Jul 212012

One of the great things about running media courses in a Faculty of Technology, is that you get to look at the delivery of learning opportunities from an engineering perspective. I’m not an engineer myself, my background is humanities and media studies. But I enjoy working with engineers, technologist and designers because they have a very specific way of looking at the world. Rather than seeing the world as an opposing set of political forces, or as a set of signs leading to deeper rooted meanings waiting to be unravelled, engineers tend to see the world for what it is – a space to be occupied, with problems to be solved. There is nothing that an engineer would like to do, in my experience, than to make the occupation of the social and physical space we occupy more tolerable, sustainable and efficient.

Engineering doesn’t just stop at maintaining a degree of comfort. Engineers seem to have a drive to want to occupy more space in more interesting ways. Engineers are transfixed on getting from a-to-b and places that are further away in some degree of comfort. They want to build things that are bigger, stronger and faster than before, and do this in a way that is less resource intensive, more efficient and using a minimum of forces to achieve what they desire. In the twelve years I’ve worked in a Faculty of Technology at De Montfort University I’ve come to know that engineers are chiefly pragmatic and practical people.

Engineers don’t see their mission in grand, metaphysical or historical terms. Instead they look at the myriad of problems that shift and change as we interact with the physical world and attempt to come-up with solutions that can help us master them. The world is full of big and small problems that need constant attention and which require innovative design and technology solutions. The challenge of engineering, so I’ve seen, isn’t to explain things about our lives, but to do things with our lives. Engineering is about using and deploying resources effectively for clearly recognised gains at the end of a pragmatically managed process. A good engineer looks for simple and elegant solutions that keep the chosen process as well integrated as possible. A pragmatic engineer, however, will be prepared to change and adapt these solutions as circumstances require.

Complexity isn’t a problem per-se, but an experienced engineer will work on the assumption that there is always a trade-off between efficiency, technical capability and the minimum requirement that it takes to get a cost-effective solution into general usage. This approach was brilliantly exemplified in the latest edition of Material World on BBC Radio Four. Reporting from the Farnborough Air Show, the focus was on how airports are looked at as a design and engineering problem. The complexity of moving physical objects, information, power and people through a building in a rapid yet seamless flow was brought to life in vivid terms.

Ove Arup, the British engineering firm that builds airports around the world, talked through their approach to modern airport design. From heating and lighting, to check-in and immigration; from shopping and retail, to noise management and acoustics. What was interesting was the focus that was given to the experience of the passenger. This is ‘experience engineering’ on a grand scale. Not content with merely bolting-on the solutions to an otherwise already established systems approach, the engineers at Ove Arup want to start from the ground-up, making all the technological interventions that they manage fundamentally integrated into the infrastructure of the airport experience itself.

This means that Ove Arup engineers have to analyse data about the movement of people, airplanes, luggage, provisions, power, fuel and many more products and services that are the blood in a massive circulation and respiratory system. At the same time the engineers have to model and plan for different eventualities. How will the designs that they advocate cope in different circumstances? What happens if there is a terrorist incident? What happens in poor weather? How do you make ordinary passengers feel as comfortable as visiting dignitaries? How can the retail operations capture passengers for longer so that they spend more money?

From a purely systems point of view many of these problems can be solved quite easily, but the challenge is to make the airport feel human, intimate and exciting. This architectural approach to design has to give a sense of progress and advancement. The acoustic design has to maintain the balance between isolation and comfort in the passenger areas, and a sense of being within the centre of a major international transport hub. Likewise, security has to be efficient yet unobtrusive. All of which mean that the engineers, designers and architects are facing significant design challenges in their own right, at each stage of the process, and in the context of the expectations of the clients.

The Material World gave a well balanced sense of wonder at the smart solutions that contemporary engineers are dealing with and the need to be sceptical that these solutions are there to serve not only the business operation but not the people who use these airports. The fact that people can so confidently ‘engineer experience’ in this way is a testament to the future, and is something that I will consider worth developing in whatever field I find myself working. Courses in Creative Media Technology can definitely benefit from the approach I’m sure.

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