EnergyFactor By ExxonMobil | Pespectives has a new home

Innovation and engineers

We live in an innovation society—enjoying the benefits of technological progress in virtually every aspect of our daily lives.

Our smartphones, tablets, laptops, email, social media platforms, and other similar products are constantly changing the way we think, work, communicate, socialize, and interact.

Celebrating innovation has become a national pastime. The White House, for instance, has launched an innovation strategy, complete with reports and town hall meetings, because “innovation is essential to winning the future through long-term growth and competitiveness.”

But what is innovation?

Certainly it’s the process responsible for the gadgets we use. But it’s a lot more than that.

I was reminded of the essence of innovation by a passage in Walter Isaacson’s latest book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. It’s a fascinating a history of computers and the growth of the internet.

Early in the book, Isaacson writes:

One way to look at innovation is as the accumulation of hundreds of small advances, such as counters and punch-card readers. At places like IBM, which specializes in daily improvements made by teams of engineers, this is the preferred way to understand how innovation really happens. Some of the most important technologies of our era, such as the fracking techniques developed over the past six decades for extracting natural gas, came about because of countless small innovations as well as a few breakthrough leaps.

BookCover_10-2014Good for Isaacson for underscoring the innovative nature of one of the most dramatic and far-reaching events in recent years – America’s shale energy revolution.

And good for Isaacson for noting that technological innovation is a process of evolution, building on previous advances, often driven by engineers of a number of stripes.

When it comes to engineers – a topic we’ve been discussing here lately – it’s worth noting the evolution in how society views them.

Here’s a charming read in Machine Design, a U.S.-based engineering magazine and website, which charts changes in the public’s perception of the engineering profession over the last century. It also gives a sense of how that profession has changed as well, largely because of innovations that have improved the tools engineers use. Computers and advanced software in use today trump the slide rules and drafting boards of yesteryear.

Engineering has evolved, but that doesn’t mean it has fundamentally changed. As Duke professor Henry Petroski notes, “There will always be new tools and new technologies. But what goes on in an engineer’s head isn’t going to change too much.”


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