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Software Alone Won’t Fix Crumbling Infrastructure

Post written by

Connie Bowen and Marilyn Waite

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie visited AeroFarms’ indoor vertical farm in 2016. (Credit: AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

In 2017, the U.S. alone sustained fifteen billion-dollar-plus extreme weather events, including multiple 100+ year hurricanes, extreme fires, and severe drought. We need solutions to regenerate and protect communities from increasingly frequent, more severe weather due to climate change; the research arm of ASCE estimates that the U.S. needs to invest $2 trillion in major infrastructure. To exacerbate matters, the global population is set to exceed 9 billion by 2050, and crop production will need to double in order to feed this increase.

Technology will play a major role in helping humanity face increasingly volatile weather, depleted freshwater and scarce soil resources. Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between the types of companies that are receiving investment capital and those that are dealing head-long with these challenges.

Nearly 90% of new startups are software focused, and most of what’s left are often lifestyle products that, quite frankly, don’t make the top 100 list of the world’s biggest challenges. We need more physical engineers to launch startups and more investors to invest in them.

We cannot expect to solve these problems without innovation from all sectors of engineering. We need disruptive innovation, and we need it in the physical realm. Digitization and automation will play crucial roles, but the most brilliant software infrastructure cannot begin to address major infrastructure challenges. Engineers that deal with tangibles – civil, environmental, mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineers – are critical.

The word “engineer” can be defined in different ways. Engineer stems from the Latin “ingenium,” which translates approximately to “a flash of genius.” The term came about in the 16th century to describe someone who applies the findings of math and science to real world problems. Today, the professional status of engineering is legally defined and protected by law in many jurisdictions. Canadian engineers wear a special ring. British engineers undergo a chartering process. In order to practice professional engineering, one must receive a vetted education and be certified as such.

Engineering, comparatively speaking, isn’t perceived to be cool. Not as cool as coding, anyway. Enginerds have a reputation for spending time in libraries crunching numbers and scribbling furiously to solve challenging problems. Careers around rocks, highways, water quality, bridges, soil, and electrical grids aren’t sexy.

Programming, on the other hand, is cool. Software developers are stereotyped as hoodie-touting geniuses with the potential to make huge sums of money. They create sleek apps that solve a multitude of problems.

But software developers can’t solve all of the world’s problems. When “engineers” are mentioned in the startup world, people tend to mean “software engineers” by default, thus confusing coding with software engineering and software engineering with physical engineering. We need to stop confusing the term engineer with a computer programmer or coder. Doing so sends the wrong market signal that real world problems are being solved and invested in, when that couldn’t be further from the reality.  Innovation centers are placing a disproportionate amount of weight on one specific discipline that often finds itself within a gray area within the engineering spectrum. This type of thinking could have potentially dangerous implications.

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