How often do we hear an engineer’s voice in books? Roma Agrawal and her critically-acclaimed Built – The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures (Bloomsbury Press), comes to mind, but I’m struggling to think of many others.
Why does this matter? To be human is to be an engineer. Ever since the days where we strode across the savanna, we’ve been problem solving, inventing technologies from flint tools to spaceships. And yet engineers and engineering are strangely hidden in plain sight; this is despite the huge influence they have on how we live and society. This is true in everyday life and in the books I read. This urgently matters because of the climate emergency. While scientists show what is happening and proving why, it is engineers who are going to fix our energy, transport and agriculture to save humanity.
A key reason behind the invisibility and misunderstanding of engineering, is that we fail to find good ways to tell the story. In recent decades, scientists have found narratives that connect with the general public. We’ve seen captivating writing through popular science books, where the expert in the field, the scientist themself, is the storyteller. But there are very few equivalent books on engineering aimed at the general public.
This is not just for engineering’s own benefit, the public needs to be part of the conversation as technologies develop. A number of books have recently explored difficult issues around artificial intelligence such as Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Penguin), but what about the ethics of engineering? We face a climate emergency because of emissions from machines that were created by engineers. We all need to inform decisions about what should and shouldn’t be engineered.
This is why it’s important that as engineers we try to inspire and inform writers and publishers, to work with us to change the stories being told about our discipline. We want people to look at engineering as something other than just the nuts and bolts of megastructures or something from Victorian times. In reality, it’s about exactly the kind of things fiction brings to the public: innovation, creativity, everyday lives and problems, ambitious thinking, consequences and new worlds.
Engineering is full of fascinating stories. It’s about people facing challenges and digging deep to overcome them, applying complex scientific knowledge and practical expertise. Unfortunately, the technical depth that lets engineers achieve what they do, can be a barrier to public appreciation. I think the solution to this lies in partnership; engineering needs to tap into the expertise of great story tellers.
This is what led me to create “The Inventive Podcast“. We cast diverse engineers and interview them about their amazing work and also their back stories. We then commission award-winning writers to create a piece drawing on the engineer’s story. We mix fact and fiction to create engaging stories that work for podcasts, but with real engineers at their heart.
The writers have taken diverse approaches to the commission, with the pieces casting new light on the life and work of the engineers. They offer the public a new way of seeing what might, at first glance, seem like dry or specialist material. Take the example of engineer Ruth Amos. Instead of going to university, Ruth set up a company to realise a new type of stair lift – the perfect example of unglamorous engineering work that improves lives. She also co-runs a YouTube channel “Kids Invent Stuff”, where she makes up engineering firsts from designs that children send in. Recently she made giant social-distancing wings invented by one of her young subscribers, and this is where her story took off for novelist, Jacqueline Yallop, who wrote Swish about the loneliness of Covid restrictions and the unintended consequences of engineering. “For me, this collaboration was about invention and creativity in the broadest sense,” explains Jacqueline. “There was lots of common ground in Ruth’s work as an engineer and mine as a writer – problem solving, discipline, crafting, detail. Looking at the odd notion of social distancing together, from a variety of angles, threw up all kinds of fresh ideas and allowed me to write for a different audience.”
As this partnership shows, these kinds of collaborations not only help engineers. They offer new directions for writer and publishers, and give stories impact beyond their usual readership. Writers are crucial in drawing the public into key conversations, whether it be about climate change, social care, vaccination programmes – or engineering. I’d like to see more collaborations between fiction writers and other specialists, so that the most important issues of our times can be shared across disciplines and from new angles. The lesson I’ve learnt from “The Inventive Podcast” is that the best stories take you by surprise.
The Inventive Podcast is at www.inventivepodcast.com or all the usual podcast platforms.