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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Engineering the Future: Making Choices

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
Keynote Address
Dedication of the Advanced Technology Research Center
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, Oklahoma

October 11, 1997

(as delivered)

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 it.

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, " 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 problems ourselves.

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 damage.

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 Research Center.

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!


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