Any consideration of the direction of design engineering over the next ten years must start with a look back; to know where we are going, we must know where we have been. Science and technology were once regarded as the solution to all problems.
Events such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have led people not merely to doubt this, but in many cases to believe that technology is actually the cause of all our problems. The truth of the matter is that technology is an integral part of everyday life. Changes wrought by technology are more extreme and happening more quickly every day. Such massive change calls for a special class of design engineer. To cope with the rapid changes, today’s design engineer must make innovation a standard. Further, to be successful, the design engineer must be able to read the market, to find a need and fill it. And, above all, the new breed of design engineer must be a team player, for teamwork will be essential to meet the challenges of the next decade and beyond.
The last decade of the century has begun. Instead of addressing a specific technology, which is the norm for this column, we take a longer, broader focus to consider the new demands that designers will face in the coming years. It’s unwise, though, to speculate about the next decade–facing the next millennium as we are–without looking back. In making predictions, perspective is everything–to know where you’re going, you must know where you are. It also helps to know how you got there. Such perspective is as important for design engineering as it is for hiking on trails or navigating the seas.
Where have we come from? Much of our professional heritage flows from the philosophy of Positivism, a nineteenth century discourse of thought that tended to put science and technology on a pedestal. In that mode of popular thinking, all problems were subordinate to the power of reason, the scientific process, and the application of technology. In Positivism, science and technology were held as the saviors of humanity. Religion was snubbed as a problem solver; God and mysticism were out. Scientists became the new priests; their laboratories, the new shrines. With the splitting of the atom, however, that thinking began to change.
From the moment we exploded the atom bomb, doubts have crept into our certainty about the absolute benefit of science. Consider the U.S. nuclear-energy industry after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, a shambles with almost no public support; or the way that sophisticated medical technology has backfired into soaring health costs; or how the environment–our very source of life–faces irreversible damage under the strain of what’s called progress. Worst of all, consider the fact that, as satellites and the Space Shuttle circle the sky, forty-thousand people–most of them children–die each day from chronic hunger and malnutrition. And in New York City, one of the largest cities in the world’s richest nation, 40% of the children live in poverty. Clearly technology isn’t the solution to all our problems. Indeed, some would say–albeit naively–it’s the source.
At the same time, we can’t live without technology. It is solidly a part of our everyday life. More than that, as each day passes, technology is transforming our world, linking our lives as never before. Indeed, technology is one of the driving forces creating a global economy. Telecommunications and computers are changing business on a scale not seen since–and likely greater than–the Industrial Revolution.
The changes are radical and happening fast. Such changes, and the demands they bring, call for a new breed of design engineer: a world-class designer. Innovation, once an occasional part of the design process, is now a necessary ingredient for success. The increasing pace of innovation has shrunk the design time and life cycle of our industry’s output. As a result, to create tomorrow’s successful products, designers must develop the art of innovation, not as a sometimes things, but as an everyday practice. Companies that don’t build the best technology into their products, as well as into their business practices, will be surpassed by those that do.
Tomorrow’s successful designers will also need to be students of the marketplace. They must help find what is missing in the market and produce it. Technical competence alone won’t be enough. The force of emerging and unexpected opportunities in a global arena coupled with increasingly complex technology means one thing at least: Teamwork will be essential. No individual, acting alone, will be able to decide the what, when, and how of a successful product. Only an innovative and skilled team, with each member–worldclass designers included–familiar with the others’ discipline, can even hope to ride the wave of tomorrow.