Hi. My name is Della, and I work with engineers. I also married one. Anyone know of a good support group?
Engineers have a unique handle on the world, one that non-engineers like me often struggle to understand. Engineers face their world with a certainty — I don’t know how much is genetic and how much is taught — that seems to far exceed what the rest of us can muster. There is a certain optimism to the engineer’s approach: all problems have a solution, we just have to figure it out.
It’s almost an Enlightenment perspective. The world is fully knowable, we just haven’t got it all worked out yet.
If you have read or heard me speak before, you might have started with the assumption that this essay would do a nice job of snarking on our friends with the pocket protectors and the black-and white pen sets. I’ve certainly made it clear before that my own angle is all about mess and complexity. And I haven’t typically shown much patience for people who believe in simple solutions.
But we who try to make communities work better need to maintain, some piece of the engineer’s approach. It’s so easy for us to become cynical, to give up on the hope of finding solutions, out here on the hairy edge of the most complicated systems in human existence.
We can’t control (fill in the blank),
The (fill in the blank) won’t let us do it,
The (fill in the blank) will never understand.
Twiddle at the margins, shrug the shoulders, punch the clock and go home and forget about it.
It is legitimate and necessary to call out the engineers when their search for a logical solution leads to building walls between one issue and another (“the purpose of this project is to improve traffic flows. We can’t predict what kind of development will occur”). The easiest path to a clear world view is to limit what you are looking at to a manageable subset of the whole convoluted thing. From a cognitive perspective, the limited, the technical, approach makes sense. But we all know that we have made enough of a mess, created enough unpleasant unintended consequences for our communities by allowing such simplistic approaches to rule the day. We do have to assert that solving one problem while ignoring the whole ecosystem cannot be the acceptable choice anymore.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t find better solutions. We have access to more and more information every day from our colleagues in the social sciences about how people behave, how groups of people work, how effective decision-making in complex settings can be structured to do it right. And we have access to more, and better, and more immediate data on how exactly our communities are working than we have ever had before.
From where I stand, the greatest challenge of our era is to figure out how to use new ideas, tools and information to manage communities in their entirety, as complex ecosystems rather than as a set of specialized machines. We might not be able to do it perfectly, but we can do it better and better. That’s an approach that the engineering profession has learned through hundreds of years of bridges and roads and steadily improving methods for making them stronger, less costly, and better. That’s a pretty powerful reason to be sure of yourself. Instead of snarking, let’s recruit them to the cause.