Many big companies used to have "skunk works." But I think there are fewer skunk works today than there used to be.
So it comes down to two kinds of engineering. One is narrowly production-oriented, lacks imagination and adventure, and tastes like Brussels sprouts. There's no elan or eclat, but mere trudging in the same worn pathways of prior slaves.
Then there's the other kind, the kind that comes out of little garages or basements, or perhaps in the back rooms of large corporations wise enough to have back rooms where engineers can dream.
The funny thing is that we try to sell the second kind to kids at great technology fairs, but we quickly give them only the first kind when they start going to school, and then really pound it in when they start working. However, they're wise, and a lot of them aren't taking the bait.
That's going to hurt our collective future, because we're going to make fewer and fewer advances when legions of trudging assembly-line engineer zombies take over, who make nothing but faster and cheaper assembly lines. This is a battle the engineer zombies will win, because they have the secret to short-term success. In terms of economics, they'll just eat any dreamer engineers who aren't zombies (except for the occasional lucky dreamer). Many big companies used to have “skunk works,” to protect their dreamers from the zombies and give them freer rein. Maybe the smell drove the zombies off. But I think there are fewer skunk works today than there used to be, or at least they are losing their pungency.
Now, replace big companies with even bigger countries, which have national technological priorities, and little patience for squeaks from little engineers with big ideas. Are those little engineers going to speak up? Hardly. Are other countries going to fill the gaps? Not when the means of production are concentrated in the hands of fewer countries, because of the competitive advantage those few nations have in production. Will there be much reward for anyone coming up with a new idea? Not when all new ideas are carted off to be copied wholesale.
And, yet, engineering innovation will still meekly push its way through. More weakly than before, and more slowly, as it waits for better conditions before it can flourish and bloom again in full flower.
I remember when I worked at Heathkit, hearing some of the cool ideas from the engineers in the lunch room. Some of the guys would invent cool little gadgets just for fun; some of those things made it to the assembly line, some didn't, but I think people had a lot of fun trying things out, and some of them sold! Then, there was the day we had some visits from representatives of companies that offered to assemble some of the ready-made products for us, using parts too tiny to place by hand, for less than we could build them. I think that was pretty much the end for the old Heathkit. The most well known purveyor of fun engineering decided to just sell educational courses, and an era closed. Sure, there are a few little companies popping up here and there that try to sell some neat gadgets, but the climate has changed. I don't think the ground is as fertile as it once was.
Another example of the big squashing the innovative: more than 20 years ago, there was talk about reducing the cost of some medical equipment using some simple ideas. For instance, one idea was to reduce the size of the coil in an MRI so that it would be a lot, lot cheaper, but still be useful for imaging smaller limbs, or even animals. Those less expensive machines, which would have made that kind of diagnostic more affordable, and so improve society's health, were delayed for years. Why? You know why.
So, in the World Tomorrow, will we see the Golden Era of Humanity? Or just more cell phones and HDTVs? Will the dreamers win the battle of the engineers, or will the assembly-line zombies win? I think conditions seem to favor the zombies, right now.
Recently, I signed up to take college courses in philosophy, ethics and psychology.
These were courses I never took in engineering school. Taking them now, I wish every engineer could take them. All over the world. Because engineering is not just technology. It's too important to be run by assembly-line zombies.
(Dear zombies. You know I love you. We need you, too. Just don't eat all the dreamers.)
Here are links to parts 1 and part 2: