Engineers beyond engineering — the art of being an engineer: Philippe Rival at TEDxImperialCollege


Translator: Soumya Satheesan
Reviewer: Denise RQ Thank you very much, everyone. I stared civil engineering
three years ago, here at Imperial, and it’s been a hell of a ride. It’s really been very enriching, because I have to trust
that when I graduate in a year, if there’s a graduate out there
who’ll be able design a bridge that’s going to work
and not kill everyone that goes on it, it’s going to be me and the people
who graduate with me. And that’s a really exciting prospect. It’s also a little bit daunting. The great thing about being here
and learning these things is that it’s a fantastic learning curve. It’s something that I truly believe in. When I came into the lecture theater
I’ve spent most of my life in – you probably will have one,
lecture theater 201 – I was powered by that very prospect:
the prospect that everyday I was going to be adding on
to this four-year learning curve, and I was going to be getting
all this great new knowledge. I got so interested in
keeping up with this process that I didn’t have time to look back. Recently I thought, “Let’s look back
at what’s happened every few years and see how I’ve grown along this really long engineering
learning curve.” The reality is that it’s been a lot harder
for me than I thought it would be, because when I left home, I put all of my stuff
in the back of my parents’ car, and I drove to university. But when I got here, there have been instances
where I felt genuinely out of place, genuinely unhappy,
which was really surprising to me because engineering was
what I felt I was made for. I decided to try and understand
why I was feeling this. I, as you heard, am Franco-Australian and I went to an international school
in the suburbs of Paris. I was being taught
in French and English all the time. I was surrounded by people
who were just like me, who were interested
in lots of different things and were studying
lots of different topics. We were all jumping from different topics
that we were interested in not because we had short attention spans
or we all had ADHD or something, but because we had a genuine interest
in a wide variety of topics. We were encouraged to pursue them. I fitted right into that environment.
I found that that was home. When I left high school
and I came to university, I brought that model along with me. And so when I got here –
you probably all know freshers fair – as a first year I was really excited. I signed up for as many things as I could. I was getting emails left and right.
I joined lots of different clubs. And I was really busy first year.
I was having a whale of a time. I was meeting lots of great people, but through these societies,
so I had common interests with them. I thought I was meeting them because
we were all doing many different things. It turned out it took me
eight months to realize that not only was nobody else
that I knew doing this but a lot of people in my year
thought that I was a bit of a freak. (Laughter). I even heard a guy tell me that I was this weird guy
that wasn’t in the right course, that he wasn’t supposed to be an engineer,
but he was sticking around probably because his parents
were pushing him to get a degree. So as long as he was going to
be here for four years, he might as well focus on doing
other things than work when he could. That really resonated with me,
because I was like, “Hang on, why?” I tried talking to them and advocating
for and cultivating these other interests, and I just kept hitting a wall. It’s not that they were boring people. It’s just they wanted to do their work, and they were open to doing
one sport activity and maybe another club, as long as it wasn’t too much of a hassle not too much involvement,
not too much work. But I thought that my Model United Nations
debating platform was as important, which is something I’m still active in
as my finite element analysis lecture. I was the only one to think that. It started getting to me that maybe I’m a little bit wrong,
and maybe they are right. Maybe the role of an engineer
is not necessarily this open, because we do have a great responsibility. When you think about it, when a surgeon makes a mistake,
he kills the patient that’s in front. When an engineer makes a mistake,
he can kill a lot of people in one go. There is that responsibility,
so maybe we should focus on making sure we have a technical base,
and we never get it wrong. I started hitting a bit of a low point, and wondering what I had lived so far,
and what I was living here. It was a little bit of a rock bottom;
the sky was a little bit cloudy. But you know how life is. Life has a way of throwing things
at you from time to time. I got a phone call from my dad
who had just heard about this summit. It was taking place in Pittsburgh in the
US. It was called the One Young World. There were lots of really
interesting great leaders, from this current generation,
great thinkers, great speakers who were going to
talk to [1,300] young people. These young people were selected
for the work they do all around the world. We were going to bring them together
over a platform of six different topics, with debating and sharing, and that’s how you would get
the new generation to start doing things. I was like, “Yup, this is for me;
this is right up my alley.” I took a week off of lectures first year,
which is a big thing to do, and I went to this summit. Actually, it’s the beginning
of second year now. I’m giving my thinking one last chance. I had an incredible time. I met 1,300 of the most creative, most hard working,
most innovative people you’ve ever met. Also, there were lots of great speakers. We had President Clinton come
and give the opening address, and no one told me
that Clinton was coming. So I just sat in the opening ceremony,
and they say at some point, “Please welcome Mr. Clinton.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s funny!
I know of a president called Clinton.” Then I look up, and the actual guy
came up on stage. At that point, I just kept smiling
for half an hour. My facial expression didn’t change at all.
