Engineers are devilishly good problem-solvers, according to Engineers Australia’s first chief engineer, Jane MacMaster. They are traditionally directed at technical problems, but Macmaster says an engineer’s knack for “asking the right questions” can help navigate Australia’s complex “wicked problems”, such as the Covid recovery and climate change.
MacMaster is passionate about elevating the profile and scope of the engineering profession, which will shape her contribution as the inaugural chief engineer at the engineering industry body.
She told The Fifth Estate that the new job title was designed to give weight to existing responsibilities at the organisation, including the engineering profession’s input into public policy and reviews.
Another core component of her job is upholding engineering credentials, something that’s attracted a bit of attention in the wake of the high profile Opal Tower incident that propelled construction quality issues into the spotlight and sparked calls for the creation of an engineer registration scheme for all states and territories.
Queensland already has engineering registration and it’s a front and centre concern for NSW and Victoria, with WA and the ACT also considering legislation.
MacMaster says Engineers Australia has been shaping the debate and discussion around registration for years, especially around alignment so that engineers can easily move from state to state.
Engineers focus on technology but their skills are highly transferrable
A mechanical engineer by training, MacMaster has had an interesting career. Her early professional years were spent working on various aerospace and defence programs at BAE Systems Australia, including a supersonic ship self-defence system project for NATO.
She then made the leap into a public policy role as senior strategy advisor for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s strategy unit set up by the Rudd government.
Throughout the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era, MacMaster explored long term, complex policy issues that transcend “issue of the day” status. This included water security, cyber security, homelessness and housing affordability.
“That really opened my eyes to the idea of how we solve problems … my skills and thinking in engineering were really applicable in this brand new context.”
Realising the engineering skillset was valuable to solve more than just technical problems, she set out to create a practical toolkit for solving complex problems. The business she created, Ponder Enterprises, draws on several disciplines, including engineering, the theory of strategy, systems-thinking and behavioural science, to offer a practical toolkit to solve big issues.
The end result is a series of questions – starting with “what are you trying to solve?” – as “somewhere to start” for problem solvers.
Macmaster says it’s common for people to “muddle through” complex problem solving.
She says system thinking– understanding how things are interrelated and implications of those connections – is a fundamental component of the tool.