The Engineer of the Future – an identikit portrait

If the engineering profession offers women a bright future, what about the challenges that the engineers of the future will all be facing in 10, 20, 30 years’ time? What will the engineer of the future look like, male or female?

Three major changes

A number of sweeping trends are irreversibly changing the environment in which engineers wield and will continue to wield their skills. By taking a holistic approach here – that is, assuming the environment influences the individual – it is important to highlight these trends in order to understand which skills and personal qualities the engineers of tomorrow will need to apply or acquire.

Global digitisation of exchanges

The first change is technological in nature. Digital technology now plays a central role in the economy and society. Further to the trade- and finance-based globalisation of trade in the 1980s and 1990s, we have entered an interconnected world in which digital technology is king. The exchange of information and ways of working are changing at warp speed.

In the background of this increasingly efficient and fast-paced world, environmental issues, especially the increasingly difficulty of access to the natural resources – oil, gas, and coal – that powered the success of the capitalist model, are partly challenging its hegemony and giving more say to rational minds capable of envisioning a new world.

You might call it the revenge of the geeks on the “smooth operator” of Sade’s 1984 hit. The Wall Street businessmen who made money simply by buying and selling are now giving way to the mechanics who are able to solve the world’s real problems.

Engineers are now back at the centre of the economic game. Once sidelined during the rise of services, they are once more able to take the lead and exercise more power and control over their environment. However, what is expected of them has nothing to do with responsibilities or expertise

Flattening

The second trend that will impact on engineers in the years to come is the flattening of organisations. We could also call it the disintermediation of exchanges or the ‘horizontalisation’ of companies. Of course, this upheaval has its origin in technology, by enabling ‘collaboration’ to become the dominant way of managing exchanges and human relations at companies.

For engineers, this means that, due to the democratisation of knowledge and its direct impact on the value chain, people skills and ‘collective intelligence’ have come into their own. This transfer of power to the user places the concepts of ‘the customer’ and ‘the user’ at the forefront, to the detriment of structures, organisations or plans.

In scientific terms, control of a horizontal mode no longer involves optimising systems, but controlling flows (e.g. cloud computing + link to article) and promoting an agile and/or decentralised production mode (the famous startup mindset) where the user is now king.

We are increasingly shifting from the lone engineer who designs the world in his own way to an economic player who is 100% integrated into his environment and aware of the fact that issues are not only technical, but linked to the users of the technology.

The Big Mix

A third trend is what one might call ‘hybridisation’. Diversity appears to be the key to a form of success that some call resilience or adaptability.

We are entering the era of ‘makers’, ‘workshops’, ‘labs’, the combination of design, production and iterative experimentation Even in the area of economics, terms such as ‘frugal innovation’ (making do with what you have) are appearing. This reconciles abstract design and actual ‘making’, professionals and amateurs.

This turns the traditional vision of the engineering profession on its head: once the masters of matter, engineers will no longer deal only with forms and functions, but also with users and needs.

Tomorrow’s engineers will have to act simultaneously on abstract and tangible reference systems. Will they be able to mediate between a world of specialists and a popular culture with immediate and changing expectations?

Five skills for the engineer of the future

In addition to purely technical knowledge, engineers will have to cultivate a base of cross-disciplinary skills to meet these new challenges. These are sometimes grouped under the somewhat reductive term ‘soft skills’. In reality, the challenge is quite different: they are expected to develop a new vision of the world by thinking and working.

Expertise

There was a time when engineers were expected to build or construct, to quantitatively and intelligently add their stone to the building. However, to put it simply, all bridges and roads have now been built. The challenge is to find new, more inclusive and less polluting modes of travel.

Now the structures are in place, it is the business models that are changing. The engineer of the future must become an expert in redefining the value chain, which extends no longer only from the manufacturer to the user, but also from the user to the designer. This is disruptive thinking that will be useful to engineers who want to have an impact on the world of tomorrow.

Ingenuity

In a world that is moving ever faster, engineers will increasingly be faced with problems that have no apparent solution. What is expected of them is not a miracle solution, but the ability to get around the problem or reduce risks at various points in the value chain in order to bring a project about.

Ingenious engineers no longer operate by accumulating knowledge, but by exceeding their reach or the apparent limitations of a project. They will also need to learn to constantly question their references and immerse themselves in practicalities rather than ‘books’.

Agility in an agile world

The de-siloing of economic activities and the flattening of flow charts make it both possible and necessary to work in agile mode. Engineers must start from the premise that they cannot achieve their goals alone, whether in terms of knowledge, time, or final satisfaction. The right solution necessarily lies elsewhere, with the other party.

Whereas the engineers of the past had specifications, the engineers of today have customers with whom they need to empathise.

This, for instance, is what Steve Jobs was the first to understand, by focusing on the habits of consumers and individuals rather than production issues (when, how much does it cost, how many, etc.).

The engineers of the future are resolutely aware of the fact that “the truth is elsewhere” and that only the quality of their network and ecosystem will enable them to understand, with the greatest possible acuity, the world around them (feedback culture) in order to solve certain problems.

“Increasingly widespread access to information will lead to a need for almost total transparency concerning industrial products and processes […], with consequences for the engineering profession in terms of responsibility”, comments Gabriel Plassat of Ademe.

Responsibility

As companies are increasingly perceived as players in civil society and environmental challenges become more and more prevalent, engineers are now have a role to play as responsible citizens.

Mastering the ethical, legal, societal and political effects of technology on the production chain is an absolutely crucial skill for those who want to find their place on the labour market of the next 20 years.

Responsible engineers are people who say no while proposing a solution that involves collective and ‘different’ innovation. They are full-fledged citizens who supply a critical reading of the present that is relevant enough to suggest a desirable future.

Influence

I have two words: soft skills One of the skills expected of the engineers of the future is undoubtedly the ability to influence their environment. In today’s world, nothing can be taken for granted: a budget, talents or priorities can change.

The ability to mobilise limited resources around a project or an ideal is a major skill that constitutes a huge departure from the cliché of engineers in their ivory tower, masters of absolute knowledge. It requires considerable understanding of human behaviour and teamwork to achieve its ends.

The ever-growing number of projects funded by means of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding is one of the signs of this need to attract resources and manage them intelligently in order to create something new.

Conclusion

The economic, sociological and environmental changes we are experiencing are what has enabled us to sketch a portrait of an engineer who is more in tune with the times and whose responsibilities are increasing both within and outside their company. 

Ethics and morality must and will have to be part of the decision-making software of the engineers of the future, whose role, far more than solving the world’s problems, will be to give it meaning.

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