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Future skills for engineers

Marina bay bridge  waterfront at marina bay (c) paul mcmullin crop

The skills needed by professional engineers of the future are currently under review. So what does it take to be a world leading designer?

Like Archimedes and his eureka moment when working out how to measure volume, Arup deputy chairman Tristram Carfrae has all his best ideas during a morning bath.

It is a moment when, after wrestling with an engineering design problem the day before, and after a good night’s sleep, his mind is clear and uncluttered, and the next steps present themselves.

Inspirational bath

The bath option may not be for everyone of course, but the ideas of thinking time and reflection are critical for good design, the Arup deputy chairman believes.

His skills as a designer have recently been recognised by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA), whose faculty of royal designers for industry has appointed Carfrae as its master for the next two years, taking over from fashion designer Betty Jackson.

Tristram carfrae  (c) arup crop

Tristram carfrae (c) arup crop

Carfrae: Creative thinking is vital to good design

He is planning to use the role to promote the concept that design as a general process can be taught, with the added urgency that the creative thinking that is a hallmark of good design will be the human element of that work in the future, as machine learning mops up the repetitive detail. At the same time he wants to encourage the design hive at the faculty to work together to use design thinking to tackle some of society’s biggest problems.

Carfrae is the mind behind many beautiful projects including the Beijing 2008 Olympics Aquatic Centre and Singapore’s Marina Bay double helix bridge.

Beijing national aquatics centre  the water cube (c) zhou ruogu architecture photography crop

Beijing national aquatics centre the water cube (c) zhou ruogu architecture photography crop

Source: zhou ruogu architecture photography

Beijing national aquatics centre: One of Carfrae’s projects

At the RSA he follows on from designers as diverse as Barnes Wallis and Vivienne Westwood.

“To me, design at its essence, is simply a better way of doing things and anything can be designed because it is a process,” Carfrae says. “What differentiates good designers is that they keep more possibilities open for longer whereas others try to narrow the options as fast as possible.

“Hard work is necessary but it cannot be a continuous activity. Allowing yourself thinking time and changing what you are doing to allow reflection is necessary. What I am trying to wrestle with is the fear of the unknown that prevents people from being creative.”

Carfrae has evolved a two day course at Arup to teach creative design with support from Expedition Engineering director Chris Wise.

“Engineers are classified as problem solvers,” says Carfrae.

More than one answer

“They are taught maths; they like things with one answer and problems that have contained answers with the objective defined. But the world needs more designers who can look at the issues and come up with a range of solutions. Designers will need to be able to deal with unconstrained problems with an infinite number of possibilities and find the best.”

Engineering designers are working in a rapidly changing environment, Carfrae points out.  

“Machine learning will evolve and handle more of the detailed design and documentation which will free us up to spend more time on ideas. I believe that with building information modelling simulations and big data, clients will realise that value will no longer lie in the reliability of outcomes but the ideas that go into them; that not all engineering services are the same.

Change of teaching balance

The rise of the machines will lead to a change in the balance of what engineers are taught, Carfrae believes.

“Engineers will need the physics, to understand why structures stand up, but the maths should diminish and softer skills introducing empathy and communication should be added in. Many of my contemporaries are reluctant to accept this, but I remember in 1981 when I presented designers with computers the response was ‘over my dead body’ and we’ve come a long way since then.”

Carfrae believes that design should be taught in school, detached from the aesthetics of art etcetera.

“Over the last 10 years I’ve become certain that design is a way of thinking, a universal way of tackling problems that are intransigent and too large to comprehend.”

Transferring skills

In his role as master of the faculty of royal designers for industry he has met a good response to his proposal that his fellow members work together and apply their skills to problems in fields outside their own experience.

“As you get older as a designer you learn to second guess yourself and it prejudices your solutions. When you set your mind to an issue outside your field, you can better use your creative ingenuity.

“As designers, there are so many issues we could think about – from the impacts of population growth with 3bn extra people in Africa alone in the next 50 years to the wealth gap, affordable housing and disaffected teenagers.

“It is important to remember we are each part of an even more powerful design community. Whether we work as designers in fashion, architecture or computing, we help to improve people’s lives.  Now more than ever, the world is relying on us to provide answers.” N





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