Sun, Jul 10, 2016
Life and civilians are not linear earthly entities and yet we Civil Engineers tend to solve their problems and challenges with a linear mode of thinking.
Mathematics is not only a language used to embody engineering artifacts at large and civil engineering artifacts in particular but also one that we use in our mundane day to day engagements such as crossing the road after timing that the oncoming vehicle won’t hit you. Mathematics is the science of not being wrong!
For those of you who have studied mathematics (I believe everyone reading this has) must have often encountered problems requiring you to find X. With such rote tasks of the endless pursuit of X, in the confines of the classroom, we were trained to think linearly and conservatively about problem solving.
As you read this article, somewhere in the world, a student is questioning their Math professor on how the assigned task of computing thirty integrals with respect to X, over the weekend, is going to help the student. The truth is that the number of people who end up directly utilizing these definite or indefinite integrals are countable. But the greater truth (if there’s such thing as greater truth) is that integrals are woven in our innate way of thinking, livelihood and intuition. For example, when a farmer begins contemplating about the effect of a pesticide on his farm, they are computing a real life integral devoid of the rote mathematical learning we inherited from the math class! The complexity of life’s intrinsic integrals is so meta that it is hard to see how a thirty-number weekend package, composed of definite integrals, for a high school or university student will be helpful when they graduate.
So, the real X is found outside the classroom which brings me to why civil engineers in Africa should start looking outside their classrooms and laboratories if they are to develop environmentally harmonious and transformational technologies.
Linear thinking is a symptom of a more profound phenomenon that, we as a human species, are innately lazy when it comes to thinking. We are genetically wired to seek the path of least resistance. Lost in our linear thinking mode, thanks to the reinforcement from the math class, we civil engineers are largely able to design artifacts that work mechanically yet are largely unable to design those that work to harmoniously meet civilians’ needs. This unprecedented chasm between our civil engineering role and the civilians is a quintessential representation of how we have turned against our profession meant to serve civilians.
In my country, Uganda, we have a predisposition of very ingenious civil engineers who can synthesize designs but lack the skill of looking outside their design office and classroom confines, so as to harmonize their ingenuity with the societal dynamics. As long as they are given what they call design data (often from city authorities, laymen, Architects and other non-civil engineers), that usually includes the number of expected users of a facility, required sizes, soil conditions among others, the civil engineer is immediately excited to develop a design, which they do very well by the way!
However, this kind of style where an ingenious mind receives an already conceived plan, yields a template-based mode of thinking. Much as the civil engineers will think outside the box to develop the design, they will be thinking inside a larger box of an already conceived design! This will limit them from deciphering the eventualities, flaws and other post-design constraints, especially those related to the complexity of civilian behavior.
One could argue that it is the role of the architects to harmonize the environment with the design. This would be a largely flawed argument because it is the civil engineer who will embody the design that needs to know, more, about societal dynamics. So, this inclination by civil engineers, to have a quantitative yet constricted and narrowly focused style of design (of course I’m aware that there is the politics and finances argument, but let us invest in being innately thoughtful civil engineers rather than sitting back with our linear thinking and blaming the government) is why many of the roads, bridges and buildings in Africa are very good in design but are not in harmony with societal demands.
Life and civilians are not linear earthly entities and yet we civil engineers tend to solve their problems and challenges with a linear mode of thinking.
Much as this problem is not restricted to Africa, it is largely skewed towards Africa. Our colleagues in the USA and Europe (at least those I’ve interacted with) tend to have an expanded awareness when designing. Their expanded awareness is mainly attributed to a holistic nurturing they go through both at home and in school.
Now that we are aware of this loop hole in our designs, let us start reversing this paradigm by reaching beyond our confines of classroom and design offices to understand how the civilians we are meant to serve tend to behave. Whether it entails personally studying psychology, theology, philosophy, sociology or interacting with the people who have expertise in these areas depends on the civil engineer. See you in a transformed Civil Engineering realm!
Edrine Habasa is an autodidact bridge engineer, dialectician and knowledge enthusiast. He's also a debunker of falsehoods as he champions the truth.