Engineering the Future: Making Choices
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Dedication of the Advanced Technology Research Center
Oklahoma State University
October 11, 1997
Good afternoon. The rain we are now "enjoying" reminds
me of my times in the North Sea on the open bridge
of a destroyer: I made it through that experience
so I guess I'll get through this one now. Lt. Governor
Fallin, Rep.Watkins, it is an honor to be here with
you on such an exciting occasion. My thanks to Karl
Reid, Dean of the College of Engineering, Architecture
and Technology, Jim Halligan, President of Oklahoma
State University, Associate Deans, David Thompson,
and Tim Green. Your generosity and hospitality have
been greatly appreciated during my visit. I have been
enlightened by my tour of campus laboratories as well
as this new facility. Oklahoma State University's
vision of a fresh approach to integrated research
and education is evident in this building and I congratulate
all of you here today on the realization of such an
important vision. What can be accomplished within
these walls can be extraordinary if you focus on the
connections between what you build, and why you build
The concept of the "engineering research center,"
in general, has been an acknowledged success. It is
a shining manifestation of our creativity and knowledge.
But such centers should also be reflective of our
fundamental intentions for our society and civilization.
That sounds like a large order. Let me elaborate.
The Dean of the School of Architecture at the University
of Virginia, William McDonough, gave a speech in 1993
on the occasion of the centennial celebration of the
famous Cathedral of Saint John The Divine in New York
City. Among other things, he spoke about design. Of
design he said, "...design leads to the manifestation
of human intention..."
Reflecting on western civilizations' past designs,
the late-social philosopher and prolific writer, Lewis
Mumford wrote, "Western society has accepted as unquestionable
a technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary
as the most primitive taboo: Not merely the duty to
foster invention and constantly to create technological
novelties, but equally the duty to surrender to these
novelties unconditionally, just because they are offered,
without respect to their human consequences."
Mumford was telling us something important for today
and tomorrow. He was trying to make us understand
that we seem to indiscriminately embrace whatever
we are able to make or do, instead of making or doing
what will take us where we need to go.
We all know the practicalities of design. But do we
understand the full measure of its holistic value?
Several years ago, the National Research Council estimated
that 70 percent or more of the costs of product development,
manufacture, and use are determined during the initial
design stages. Thus, design becomes the fundamental
component for determining a product's competitiveness.
But perhaps more importantly in today's increasingly
complex society, design becomes the leverage point
of determining a product's impact on our lives.
In this sense, when we educate our engineering students
we must instill in them not only technical expertise
but we must also lead them to examine and question
the goals and value-system of the society they are
being prepared to build. And, we must help them recognize
that their skills as engineers allow them to alter
dramatically the present and future direction of that
society. Most contemporary engineering and technology
education does not include in-depth discussion of
this awesome responsibility. Most engineers do not
envision themselves in such debates. But your new
building does pick up this gauntlet: what excites
me most about this new facility is its intention,
as expressed in the ATRC vision statement "to provide
(your) graduates with the capabilities to be 'pilots
of change' in an increasingly technological world."
We all know that throughout history engineers have
been "pilots of change" though engineers may not have
had that perception themselves. We have designed,
made, and built things that have consistently changed
people's lives and their mode of living. We have not
necessarily thought of ourselves as "civilization
movers" but rather as curious and sometimes "quirky
doers." We solve problems, big and small. But in many
cases, we solve problems defined by others rather
than being fully engaged in the formulation of those
We many times do not readily focus on the big picture.
This is perhaps why we haven't always seen ourselves
as "pilots of change."
In this heady period of human history, where technological
change occurs at a breathless pace with instant global
repercussions, engineers need always to step back
and consider the larger implications of what they
have routinely seen as, assigned project work.
We must contemplate our work in the larger context...
because what we do often changes the "big picture"
dramatically over time. With the new, and I predict
amazing, capabilities that complex engineered systems
will bring, we will have innumerable choices.
We need to teach our future engineers to think wisely
about those choices. We can teach them best by our
own example. All of us need to assimilate the concept
that for the first time in human history the environment
must be protected from humankind instead of the historical
pattern of humans needing protection from nature.
Although we are still vulnerable in the wake of tornadoes,
earthquakes and the like, we have, nonetheless, reached
the historical juncture where the planet is vulnerable
to our excesses and our power to inflict irreversible
Engineers can be a primary force in helping to ensure
that we are "good ancestors" to our planet, as Jonas
Salk, the renowned biologist, once remarked, and in
deciding whether we reach a future that is survivable
-- not just because we are civilization's designers,
but because we make a conscious choice to teach our
progeny to understand that vision.
I ask you, and those that you teach and mentor, to
actively participate in deciding how the new and wonderful
capabilities that are being created in the ATRC will
serve current and future generations. I ask you to
integrate this sense of responsibility for the common
good with the new paths for economic success that
have emerged in the past few decades, especially those
that highlight the practice of engineering design
as an integrative process. The philosopher, Jose Ortega
y Gasset, generically presaged this challenge in 1930
when he wrote in his brilliant volume, Mission
of the University, "The need to create sound
syntheses and systemizations of knowledge... will
call out a kind of scientific genius which hitherto
has existed only as an aberration: the genius for
integration. Of necessity this means specialization,
as all creative effort does, but this time the [person]
will be specializing in the construction of the whole."
I could not think of a more apt reference for the
purpose of our gathering here today, especially because
engineering's responsibility for constructing the
whole will become more of a challenge in the years
ahead. Let's do a bit of thinking along this line.
In a paper presented at this year's annual meeting
of the American Association for the Advancement of
Science, Don Kash and Bob Rycroft--two respected veterans
of science and technology policy--found that the most
successful commercial technologies have changed in
one basic way over the past quarter century: they
have become complex.
Kash and Rycroft examined the 30 most valuable exports
in the global market for the years 1970 and 1994.
These exports create the greatest wealth for the nations
that produce them. They found that in 1970, a quarter
century ago, nearly 60 percent of the world's top
exports were essentially simple products that could
be designed and manufactured through simple processes.
Today, that same percentage--60 percent--of the world's
top exports are complex products that require complex
design and manufacturing processes.
This sense of complexity is likely to be at the core
of activities conducted in your Advanced Technology
Kash and Rycroft write that "economic well-being in
the future will likely go to those who are successful
in innovating complex technologies." Put simply, the
future belongs to those who can make sense of the
complex, to those who can integrate across complex
technologies to construct the whole, to those who
can take an idea from conception through to design
and realizing a product, to those who can get complex
products "out the export door."
Now you may be thinking, how do we reconcile Lewis
Mumford's challenge that we focus on potential consequences
with Kash and Rycroft's factual look at how wealth
will be created in the future. Well, these are not
mutually exclusive, but their synthesis requires both
superb technical understanding as well as the philosophical
thinking that keeps societies on the path to always
being "good ancestors." Not an easy feat for any of
us and a real challenge for the new "engineering education."
Engineering will be one of the most significant forces
in designing continued economic development and success
for humankind in a manner that will sustain both the
planet and its growing population. The actualization
of the ATRC represents a public private partnership,
with a long and committed view towards sustained growth
and economic development, involving industry as well
as federal and state resources. In today's world nothing
less can get the job done.
I hope that my comments will be taken as an opportunity
to think about engineers and engineering in a new
and expanded way. Engineers are smart people, or they
wouldn't even survive the basic program. But we must
educate them to participate in the larger debate of
how and where our new capabilities should direct us
in the coming century. I hope you will see this as
an important opportunity. It will take all of our
thoughts and opinions, and sometimes heated debates,
to lead us to the appropriate choices.
Congratulations on a job well done!