Engineering the future: cautionary tale or utopia?

Sunday 31 October, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Keynote Controversies

Are we are living in a world where utopian thinking is at best idle day-dreaming and at worst downright dangerous? Popular visions of large-scale engineering seem to be overshadowed by the negative aspects of the man-made world, from climate change to unsustainable growth to the unforeseen side effects of cutting-edge technology. Do we have to let go of the vision that engineering and technology can promise us continued improvement in quality of life? Is it really just wishful thinking to argue for a more ambitious role for human ingenuity, and the transformative power of innovation? Are we limited to only doom-and-gloom nightmares of nature taking revenge on humanity’s arrogance, to a perceived need for belt-tightening austerity and a tomorrow of ‘make do and mend’.

In this context, the idea that we might seek actively to determine - to engineer - our future might seem more 19th than 21st century. Instead, much debate today is limited to fighting back the fire, focused on securing any kind of future against the threats of unsustainable economic growth, depleting natural resources and demographic shifts. It is often remarked, in the developed world at least, that this is a generation that now no longer assumes things will be better for its successors. Countries like India and China, however, seem to have a more positive attitude to how today’s young engineers and scientists might shape tomorrow’s world, with ambitious road and rail projects that promise to reshape vast landscapes. Even in the UK, some, like James Dyson in his recent Ingenious Britain report, argue that aspirational visions of the future are absolutely necessary.

But what does this mean in practice? What plans if any are being hatched by the coming generation of British engineers? Can we make a compelling case for engineering the future? Or we have gone as far as we can - if not too far – so that the priority now is more about changing human expectations and behaviour than reshaping the world?

Listen to the session audio:


Ed Daniels
executive vice president within Shell's Projects and Technology organisation; fellow, Institution of Chemical Engineers

Thomas Deichmann
editor, NovoArgumente; author, Die Steinzeit steckt uns in den Knochen: gesundheit als erbe der evolution

Professor Bill Durodié
head of department and chair of international relations, University of Bath

Dr Scott Steedman
director of products and services, BRE Global; editor-in-chief, Ingenia; fellow, Royal Academy of Engineering; writer and presenter, How did they build that?

Professor Andrew Stirling
co-director, ESRC-funded STEPS Centre, University of Sussex; co-author, Dynamic Sustainabilities: technology, environment, social justice

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
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