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Engineers, Don’t Build the World, Shape It!
26 November, 2022
Arunabha Ghosh

Suggested citation: Ghosh, Arunabha. 2022. Engineers, Don’t Build the World, Shape It! New Delhi: Council on Energy, Environment and Water and Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi.

Overview

Dr Arunabha Ghosh delivered the 11th convocation lecture at Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology Delhi (IIIT-Delhi) in New Delhi on 26 November 2022. The lecture emphasised the ability of engineers to not just build the world around us but shape it for global good.

In his speech, Dr Ghosh drew the students’ attention to the join-the-dots game that children play. “As a child, I would enjoy those puzzles that would connect seemingly scattered numbered dots to eventually reveal a more familiar figure (a dog or a car, perhaps). This simple game is at the heart of the message I want to give you today. What are you more fascinated by? The neatness of the lines connecting the dots? Or the final drawn outcome? Or the scatter plot itself?” he asked. “My message to you is ‘be curious about all three’, the randomness of the world we inhabit, the dexterity and process with which you thread a narrative across that landscape, and the beauty of what emerges by our actions.”

How does the engineer, who designs using parameters within their control, factor in the contingencies over which they hold little sway? That is the real question today and the answer is an engineer’s agency in what she builds.

To illustrate this, Dr Ghosh gave 4 examples.

  • Success of technology versus failure of society
    We should certainly celebrate the success of technology and its potential to change lives. We should also acknowledge the failure of society. Technology cannot fix the planet if the people who inhabit the planet don’t want to save it — or themselves.
  • Energy transitions versus global energy disorderEnergy transition is not a technological challenge or even a financial barrier. It is contingent on high politics. And we have no energy security architecture.
  • The globalisation of everything versus the weaponisation of everything
    Thirty years of the globalisation of everything is now giving way to a new reality, the potential weaponisation of everything. Rather than harmonised standards, we have islands of regulation.
  • Reforming multilateralism versus global economic (un)governance
    The world is facing compounding crises: food, fuel, finance, and a continuing fever (pandemic). We must shift from repeated failures in technology transfer to a new paradigm of technology co-development.

HAVE A QUERY?
Arunabha Ghosh
Chief Executive Officer
"The legacy of engineers is not in what you build, but in how your invention is used. This phone in my hand is the same one that millions of others have, but my engagement with it is uniquely mine. That is where good design comes in."

I am truly humbled for several reasons. First, I am in the company of those for whom I have deep respect. Mr Kiran Karnik engaged in one of CEEW’s key projects (on global governance) when it was just a four-month-old institution — and has been a well-wisher ever since. I understand that you have created interdisciplinary research centres for AI, Design, Healthcare, and Sustainable Mobility and I wish to congratulate the university for its focus on the Sustainable Development Goals. For instance, I have engaged with Prof. Jalote’s initiative — Enveave — for more than a year and am inspired by his vision to bring talent and innovation closer to solving problems.

Secondly, I am in the company of a friend and colleague, Karthik Ganesan, whose wife — Shobha Sundar Ram — is a senior faculty member here. Thanks to them, I have visited this campus on several occasions before. This is the first time I am giving a lecture here, and I hope I meet their high bar!

Thirdly, as a non-engineer, I come here with humility and a bit of glee. To my wife, Meghana Narayan, who is also an engineer and now a remarkable entrepreneur of nutritious food, I have this message: “See? I didn’t get an engineering degree, but I did give away a few!”

Jokes aside, this is an important occasion, a solemn occasion, when so many of you graduate from one stage of life and enter another. I remember when I graduated, just before the turn of the millennium. Two years earlier India had celebrated its 50th year of independence. By the end of the decade, India had survived multiple financial crises, it had opened its economy, its IT sector was getting noticed across the world, and it was soon to be declared an emerging power. It is the 75th year of independence and before you know it, one of you will be delivering a convocation lecture in the year of our centenary. There are other turns underway now, thanks to technology, the economy, society, and politics. I’ll come to these issues later. I have a more straightforward message for you.

Human beings are dexterous creatures. With our simple, opposable thumbs we have been able to hold things, shape tools, and build complex marvels — from bridges spanning vast canyons to rockets shooting into space.

From early childhood, we train our kids to hold a pencil and draw a line. We congratulate those who are the neatest. As a child, I would enjoy those puzzles that would connect seemingly scattered numbered dots to eventually reveal a more familiar figure (a dog or a car, perhaps).

