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Why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to think like an engineer

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The Hindu Business Line | 30 October 2015 | Guru Madhavan | Opinion |

M Visvesaraya

The way Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore is a classic example of how to make the mechanics work.

Making goals feasible

Rebuilding a city — or any system — is a classic example of designing under constraints, a defining characteristic of the engineering mind-set. For Modi to make progress toward his stated objectives, he needs to embrace three types of design constraints. The first type is time. In 1962, John Kennedy pledged that the US would put a human on the moon within a decade. That gave the engineers a clear constraint, and Neil Armstrong took his giant step in 1969, ahead of schedule. Modi referenced Armstrong in a Varanasi campaign speech and set 2019 as the target for the Ganga clean-up. Modi’s core technical team needs to reassess the practicality and feasibility of their goals. Can technologies and public support be leveraged to handle the scale and immensity of the river’s pollutants? This is a massive engineering challenge requiring crucial design trade-offs — what’s desirable and what’s achievable. A compelling example is how Lee Kuan Yew empowered his engineers in the aggressive clean-up of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin. Within a decade, the urban landscape of Singapore was dramatically restructured, new mass rapid transportation technologies began to be prototyped, and the country’s economic — and aesthetic — self-confidence was boosted. Scholars have observed that the most important factor could have been Lee Kuan Yew’s grasp of the notion that it’s “much more expensive for a society to live in a polluted environment compared to a clean one”. Motivated by this insight, what Modi needs to reimagine and communicate is a tangible system of rigorous engineering-based practice that is independent of the government in power. His five-year plan is just a start.

Behaviour and culture

The second type of constraint is rooted in human behaviour. The success of an engineering system relies on how the public chooses to maintain its systems. Keeping public spaces tidy has been a notorious challenge in India. Modi’s emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene is essential, but this means his team also needs to incorporate into its infrastructure design a consideration of how individuals will interact with the system. One way to achieve this may be to involve engineers in the realm of logistics, manufacturing, and transportation design to help identify and suggest solutions to fix the weak links in the system. The third constraint is cultural — difficult in scale, with implications across generations. Although India produces hundreds of thousands of engineers every year, it doesn’t have a culture of engineering, and it fails to empower the graduates to address the nation’s large social goals. Modi could begin to address this paradox by recasting Varanasi not as an isolated project, but as an example of how engineering can be a major force for national progress. Modi could engage the young engineers of India, reinvigorate the advisory role of the Indian National Academy of Engineering, deploy an underused Indian Army Corp of Engineers, and continue to tap into the prowess of India’s technology firms. Modi could launch a global Sir M Visvesvaraya Prize for Engineering to recognise and communicate how engineers help humanity. He could benefit from an engineering ambassadors programme involving leaders who can effectively guide future strategies, from primary schools to G-20 gatherings. This requires the commitment of citizens, government’s adherence to long-term strategic goals, and their basic reliance on engineering among other competencies. This approach could stimulate the deep tissues of India’s creative energy and offer a conceptual basis for a culture change that’s unique and useful to India. Visvesvaraya — whose birth anniversary we now commemorate as Engineers Day —impatiently noted that for any efforts in culture change to succeed, “Action, not sentiment, will be the determining factor.” Modi may not be able to fix India, but he can help stimulate a culture of engineering that could. –  The writer is a senior policy adviser in Washington, and the author of ‘Applied Minds: How Engineers Think’ – Courtesy    /     http://gurumadhavan.blogspot.in/      https://www.linkedin.com/in/bioengineer


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