Why aren’t there more engineers in (civic) leadership?

Werwath2One curious question I always wanted to explore: why aren’t there more engineers in leadership positions, especially in government? How many of our presidents had technical backgrounds? Are we better off with  professional politicians running our society?

All too often it seems we take the expedient approach to solving our collective problems and challenges . It is likely that a more methodical approach would help in reducing the impact of unintended consequences, and it is quite possible that how we manage the systems, the processes, and the infrastructure of the country could improve dramatically with an engineering/systems approach. This starts to answer the question of why engineers might do a better job, but doesn’t address why more engineers don’t hold leadership positions.

The answer to this question might have something to do with the personality traits of engineers, or perhaps societal or economic aspects. It could very well be that engineers can have more lucrative careers running businesses, starting new businesses, and bringing new technologies to market. That is all fine, in fact, there are many good things that have come from the progress of technology, but at some point engineers need to stand up and become more visible in the policy decisions that affect our country.

One example: the American Society of Civil Engineers has consistently given this country failing grades on nearly all of our infrastructure. This neglect has been going on for many years. It is dangerous, expensive, and foolish to not maintain and upgrade our infrastructure to keep up with the world and to keep us all safe, but what have we engineers done to make our voices heard? And why haven’t we taken more steps to enter the public discussion?

For my part, I have personally chosen to partner up with my hometown, the City of Evanston and the sustainability office there. I have worked with the city on the electric aggregation initiative, saving residents more than 20% on their electric bills,  and on many projects to improve the sustainability efforts of the city. The city has also developed and is tracking to its aggressive climate action plan, and has made meaningful reductions in this area as well. Each of us in this profession can apply these great tools of engineering management to help make our communities that much more sustainable and effective.

Mark Werwath is the Director of the Northwestern University MEM Department.  

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