Thank you for having me, it’s nice to be back amongst fellow Engineers, and especially the best engineers of all, Electrical. I’ve been asked to talk about some of the challenges and opportunities our country faces, through the lens of our profession.

Thank you for having me, it’s nice to be back amongst fellow engineers, and especially the best engineers of all, electrical.

I’ve been asked to talk about some of the challenges and opportunities our country faces, through the lens of our profession.

Electrical engineers, more than any other profession, are solving people’s problems. I’d also like to talk about the challenge we face. Our society is rejecting the values that make our profession’s contribution possible.

Let’s start with what we should be proud of. All engineers are charged with innovating, with getting more value from the same resources, or fulfilling the same needs with fewer resources.

I nearly didn’t choose electrical, because I was worried about the environment. I wasn’t just worried about the environment, I was worried about poverty. I could see how either problem might get solved, but not both.

I figured if everyone got rich, the consumption would be apocalyptic. The use of resources and the pollution that followed would destroy the planet. In my mind, a giant XOR gate of doom. That kind of zero sum thinking can get you down.

I figured if I did civil and environmental I could do something with wetlands and be a good person. I fear far too many stage ones are thinking that way.

It’s totally wrong. When it comes the saving resources, at every level, it is electrical engineers who are making the world more efficient.

There are the obvious examples. Perhaps the simplest is electric light. As Matt Ridley calculates, in 1800 it took the average person five hours labour to earn enough money to buy a candle and get one hour of light.

Since then we’ve been through gas lamps, incandescent bulbs, CFL bulbs, halogens, and now LEDs. The result is a massive increase in efficiency, measured by the amount of human labour going into producing one hour of light.

Today, an hour of light costs 0.00027 hours, or about one second's work.

Elon Musk’s Tesla’s are beautiful and he’s transformed the motor industry. There’s an elegance about achieving the same thing with 10,000 parts that your competitors require 30,000 parts for.

There are the gains from regenerative braking. The best internal combustion engines, in Formula 1, get 50 per cent efficiency. Then there’s the drive train. Teslas get over 90 per cent to the wheels. The energy source can be any prime mover, not just one type of fuel.

Electric cars and renewable energy are just the really obvious examples of how electrical engineers are getting more from less. There are many subtler examples of electrical engineers increasing efficiency, mainly to do with making markets more efficient.

TradeMe means so many goods that might have been thrown out get a second life. Auctions and search functions mean it is much more efficient than the old classified ads. Anyone remember Trade and Exchange? How much more efficient? Well, Trademe was worth $700 million in 2006, that should give some idea of the value added.

The same thing is happening in the developing world. Installing cell towers around indian fishing villages has meant that the price of fish becomes stable. Previously, they’d catch it, go to a market where there was no demand, then sell it for nothing to people who didn’t really want it before it went off. Stable prices mean fishers know how much to catch, and waste less catching it. The gains in human welfare and reduction in waste are staggering.

It’s not just TradeMe though. Anything to do with booking is vastly more efficient. More people get aeroplane seats and hotel rooms at a price they’re willing to pay thanks to online booking, and aggregation sites. That means planes and hotels are fuller, and less capacity is needed for the same level of service.

The next step is the sharing economy. That’s Uber. Imagine an eventual dissolution of the line between public and private transport. Imagine shared autonomous vehicles powered by electric motors.

They could increase the critical factor that is the number of passengers per vehicle, meaning civil engineers don’t need to build as much road space, and reduce emissions at the same time.

These are just some of the ways that electrical engineers are changing the sources and use of energy, and the use of capital assets in more efficient markets, so that more goes further.

We show how it is possible to increase human welfare across the board while using fewer resources and making the world a better place.

We have a great story to tell about making the world a happier, healthier, wealthier place, but unfortunately the values that allow us to make this difference are being undermined.

I’m talking about the phenomenon of metastasised postmodernism.

My other degree at Auckland was in philosophy, mainly the philosophy of knowledge and science. I was aware of Foucault, continental philosophy, postmodernism, but I didn’t think anyone would take them seriously.

The basic belief, if you missed the memo, is that the world is not real. The world only exists to the extent that someone is there to see it. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it then, no, it does not make a sound.

Foucault wrote in the 1960s. Over the 60 years since, what was an interesting academic belief has metastasised into a cult. The cult tells us that it matters more who is saying something than what they are saying.

That’s why you get people saying they are speaking/writing/studying from an x/y/z perspective. You know, ‘well speaking as an x, y,’ as if your identity is what validates your knowledge.

We see it in our legislation, where people can have knowledge simply because of their birth rather than their study.

We see it in the education system, where kids are encouraged to construct their own reality through what the education department calls ‘child centred learning.’

We see it in the universities where there are who departments of ‘critical studies,’ that don’t actually do any empirical work.

We see it in the environmental, social, and governance movement, which is a reversal of the enlightenment’s progress. No longer can anyone be judged for the value they provide to others, you must adhere to certain beliefs before you can participate.

We see it in Parliament, where almost nobody has studied science, maths or engineering past high school. Of 120 MPs, there are only 12 with a tertiary qualification that involves actual science.

Only 1.6 per cent of Parliament is engineers, and 100 per cent of engineering qualified MPs are in ACT.

On the other hand, our values as a profession must be enlightenment values. There’s no point saying V=IR depending on your perspective. It’s universal. There’s no culture in the world where voltage, current and resistance are different depending on your perspective.

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, the questions are whether the design works. Does it provide a good or service people want at a price they can afford?

If it does, then chances are it consumes less resources to do more than your competitors. That’s real progress.

We as a profession do not only offer real solutions to the environmental and economic challenges people face. We show the values essential to solving them.

We show that there is an objective reality. In fact, there is just one. And it unites us. The laws we work by are the same whether you’re, as the song goes, black, white, Cuban, or Asian.

We can work on it and tame it, from the megawatt of the massive rotating machines under lake Manapouri, to the integrated circuits printed down to five nanometres, we organise the physical world better for human welfare.

That is a wonderful contribution, and a wonderful way to contribute.

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