chris wise engineer

Engineering and emotion: The Wipers’ Times

I am invited to give a lot of talks, but surely it can’t just be because engineering is superb entertainment. If I’m honest, maybe I even do these talks more for me than “them”….impending public humiliation forcing some sort of useful self-examination. For a long time, I spoke like the Englishman in France whose English gets louder and louder in an effort to be understood. I found myself speaking ever more passionately about the “Unchained Engineer”…the sort of mythical creature who would use the liberation of the digital age to do new and wonderful things.

These talks generally follow the Olympic swimmer model…in which the “champion” exclaims “Watch me!”, dives in, zooms effortlessly down to the other end of the pool, and says “That’s how you do it….it’s really easy…now you have a go!!”. But after many years of trying, despite using compelling evidence of the benefits as exemplified by our apparently heroic projects, I realised that after countless attempts I haven’t seen any real evidence that it makes any difference. In fact, I get applause, sometimes even a standing ovation and then if anything, I am met with blank expressions of the “what’s that got to do with me?” variety.

So I made myself ask: “What does the Unchained Engineer have to do with them?”. And the answer turns out to be, not a lot, to most people. To put it another way, do I have anything worth saying? Ignoring the obvious answer, I changed tack and now I witter on about the relationship between two words that you don’t often find in the same sentence: Engineering and Emotion. And the response in places from Leeds to Barcelona has been fascinating…..lots of very personal engagement. “I think we can say you were a hit!”, was one X-Factor type comment. Maybe after all these years of trying I’ve finally chanced upon something “they” can relate to. But how does an engineer talk about emotions, when you can’t find Joy, or Remorse, or Fear in a Eurocode.

I’ve used clips from an old BBC film I helped make, to show how our emotions infuse everything we do in construction and design. Now we see Roger the stonemason dealing with his own timeless engineering material…trying to break apart a giant block of limestone using only the expansion force from wet timber wedges. Confident initially, under sunny blue skies he expresses the emotion of jolly Anticipation about his technique. Three days later, wet through from a persistent drizzle, he demonstrates rueful Sadness when the limestone finally cracks…but in the wrong place. Another sequence, one that I am a little more embarrassed about, is a rather stout exchange (Anger) about what I felt were over-the-top health and safety precautions in a conversation between the BBC’s engineer, me, and the construction manager, Mace’s irreplaceable and unflappable Bob Gordon.

At one recent event I explored the part emotion plays in any given “project”, using the experience of shopping for the trousers I was wearing as a case study. But as we discovered when we were teaching students at Imperial, there is no place for emotion or subjectivity in an engineering curriculum. Oh, no….let’s major on infallibility, predictability, safety, and conservatism. How different is that dusty impersonal theory to real human practice, in which, to give just one example, Norman Foster once tried to break a chair over my head in a design meeting. (I think he was joking, but I ducked just in case).

How do I know that this link with our emotion is striking a chord? Well, perhaps I can quote just one recent observer:

“After yesterday’s lecture, I came all the way back home, crying and thinking to myself “where has all my passion gone?!”. I got home and put my plan together. I feel scared as hell but I know this is the wise thing to do.
I blame you for making me quit my job.”

Now I really start to feel the burden…unwittingly changing someone’s career for goodness sake…but there are many precedents in the strong link between emotion, design and trail-blazing activity of the type we try to practice, and I guess we have to live by the consequences. That same feeling of exposure heightens awareness, but it’s lost on many of today’s engineers whose life has become too comfortable. From the reaction of recent audiences, it’s time for us to reconnect emotion back into the engineering world. To see the intimate link between design, manufacture and emotion we need look no further than the “Wipers Times” trench newspaper, which at Ypres advertised exceedingly useful “brown velveteen trousers for those who are about to go over the top.” Now there’s a comforting piece of design work.

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