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Engineers' Club of Philadelphia

President's Message

E. Mitchell Swann On June 20, 2012, I was pleased to be inducted and sworn in as the current President of the Engineers' Club of Philadelphia. The Club has a rich history, having been in existence for 135 years, and many of you know that it spawned not only local chapters and sections of several national engineering organizations, but in at least a few cases, was the starting point of these societies. It is interesting to see what has changed in the world since the time the Club was founded.

The Club has certainly raised its profile amongst the educational and technology driven institutions in the region like the Franklin Institute and along with the tremendous award from IBM to the Philadelphia Engineering Foundation under past president Eric Flicker’s leadership, we can expect to see that profile highlighted even more.  But there are still more hills to climb and ways in which the Club’s positive impact on the profession and the region can be realized.  

One thing that I think we can all agree on is that the rate of technological change has accelerated in the last 20 years and the impact of those advancing technologies are being felt more broadly and with a deeper reach than ever before.  Communication devices, wireless broadband, nanotechnology, energy strategies, sustainable development, flexible manufacturing and environmental stewardship and risk management are just some of the areas where the intersection scientific discovery, technology development and engineering application and deployment are arriving at critical confluence conditions that require us to not only keep our ‘eye of the ball’ but also to anticipate ‘where the puck will be’ to be successful (mixed metaphors aside).

Further complicating this mix is that the speed of technological advances often outpaces the development of suitable public policy to set suitable guidelines for how some of these technologies might best be deployed or employed.  And while the unfettered marketplace has its as a ‘decision maker’,  without proper forethought, you can find yourself being, as my grandmother would have said “too clever by half”.  

Given that context – and accelerating pace of change on an uncertain playing field, there are a few key elements that I would like to push forward during my tenure at the helm.

The first is the development of a series of 1 day or half-day “symposiums” on key topics affecting the profession.  As a start, the following topics seem to be prime areas of discussion:

Energy Realities and Energy Futures for the Region – This program will look at the region’s energy needs, energy use, energy capabilities, energy options and energy future.  While our focus may be regional, many of the ideas, trends and technologies will reach far beyond our borders.  If we make the smart choices that give us the most options we can possibly make “energy”, be it source, distribution or use a net ‘export’ from the region.   

Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery – last year the region had a brush with what was a tremendous storm – Hurricane Irene. Her blow turned out be a glancing one, but that will not always be the case.   What would the City and the region do if a “Katrina type” weather disaster struck?  Would our infrastructure be capable of withstanding such an assault? Would our systems be resilient enough to ‘work around’ outages and disruptions? How would we handle the human need impacts? In an emergency move to higher ground, where would people move to? Can our transportation infrastructure handle that influx? What about blizzards?  Large scale electrical outages?  Plane crashes? Etc.  This program will take inventory of both our built environment and our management systems needed to withstand such a shock and identify those items necessary to mount a rapid comeback to normalcy.  

A focus on the Innovation Engines – our higher education institutions are amongst the best in the world.   This is especially true in the realms of engineering and science.  But too often the great thoughts germinating within those institutions are recognized by only a very small slice of the region’s “cognoscenti” and as a result the innovators have to go elsewhere to find the support from which an idea becomes an industry.  Let’s create an opportunity for our leading engineering and science institutions to showcase some of their more robust and ready for prime time research initiatives along with the students and professors leading those efforts.  Let’s also bring into the room the investment eco-systems along with local industry so that they can see what’s sprouting in the intellectual fertile crescent before they have to read about it as a “success story” stolen from the Delaware Valley by the Boston 128 Corridor or New York or San Francisco.

A second initiative is to raise the profile of the Engineers Club as a locus of “learned council” for our regions governmental leaders so that they can ‘bounce an idea’ off of someone (or some ones) who know a bit about the subject before they go charging up the wrong hill or heading for a technology cliff.  I currently serve on the Philadelphia Energy Authority ad in that role I have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about the City’s energy strategy and, more importantly how legislation can sometimes be very well intentioned but can miss the intended target for a lack of real understanding of how some things work and how that “work” might change when connected to other things.  I’ve had the opportunity to speak with several City ‘council members on green building and energy issues and proposed legislation and have come to recognize that they need input from people that know the subjects (be it energy to water to wireless)  systems and can offer some guidance to better  craft legislation or to better aim development projects and regulations.  I’d like to for a standing council (with a somewhat fluid membership) within the Engineers Club that can serve as that ‘sounding board’ and provide the occasional reality check to governments and other institutions to keep them from hitting the rocks. We will take precautions to keep from running afoul of conflict of interest concerns or setting up the Engineers Club as a “competitor” to the existing consultancies in the marketplace.

We’ve talked a lot about STEM and the need to bolster our educational efforts in that arena.  To further assist in that effort for young professionals let’s establish a team based design competition for those ‘in the business’ who are under 32 or so. Give them a real world design problem and see how best they can answer it.  The winning team(s) can be highlighted during Engineers Week.

Lastly, I think we can all agree that engineers touch almost everything that makes our society work….and some of those things can sometimes not work so well.  I’d like to propose that The Engineer’s Club along with its Affiliates and its members – both corporate and individual – become more engaged with groups like Engineers without Borders (which has an active area chapter) and Engineering for Change.   These groups deploy their technical skill sets in service to communities – whether in the US or abroad – who are facing technology-based challenges but lack the resources to tackle the problems themselves.  

I realize that these are aggressive goals and will require a great deal of effort, but I think that given the talent within the profession – illustrated by not only those in this room today, but our corporate and individual members AND those who are working on these issues even as we speak (but are not members YET!) we can make them happen.  Many hands make light work.

In a meeting with one of our City Council members recently, he asked ‘So just what are the things that engineers ‘cover’- what does the industry involve?”.  I asked him if he had an alarm clock or clock radio that woke him up in the morning? He said “yes”.  I told him that just about everything he touched from the time that alarm went off to the time he went to bed at night was ‘engineered” and that most of it is done so well that you didn’t even notice when it happened.  In short, there is not a lot that we don’t touch as a profession.

E. Mitchell Swann, PE