This simple game is at the heart of the message I want to give you today. What are you more fascinated by? The neatness of the lines connecting the dots? Or the final drawn outcome? Or the scatter plot itself? My message to you is "be curious about all three", the randomness of the world we inhabit, the dexterity and process with which you thread a narrative across that landscape, and the beauty of what emerges by our actions.

Engineers are trained to design and build.

The engineer's world is a system of measures and the precise relationships between them.

The engineer's world is also one of imagination, without which we would neither have the pyramids nor the flush toilet.

But that imagination is also limited by the parameters of what seems to be physically possible.

The engineer is, therefore, frustrated by variables that are not always quantifiable, let alone predictable.

If you think I am beating up on engineers, don't worry. I trained as an economist. Our tribe tends to get frustrated if reality does not fit our assumptions!

This tension between engineered order and societal chaos defines much of how human societies have flourished — and perished.

Ask this: We are intrigued by the innovation and orderliness of the sewerage system of Harappa. But 4000 years later, why do we have overflowing sewers and drains in a city such as Bangalore, which boasts tens of thousands of engineers?

Or ask this: Just 65 years after the first manmade satellite was launched into space, we now have the capability to engineer and deploy thousands of micro-satellites, not just by heavily funded and secretive government missions but also those designed by students and delivered via private launch vehicles. Yet, why are we moving backwards from the rules that govern humanity’s behaviour in space?

I know you’re probably not keen on sitting more exams just yet, but here is the problem statement: How does the engineer, who designs using parameters within their control, factor in the contingencies over which they hold little sway?

Let me illustrate this using four examples.

Example 1: Success of technology versus failure of society

We are living in a techno-centric world. Technological breakthroughs — and widespread dissemination — have driven a lot of the productivity growth in the last three to four decades. Land, labour and capital remain growth variables, but the X-factor has been tech. The Internet has been the most consequential tech advancement of our times. Its widespread use has now created new opportunities, from digital identities and financial inclusion to devices speaking to each other for more optimised production and consumption of goods and services.

Even in the late 1990s, when I was applying for grad school, my access to the Internet was limited to a kiosk in the market, from where I typed out my application essays. Today more than 63 per cent of the world’s population uses the Internet. At the same time, according to UNICEF and WHO, in 2020, about a quarter of the world’s population did not have safely managed drinking water in their homes; half lacked safely managed sanitation. In the 12 months to October 2022, 170 million people got connected to the Internet. With a simplistic linear projection, by this time in 2030 another 1.4 billion people would have become Internet users. Yet, on current trends, there will remain 1.6 billion people without safe drinking water at home and 2.8 billion without safe sanitation.

Advances in biology and computing power will drive a lot of the emerging technologies in the coming years. Consider the remarkable success in developing, testing and deploying a vaccine against CoViD-19 within 12 months of the virus having been detected, shrinking a process that normally takes years.

But also consider a counterfactual: Suppose CoViD-19 were not a pandemic but a pan-African disease? Would we have got a vaccine so quickly? Would we have got a vaccine at all? Despite pneumococcal disease being the biggest killer of children, pneumococcal conjugate vaccines were not developed at scale until the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (a partnership among a few governments and philanthropic organisations) placed an advanced market commitment to buy millions of doses of the vaccines. This drove the prices down and resulted in 215 million children being vaccinated in 60 lower-income countries.

The point is that our techno-centric worldview is a partial one. We should certainly celebrate the success of technology and its potential to change lives. We should also acknowledge the failure of society. It is relatively easier to design a device that purifies water; it is much harder to create the political buy-in for safe provision of water and sanitation. It is easier to sell an air purifier; frustratingly difficult to create a democratic demand for clean air. Technology cannot fix the planet if the people who inhabit the planet don’t want to save it — or themselves.

Example 2: Energy transitions versus global energy disorder

Since the time when humans figured out how to start a fire, energy has been at the heart of human civilisation. India is going through four energy transitions. Two of them are well underway, namely access to modern energy sources for hundreds of millions of Indians along with rapid urbanisation, which is changing energy demand patterns in homes, offices, industries, and transport systems. These transitions have been made possible by advancements in technology, business models and policy. In 2015, India had the dubious distinction of having the largest number of people without access to electricity or clean cooking energy. Now, more than 98 per cent of the households are electrified and more than 80 per cent of homes have an LPG connection. Of course, there are gaps in service provision and changes in behaviour that could behaviour. But in general, this is a creditable achievement. The electrical engineers at the last mile who worked night and day to electrify 28 million households in 18 months performed what might have seemed like a miracle.

