Engineering, roads and public participation: “It’s technical….not political”

There’s a picture which will stay in my mind long after the Wynberg public participation meeting on the proposed phase 2a BRT scheme meeting is forgotten. It’s the faces of City engineers looking, frankly, baffled. Like George Bush caught reading children’s stories while the twin towers collapsed many of the City engineers were caught off-guard reading the wrong script and wondering “how on earth did I end up here?” The public feedback was frequently jeering, bitter and highly critical of the engineers (“Hogwash!” “It feels so unprofessional”). The awkward moves of the engineers to deflect criticism (“This is not a political meeting…it’s technical!”) were met with scornful laughter and resentment at their apparent ignorance.
The audience had it really wrong about engineers and engineering. And really right.
First the wrong part. Engineers are not, by and large, stupid. An engineering degree is one of the most difficult university programmes to enter. Engineering students are universally derided for being hardworking nerds and the benchmarks for graduating are high. Engineers are then, by any standards, pretty bright. Also, engineers tend not to be the mean-spirited despots portrayed by the public. Many engineers enter the profession because they want to see good in the world. They are practical people often disenchanted with lack of material progress for humankind. I’ve been surprised at how many City of Cape Town engineers continue to work in a frustrating bureaucracy because they still secretly harbour some genuine wish to serve the public.
Then again.
The same university and professional education processes nurturing bright minds also generate much political, historical and social ignorance in the pursuit of engineering efficiency. Much of the undergraduate engineering education purposefully ignores historical context (and with it community memory and pain). And so an engineer can claim in a public meeting in Wynberg, with no sense of irony or cruelty, that a road scheme planned during apartheid is as valid today as it was then. In the traditional engineering paradigm “a road is a road” and a road, it has been taught, is a matter of efficient movement of people and vehicles. The road has little other meaning. In the engineering mindset if the road was “technically” valid in 1952, it is valid now. Educated to trust in their own pure objectivity a traffic engineer can publically state, without blushing, that a meeting to discuss a highly contested route, requiring relocation of families, affecting notable heritage sites and substantially impacting on a key business node of the City is not a political matter.
I am really encouraged, then, by a relatively new offering in the Engineering and Built Environment Faculty at UCT called “Social Infrastructures: Engaging with Communities for Change” acknowledging that development is a socio-technical process….shaped by the institutional and political context.” Let’s hope that as the BRT rolls out the engineers become much less baffled and much more savvy about power, pain and politics.

5 responses

  1. Hi Lisa, I really enjoyed your article and can relate to so much of what you are saying, particularly because as a female engineer, much of this comes *more* naturally to me than to my engineer boyfriend.

    You sum it up perfectly – we are taught to think practically and efficiently and get to a good solution. In my four years of varsity we had to take one elective and we took two completely non-engineering related subjects the entire way through varsity – African Studies in first year and PCS (Professional Communication Studies in I think part of 3rd and maybe part of 4th year, if I remember correctly). You are so correct in saying that we are not taught to take political, historical, social etc context into the equation when we come up with our solutions, except in maybe extremely broad terms.

    I have just one comment – do we really purposefully overlook an engineers education in problem solving context? Or is it an oversight that we need to address in day-to-day lectures, by emphasising to students that their problem solving does not happen in isolation, but rather within a larger context and that we need to be aware of that context in order to problem solve effectively. As an example, offers a great Human Centred Design course that I’ve taken, and it would be great to see these problem solving concepts incorporated some engineering courses.

    Alternatively, is it not the function of the multi-disciplinary team, of which the engineer is a member, to bring the engineers attention to the context of the problem that he/she is trying to solve? As a silly example, the engineers bring the technical know-how to the table in a certain project, whereas the social scientist brings the awareness of social context/impact and the environmentalist brings the awareness of impact of the project to the water sources/wetlands etc.

    – Cath

    • Cath,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment..and the reference to which I wasn’t aware of.

      I think you make an important point about teams and roles. After all, no single person can know everything, and every complex project needs a multi-disciplinary team. My concern with your suggestion, though, is with the current hierarchy within which projects like this work. Disciplines and their statements (whether as designs, texts, arguments or calculations) are conventionally judged within teams something like this 1. Science 2. Applied science 3. The rest. This hierarchy immediately places engineering judgement (seen as an applied science, although this label deserves unpacking too) as the final arbiter. “The rest” (in this particular case planning more broadly) is left scrabbling for consideration instead of playing at least an equal role in the conversation.

      Lots to consider…thanks for your open-ness!

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