I think we need a different way.

It’s been brewing in my mind for some time now, and gnaws at me in work, and at home. It seems to come from everything around me: the kettle; the microwave; the car; the garden.

Life is comfortable and I am content. So what’s my problem?

For a start I’m an engineer, and an academic, so a lifelong training of enquiry and always seeking to improve and explore is hard to supress.

Also, I do love technology. We make some amazing things these days, and I never cease to be impressed by the innovation and creativity of engineers.

It is amazing to think of the imagination, skill, knowledge and organisation needed to bring the machines and devices that we take for granted to reality. An A380 airplane or a smartphone, for instance.

The modern world is brimming with technology.  We are surrounded by devices and gadgets that fulfil functions from the mundane to the extraordinary.  We can save lives that were once left to fate. We can savour tastes that were undreamed of as our extended reach now reduces the distance to the farthest parts of the world to hours, compared to the months or more in days gone by. Living longer, we can experience more of the world and have a quality of life unimagined by previous generations.

Many have contributed to this progress but much is undoubtedly due to engineers.  Their innovation, creativity and imagination has allowed our society to flourish.  Their innovations have saved lives, brought people together and made the world a smaller place.

This engineered world stands apart from our natural environment. It takes engineers many years of training to develop the necessary skills to make our dreams reality. To solve such complex problems and hold together such large teams of people, we use systems to guide us. We break the problem down into tractable elements. We constrain ourselves because we can’t solve everything, and our materials and systems are themselves imperfect.

It is a permanent tussle with nature, fighting to do more and better all the time. Engineering is difficult. It is challenging. It is also immensely rewarding. The combination of creativity and deep understanding of science gives a real buzz. But because it needs such skill, it is unfortunately only available to the few.

This is perhaps the trigger for my thoughts. I very much enjoy sitting in my garden, a place of quiet contemplation. My wife is the gardener, working with nature to create. Nature has all the ingredients already packaged up and she works diligently and patiently with them to create a wonderful environment.

It is an amazing skill, different than our normal engineering approach to creativity. I enjoy watching the plants grow. They seem to know intuitively what is the right thing to do: to branch; to flower; to grow tall; to stick; to climb. So regardless of where they are, the plants always seem to be just perfect for that location. Left to their own devices and natural forces, they create some of the world’s wild and beautiful places. But the gardener knows that with careful control of the environment they can encourage the plants to do different and equally beautiful things.

So, I start to wonder. What if we can engineer like a gardener? Rather than starting with a big problem and whittling it down to a final form, can we grow something and explore its shape and form until it eventually satisfies our goals?

Can we make a designer become a gardener rather than sculptor?


Professor Mark Price