And it was just him speaking. We were all really encouraged and inspired
for the entire four days of the debate, because these were people who saw
the world in a way that I saw it, who believed
in this Model UN coming together, anyone from any background, and sharing
no matter what your experience is, and coming up with one resolution. I came back from this summit
fully engaged, and what I realized afterwards was that I didn’t meet
a single other engineer there – not one. I went back to my lecture theater with all my peers who thought
I was a little bit weird, convinced that I belonged
in that lecture theater, because I came back with the belief
that you’re an engineer not because you have a grade
that says you have the right percentage; you’re one because you’re passionate
about people and the environment, and about bringing those together
in a sustainable and durable way. We need to think about engineering
like this a little bit more. We need to make two changes to the way
we think and incorporate engineers. The first one is society needs
to welcome them a little bit more, because if you think about it,
being an engineer is hard. There’s also the reality that engineers
are not putting themselves out there much. They’re not that passionate about that. The reasoning behind it is the engineer
is focused on the technical background. When you think about it, a lot of society
thinks of engineering as a bubble. If you ever had to work with an engineer, you talk to them when you want
them to build something, fix something. Then he comes in,
he designs something, he builds it, and then he moves on to the next project. There isn’t much sharing there. We have a vision of engineering as this one big silo
that’s completely isolated. The engineering professionals
are not very good at communication. They’re not used to going out there
and talking about their ideas, because they don’t feel that’s their role. We need the professionals to change that. We need to stop thinking
about all these silos. There isn’t one engineer silo, and then a marketing silo,
and then an economic silo. There is just society with more need for people
talking with one another. That’s the big thing
I want to let you all with today: we need to get rid of these silos. The great news is that I can attest
for the fact that change is starting. The first time that I came back
from One Young World, I went to see my department and convinced them to send me back
a second time as an official delegate – nice, big, fancy title – and I went there and I started
seeing in Johannesburg – which is where the summit was held – that there is more people
from technical backgrounds coming, and even engineering companies,
who were sending delegates over. The fact that my department
would be willing now, after I’ve come back from the summit,
to send an entire delegation next year, is a sign that they’ve realized
this is the change that’s happening. And they want to incorporate it. The fact that they’re doing so
and supporting me in the process is something I’m really grateful for. The reality is these engineers
are not used or open to this idea. When you come back, and you think
about all these silos, it’s limiting. What we need to do, us as engineers, is to be more open,
more approachable, more willing, more responsible for ideas,
take responsibilities, because it’s not just the fact
of coming up with the idea. It’s also the fact of making sure
that it’s promoted properly, that it gets out into the world, that knowledge can reach
as many people as possible, because the greatest idea
in an engineer’s mind, you can have the smartest guy who’s just in a room, having
his idea, and working on it, but if he’s all alone in that room,
and he’s not changing anything, he’s just a lonely guy in an empty room. There’s no way that information
is getting anywhere. And so far, engineers have relied
on other people to do that work for them. But we need to change
that dynamic a little bit. There’s also the reality that society
needs to accept them more. If there’s something you are
going to do when you leave today, try and include an engineer in something
you have never included one in before, because they have incredible input. They’re very creative people.
They’re very open. They’re just in their world.
They’re still in their bubble. And we need to burst that bubble open. The mentality that we all work
in these different silos is an old mentality, but it’s taking
its sweet time to die off. And we need to help it
take the final breath. Another piece of good news is the fact that companies
are also starting to realize this change, because more and more people
are graduating with degrees out there. It used to be that you could tell them
apart just based on academic ability. And that’s still the belief
in most institutions. But companies have all these positions
open, and they can’t fill them anymore, because the graduates
want recognition as well. So companies are starting to look
in profile a little bit more. All of a sudden, that little society
I was doing on the side, extra, goes from being
a complete waste of study time to something that sets you apart
from the rest of the people, and that gives you
a really valuable profile. One of the other things
we need to include, while we’re talking
about education of engineers, is this idea that we need to change
the way we train them as well, because, when you think about it,
who according to a university – I’m sure you can all relate to this – who ticks all the boxes? Who’s the best guy? The guy who gets 100%, right? The guy who’s always there on time,
always giving coursework, and always gets an A. I like to call these people
professors in the making, because that’s what they are
going to end up becoming. But universities need to update
their system a little bit to make sure that we take into account
practical implementation skills when we assess students, because having, again,
these greatest ideas, if you just keep them to yourself,
they won’t be applied. These changes, I feel are necessary. The great thing is
that engineers are open to them. A lot of people have said of engineering
is the most essential profession. It’s the one profession
that sustains civilization. Why then should we keep on
accepting it living all on its own? Let’s come together
and break down those silos. Thank you very much. (Applause)

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