There are two other transitions, however, which are more complex because they are potentially contradictory and destabilising. With growing energy demand, India will become more deeply integrated into global energy markets. At the same time, it must meet this demand within a rapidly shrinking carbon constraint. Of course, there are technological solutions, which must be tapped. When CEEW began operations, India had less than 20 MW of solar power. Today, it has 60000 MW, 165000 MW of non-fossil electricity capacity, and will be the first major economy that will deploy more renewables in a decade than its entire electricity system. That translates to deploying 10.5 MW every hour, for 10 hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year, for the remaining eight years!

This breathless marathon is a materials, manpower and money challenge of ginormous proportions. But the real challenge is geopolitical. If there is one lesson from 2022 it is that energy security, climate action and geopolitics have now converged. The Russia-Ukraine crisis has sent oil and gas prices skyrocketing. This could be a moment to double down on clean energy infrastructure, but that raises the question of a new kind of energy dependence. If we shift from importing 80 per cent of crude oil to importing 80 per cent of solar modules, have we become energy secure? To be sure, no country has achieved energy independence (even though leaders across the world have made such promises for more than a century). So, we need to ensure that we are interdependent with countries on whom we can rely for security.

That leads to the other challenge. There is no energy security architecture that serves the interests of the energy demanders of the future or the energy sources of the future. New energy demand will mostly now come from emerging markets. Although the sources for solar or wind or water are far more distributed than coal, oil or gas, the technologies for solar, wind or green hydrogen (as well as the critical minerals embedded in them) remain highly concentrated. The rules to govern these technologies are missing. The institutions to address the concerns of emerging energy economies are absent. In short, the energy transition is not a technological challenge or even a financial barrier. It is contingent on high politics. To mitigate this global energy disorder, we must chart new energy maps, find more reliable sources, integrate with more trusted allies, and build more resilient institutions, which can withstand the coming energy shocks

Example 3: The globalisation of everything versus the weaponisation of everything

Since the end of the Cold War, a new wave of globalisation swept the world. Goods, services, and ideas were to flow freely (but not so many people, given visa limitations!). Erstwhile closed economies opened up and new institutional frameworks emerged, such as the World Trade Organization.

This wave of globalisation was built on commonly agreed principles: Non-discrimination between trading partners; interoperability (of standards and regulations); a degree of differentiation of responsibilities between rich and poor countries; with the expectation that with convergence of (economic) interests would come eventual convergence of (economic) outcomes — and even political systems. For rich countries, new markets opened; for developing countries, the prospect of rising per capita incomes was attractive. This was the grand bargain.

Thirty years of the globalisation of everything is now giving way to a new reality, the potential weaponisation of everything. Trade rules are designed to get economies to lower import barriers and buy things. But there are limits to those rules in getting countries to sell things. So, what do we do if suddenly a supplier of critical minerals, which are at the heart of all advanced tech, chooses to restrict exports? At the height of the Cold War, we had an Outer Space Treaty to prevent the weaponisation of space. Yet we are now faced with a prospect of an ungoverned cosmos with state and non-state actors having the power to paralyse our communications, economies, and defence networks.

The growing political tensions between China and the US has resulted in both sides trying to decouple. China wants to become self-reliant in all advanced technology by 2025. The US CHIPS Act prohibits companies from producing semiconductors more advanced than 28-nanometers in China and Russia. The Inflation Reduction Act invests heavily in clean tech but also subsidises domestic industry at the expense of others, including in friendly countries. Japan’s new Economic Security Promotion Act aims at supply chain resilience, maintaining core infrastructure and developing a secret patent system to protect critical industries such as semiconductors, batteries, medicines, shipping and aerospace, among others. Japan also fears that hundreds of years of rules-based order of freedom of navigation is now being challenged by China’s maritime adventurism.

As a result, the principles guiding international behaviour are shifting. Rather than non-discrimination, we have emerging blocs for trade, minerals, technology. Rather than harmonised standards, we have islands of regulation. Rather than convergence in economic systems, we have divergence of political interests and reduced multilateral cooperation. Even on concerns of common aversion, such as a pandemic, we have witnessed vaccine nationalism in many instances.

In effect, the same technological advances that have driven a lot of our recent economic prosperity — and which were designed to make political borders less relevant — are now being subject to more geographical and jurisdictional control. Is there an antidote to such engineered disorder? Should we create trade blocs or common markets? Will economics dictate political relationships or will the strategic calculus measure how the economy can become, to paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, “war with other means”?

Example 4: Reforming multilateralism versus global economic (un)governance

Against the backdrop of these tensions, there is growing cynicism about the possibility of global cooperation. Multilateralism is failing to guarantee collective security. It is failing to guard against energy insecurity. It has not reformed enough to offer economic and financial security. And it is still too slow in delivering environmental sustainability.

