Science and technology
working with nature- civil and hydraulic engineering to aspects of real world problems in water and at the waterfront - within coastal environments
Creativity and Due Diligence
In the first two blogs I have tried to introduce an overall picture of the Gift of Science & Technology (S & T) in defining and sustaining human civilizations. A big picture view of things is very helpful in understanding and judging a problem from different perspectives.
With this and subsequent posts I will be entering into the core areas of my professional experience – in aspects of civil and hydraulic engineering within coastal environments. I will try my best to share some interesting topics in English. The task of discussing technical matters in plain language is not an easy one but that should not deter us. I hope that my scientific publications, contributions to the Coastal_List – an internet world forum of coastal scientists and engineers at the University of Delaware, and teaching of ocean engineering courses at the Florida Institute of Technology, will be helpful in this regard.
Before I do so, I think it is appropriate to spend a little time on clarifying some of the premises on which this and other discussions will be based. First, where do engineers stand in the S & T field? Let me try to answer the question from a civil/hydraulic engineering point of view.
In the discipline of civil/hydraulic engineering, applied science provides the baseline knowledge on data and analysis, while technology provides tested products and materials. The role of an engineer is to find solutions to a given problem using resources from these two sources. To do it successfully, it is important for engineers to understand the necessary basics of the S & T. Failing in this matter affects the soundness of an engineer’s judgment. Therefore engineers are part of the S & T endeavors by being intricately involved in the development and progress – sometimes working at the forefront, but most often in the practical applications of science and technological advances to the real-world problems. In very challenging cases, engineers do their own science and technological investigations when S & T advances appear inadequate or unsatisfactory for a specific problem.
Engineering is defined as the profession of applying technical, scientific and mathematical knowledge to plan, design and implement measures that are economical, harmless, safe and sound. Engineering professionals are considered as problem solvers.
Is modern engineering education adequate to prepare students to see problems from different perspectives? Some people tend to think it is not adequate and that the employers should also share the roles of training. Without going along that line, it is important to consider the common view of some people about engineers. The most common view is that engineers have tunnel visions of things. If this view is correct, it is very serious because engineering is supposed to be a creative profession. Unless engineers see a problem from different perspectives, it becomes difficult for them to appreciate multiple aspects of a problem, and be creative and innovative in their judgments. But some others tend to argue that the tunnel vision of engineers is the unfortunate outcome of their own pursuit of perfection requiring them to focus on details. Yet there are others who think that stereotyping engineers as such amounts to blocking their career path in the corporate hierarchy. Whatever may be the case, engineers shoulder huge professional, ethical and legal responsibilities not only for the technical soundness of the proposed measures they propose, but also for the projects’ economy, safety and impact. These are all the more reasons why engineers should have a wide vision of things.
I have used plural words like solutions and measures to indicate that engineers need to be creative to come up with a range of alternative solutions rather than a single one. I remember attending a meeting during my early career where we were reviewing one of our projects with a Dutch Government expert. The expert told us very bluntly that he would not accept a solution unless a range of alternatives were examined showing pros and cons of each one.
The reason for citing this simple encounter is to indicate that creativity and due diligence are two important requirements expected of an engineer to find a smart solution from an array of probable alternatives. Of course, many problems that engineers deal with, on day-to-day businesses are rather routine established undertakings. In many such projects, engineering is reduced to the job of a technician or a money-manager. The problem is that if they do such jobs for long, their technical and creative prowess are likely to loose sharpness with the sad consequences that the engineered solutions may lack substance and become unattractive and indefensible.
When one thinks about the word engineering itself, it is often applied in a broader sense outside technical disciplines. People talk about politicians, planners and diplomats coming to an engineered solution. In these problem solving works, it is implied that, like in engineering, several alternatives are examined by screening, playing with and trading off criteria and constraints to arrive at a solution that all could agree upon.
Often confusions arise on the roles of engineers and scientists in hydraulic and coastal engineering problems. Although both the disciplines overlap in some areas, they do see problems from different perspectives. Let me try to illustrate a scenario to show the difference in perspectives between a scientist and an engineer.
Let us ask both a single question, what is the applicable wave climate in this area of the coast relevant for design? An oceanographer would probably say, this is what we have measured and modeled . . . A smart engineer, on the other hand, having real-world application in mind would hesitate to answer directly and would probably say, . . . we have these, but . . . Why so? The hesitation is not an indication of the engineer’s inability, it is rather caused by the thinking that he or she would probably use the measured and modeled information, but only after examining them from the perspectives of adequacy, safety and risk, applicable codes and regulations. Applicable codes and regulations are minimum standards, which engineers must follow as a guideline and comply with them to avoid legal challenges.
This leads us to say that the difference in perspectives between the two professions – is not in the process of analyzing a problem per se but in the goal – how and what they deliver in the end or supposed to do so. After all, an engineer is a scientist first. Further, both are well poised to deliver a smart answer or solution when they manage to philosophize an issue without carrying the baggage of a philosopher. The advantage with this line of thinking is that – it broadens the horizon of one’s mind to see things from both short and long term perspectives – further enabling him or her to see things from all different angles – their solutions, effects and implications. It is encouraging to note that at least two documents of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine – NAP 18722 and NAP 24988 have shed new lights on the necessity of collaborative and interdisciplinary thinking.
We have talked about learning from nature during other occasions. In this blog I like to highlight a concrete example of that notion. I do this by paying tribute to a creature that has important lessons to teach us. This little amazing creature is none other than a North American Beaver.
I often post the image of a Beaver and the dam it builds on the clip board in my office with the caption, who is the better hydraulic engineer? Some of my colleagues might have thought I was challenging them. In fact, I was challenging all to think and understand how a Beaver could do things.
How the hell do Beavers know where and how to put the anchor-twigs and branches? How do they place piece by piece to weave the dam so meticulously and diligently? How can they be so creative in finding and selecting the right materials? They never stop repairing and improving their creation. Not only that - the completed Beaver dam never blocks the entire flow; rather it lets some water to continuously trickle down to support downstream aquatic lives.
The Beaver invite us to challenge its creativity, and its diligent and meticulous way of doing things. There are many examples of other creatures that show amazing fits of creativity and engineering. Perhaps it is our ignorance and inability to understand these amazing creatures that let us treat them as something unworthy of respect and care. Creatures like Beavers teach us to work with Nature rather than upsetting its processes. Working with Nature is only possible when we properly understand it. The understanding lets engineers develop the ability to be creative to generate alternatives and make scientifically and environmentally acceptable trade-off decisions.
Well, so far so good. But we should not forget one hard reality – and this is the fact that like with all disciplines, engineers work within the practical constraints of a work place, administrative framework, cost, schedule and clientele. The luster of performance, creativity and innovation does suffer by constraints and circumstances that are beyond the control of an able engineer.
One of my friends said, the topics you are talking about are very good and make sense. But how important are they in terms of helping an engineer in his or her career path? Do sincerity and professionalism really matter in a culture of showmanship, dishonesty and elbowing out each other?
Well, that is an entirely different topic but an important and practical one, not only for an engineering profession but also for others. I tend to be an optimist however.
Here is an anecdote to ponder:
The disciple asked the master, “Sir, I thought all we needed were concrete and steel.”
The master smiled and looked away, “No surprise there. Umm! I am wondering where I can find some fresh air of alternatives.”
. . . . .
- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 26 May 2016
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