Social Experience Webinar - Reflections

The Social Experience webinar, held as part of the ChemEng Evolution series, brought together a cornucopia of ideas on the role of chemical engineers in addressing current and future global challenges in a rapidly changing technological world. Young engineers, wise observers and commentators on technology and society provided a heady yet sobering mix of how chemical engineers need to transform their education and practice to meet societal expectations today, and in the future. 

Young engineers in particular are prioritising the objectives encapsulated in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, where everyone can have access to clean water, sanitation, abundant energy, good health and sufficient food, and no one is left behind. Chemical engineers will no doubt have a central role in developing the technologies that will fill the gap while also ensuring more efficient resource utilisation and a zero carbon future. The practice of chemical engineering is evolving as fast as our rapidly changing world and the scope of work is expanding into new frontiers, including bio-chemical, nano-chemical and new materials such as carbon adsorbing materials that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The possibilities are endless and limited only by our imagination. 

Beyond Technology – Engaging society 

However, chemical engineers will need to challenge the status quo and break down barriers – social, environmental, regulatory, in addition to developing breakthrough technologies. Increasingly, chemical engineers will need to engage with society as they explain their solutions to the challenges we face. Chemical engineers need to share their narrative and the purpose and impact of their work for a better world. This will be increasingly important as new policies, standards and regulations will be needed at the national and international level to enable new technology solutions to be implemented. In particular, chemical engineers need to convey the magnitude of the task ahead, for example in addressing climate change, the solutions that chemical engineers can develop and implement, and the benefits that will result They will increasingly need to convey the uncertainties in the road ahead, the risks, the enormous increase in the rate of progress that is needed and the complexity of the systems that need to be addressed. It’s a numbers game, essential if the social license for chemical engineering is to be maintained and evolved. 

Imagining and Creating our shared futures 

Chemical engineers can draw on lessons about how technology has been implemented from history and also the recent past. Historically, the development of the steam engine accelerated the first industrial revolution with enormous social and economic impact. The development of the mobile phones, the internet and fast communications, have resulted in the fourth industrial revolution and made an unimagined future part of everyday life in under 40 years. This astonishing acceptance of new technologies was partly the result of smart communications by large technology companies. Its increasingly clear that all engineers need to be able to communicate their ideas and their imagined futures as eloquently as Steve Jobs*. 

The successful implementation of new technology will depend on the ability of engineers to shift the power structure from the incumbent, generally large multinational companies with greater resources than nation states, to the innovators who are challenging the status quo. Engineers need to understand how and when this power shift will occur rather than analyse policy prescriptions. It is about understanding the power dynamics and how the political discourse works, if we are to be successful in implementing the innovations that are needed to address the challenges of the future. For example, the technologies to address climate change have been available for more than 20 years but nations are only now beginning to address the imperative to invest in them to reach the targets agreed by the world’s most influential nations.  

Many of the engineering breakthroughs that will occur in the next 20 years are already here in the research laboratory. However, as these advance, engineers will need to be clear about the world they want to build and the values these incorporate, as technology is never value neutral. The technologies that win the political debate and the hearts and minds of the community, are those that will be implemented. Engineers need to not only develop the technologies that address tomorrow’s challenges, but ensure that the technologies that are implemented, benefit the people and planet and not just create prosperity for the advantaged few.   

Transforming education and practice 

Chemical engineers are both fascinated and motivated by some of the most complex problems that we face today. As chemical engineering evolves, chemical engineers will need be constantly learning to ensure that they can keep up with the rapid pace of change. This learning will need to go beyond just technical topics and encompass social, economic, political and cultural norms. Engineers will need to broaden their contexts, embracing ideas in other engineering and non-engineering disciplines.  

It will also be important to collaborate across disciplines, including in the sciences, arts and medicine, to stimulate innovation and to engage with other professions and communities to develop appropriate and sustainable solutions. We can start by creating interdisciplinary teams at university so that engineering students can engage with a broader cohort of students to gain insights into their perspectives.  

Chemical engineers will need to learn not to be wed to their discipline and recognise that there are other places and conversations where solutions can be developed. We also need to recognise that other parts of society want to be part of the conversation as well. 

The role of IChemE  

As IChemE is at the core of the chemical engineering profession, it has a key role in enabling this transformation, by bringing together chemical engineers to create a coherent framework that follows the science and engineering and also has a roadmap on how engineers can influence society to understand and ensure the changes we need. 

More discussions that bring together different disciplines and enable a constructive discourse on the way forward, will be increasingly important. This will enable a plurality of voices to be heard, essential in a democracy. It will also be important to define the skills that a chemical engineer of the future will need, to deal with the challenges of the future including the political, economic and social pressures that engineers will face. 

Chemical engineers have the skills and the sense of purpose to enable a fair and just society where the benefits of technological advancements can be made accessible to all. We have an important job to do that goes beyond the theory and practice of chemical engineering to collaborate with other disciplines, incorporate those learnings in our work and to engage and communicate more effectively with society at every level. It’s clear that chemical engineers are needed more than ever and we have an important role now and in the future, where we can provide the necessary leadership  to create a better, sustainable and just world. 

* Steve Jobs is an example of a great communicator on new technologies. He eloquently captured the imagination of the world with the introduction of the Apple Mac, IPod, iPhone and other new technologies that had a great human interface, were people oriented, and embraced around the world.