the faculty the professor told us “whatever you do as an engineer the bridge must not fall down”. What he meant is that an engineer cannot afford to make mistakes so his work has to be rigorous and sound. I have never forgotten that advice and have often passed it on to my associates and indeed to my staff.

But what the professor did not explain was why the bridge must not fall down. He might have explained that the destruction can be immense, as well as the cost. Also the humiliation for the engineer who will probably never get another opportunity to build a bridge.

In my case, if I build a bridge now it would certainly fall down, so fortunately I now work in an entirely different field. But that advice must apply to you.

What the professor also failed to explain is that a bridge is more than a technical structure. It often connects to areas across a river in rural areas, thus enabling children to go a nearby school, goods delivered to stores, and adjacent communities to socialise.

Many engineers fail to take the social implications of their work into account. They seem to think that their role is purely technical while the consequences may be detrimental for society.

Let me give a practical example. For several years I have been deeply engaged in studies in the interface between mining and manufacturing. That is, the mineral value chain. Some of you will be working in mining, construction or manufacturing, so the issues should be of interest to you.

The mining industry in South Africa claims that their role is restricted to extracting mineral ores out of the ground and exporting this abroad. Because we are very well endowed with minerals this gives them a comparative advantage. This is the classical situation in former colonial countries whereby some European corporation invested heavily in a colony to extract gold, silver, copper or some other mineral, and transported to Europe where it was turned into some finished goods. When the minerals were depleted they left a large hole in the ground and not much else.

But our manufacturers argue that they want a different model. They want to supply engineering and other equipment to the mines and they want minerals for beneficiation into final goods. In other words add value here not abroad.

From the perspective of national interests this is a sound argument as it will increase our technological capabilities, develop new enterprises, broaden our tax base, enhance our R & D, and create employment. These are great advantages compared with exporting raw ores to be turned into goods abroad, which amounts to exporting jobs overseas. We must find ways to increase our technical capabilities and create employment.

Engineers ought to have views on such matters. You cannot confine yourself to the technical issues alone. There are many socioeconomic consequences to what you do.

Good engineers build societies not just machines. I trust that UCT has produced well rounded graduates.

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