The world is facing compounding crises: food, fuel, finance, and a continuing fever (pandemic). At the halfway mark of the Sustainable Development Goals, many targets are out of reach and countries are struggling with many development metrics sliding back. Natural resources are getting exhausted, carbon space is shrinking, fiscal resources are stretched, and currency reserves are dwindling.

The reform of multilateral institutions has been on the slow burner for several years. But economic and environmental circumstances have changed. Global economic governance — for finance, technology, and trade — must respond to these changes. But will it?

Unlike 1945, when the Bretton Woods institutions were created to rebuild in the aftermath of the Second World War, today Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) must deliver solutions to increase resilience before severe climate shocks strike. Unlike 1945, when the locus of global economic growth was in countries that also had global currencies, there is now a disconnect between high-growth emerging economies and those that continue to wield controlling power in MDBs. Unlike 1945, when private capital was scarce, now we need solutions where MDBs move beyond project financing to enabling the flow of large volumes of capital into regions that need investment the most. By de-risking private investment, MDBs must crowd in rather than crowd out capital.

There is a need to increase the role of the Global South and close the ever-widening gap on technology access, capability and capacity in developing and emerging markets and LDCs. The move towards a more sustainable planet must also be a move towards a more just planet. It must narrow, not widen, the technology gap.

We must, therefore, shift from repeated failures in technology transfer to a new paradigm of technology co-development. This requires jointly designed research and development programmes, pooling of resources through financial and non-financial incentives, co-ownership of intellectual property rights, management of risks and liability for local adaptation, and an equitable voice in the governance of emerging technologies.

There are also new drivers of global trade that will influence sustainable development, namely catalysts, data, and electrons. Molecules of low-carbon catalysts (such as green hydrogen) will shape industrial processes and products. The digital revolution will need new rules for data privacy, data transparency, and data resilience — but can help to trade power across a much more distributed energy infrastructure. And trade in electrons will also help to integrate low-carbon electricity systems across borders to make our energy systems and infrastructure more affordable, resilient, and secure. Trade rules for each of these drivers would need to evolve. If we managed this potential well and wrote the right rules, these opportunities would be ripe for your algorithmic optimisation!

My final provocation: Engineered efficiency versus the agency of engineers

Remember the scatter plot, the connector lines, and the final picture? In each of the examples I have shared with you, the final picture is less clear and the lines less straight, but the number of dots to connect are many. I hope my examples have illustrated why technology is an enabler not the endpoint — and why I wish that you are curious about dots, lines and pictures.

The legacy of engineers is not in what you build, but in how your invention is used. This phone in my hand is the same that millions of others have, but my engagement with it is uniquely mine. That is where good design comes in. The way energy flows in a house, the way traffic flows on a bridge, the way water flows through an irrigation pump, the way cotton is converted into textile for my shirt, are all examples where good design can yield an engineered efficiency.

There is also the agency of engineers. You can design, not just for efficiency but for good. You can question whether technology is celebrating its own success or is it being put to the service of society. You can look over the horizon at emerging technologies for a cleaner energy future, but you’d also have to anticipate and prevent energy- and resource-related conflict. You have a choice of remaining in tech-centric bubbles or to reimagine the relationship between corporations, countries and global institutions — all with the citizen at the centre.

The world we’ve inherited was not like this. It took two world wars, decades of a Cold War, and much human misery for us to design an interdependence that was to deliver a better and common good. That social contract (at the national level) and the grand bargain (at a global level) is now fraying. This is the world into which you are entering your professional lives. This is world that India will navigate as it seeks to become a developed economy. This is the flawed world that our beautiful planet has to contend with.

This is also the world of possibilities. Of cleaner air, safer streets, better food. The basics you might think but where your innovation and ingenuity is needed the most. The world where conflict is not eliminated and consensus is seldom achieved, but where respectful, interdependent and resilient cohabitation is the desired goal. Will you use your skills, your networks, your technologies, your agency to shape such a world?

I am sure many of you chose to become engineers because you like the orderliness of variables you can control. For the things you make, may you design well. You will go ahead and build the world.

But I also hope that at least some of you are excited by the millions of permutations that lines and dots can make, generating new possibilities not just in the built environment, but also in the natural, societal, economic and political environments. May you be courageous enough to attempt that change. You will go ahead and shape the world.

Congratulations again! May you not just build the world but shape it — in a better image. Thank you.

HAVE A QUERY?
Arunabha Ghosh
Chief Executive Officer

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