The Academy joined forces with the Institute of Ideas to bring together a panel of leading engineers and commentators in a provocative keynote debate to consider who should be shaping the future, as part of the Battle of Ideas festival that took place at London’s Royal College of Art, 30th to 31st October 2010.

The idea that we might seek actively to determine - to engineer - our future might seem more 19th than 21st century. Instead, the focus today seems to be limited to securing any kind of future, fighting to secure food, energy and other diminishing resources, while mitigating and adapting to climate change and ever increasing and unsustainable population and economic growth.

Engineering the future: cautionary tale or utopia? considered whether engineers can still be aspirational in their visions or are limited to the perceived need for belt-tightening austerity and a tomorrow of ‘make do and mend’.

The debate was full of interesting discussions between the panellists and the audience that addressed the following questions: Should engineers or society decide which technologies we use? What are the drivers and barriers for innovation and adoption of particular technologies – the vested interests of those with the power; CO2 footprint; economic reasons or the public? Are we prevented from dreaming of what technology might bring us, as lobbying groups convince us it is man-made and therefore against nature? Are great engineers those that can solve a problem or those that can identify what the problem is in the first place? Do engineers offer society informed choices or are they technological autocrats?

The panel was chaired by Claire Fox (Director, Institute of Ideas; panellist on Radio 4’s Moral Maze) and consisted of:

Dr Scott Steedman FREng, Director of products and services, BRE Global;

Ed Daniels, Executive vice president for projects and technology, Shell;

Professor Andrew Stirling, Research Director, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex;

Dr Bill Durodié, Senior fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Dr Scott Steedman FREng said:

“This year’s event brought the opportunity to challenge pre-conceptions of the role of engineers in our society and to explore how we can jointly overcome some of the great challenges of our time – energy and climate change, international development, a public hungry for consumer products but intolerant of failure. What I saw was the beginning of a new sort of exchange between practitioners, academics and an insightful audience that suggests we have much more to learn in continuing the discussion.”

Video of the debate will soon be available from:  Battle of Ideas website

Notes for editors

  1. The Battle of Ideas is an annual weekend festival, initiated by the Institute of Ideas to give a platform for free-thinking and lively exchanges of views. Now in its sixth year, the festival fosters an atmosphere of intellectual freedom and open-ended exploration of new ideas, research and social trends.
  2. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636; email:  Jane Sutton