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How many engineers it takes to change a lightbulb

Constructing Excellence By Marcus Kan, Managing Director, Singapore – 12 July 2022

String of LD lightbulbs on ceiling


Head and Shoulders shot of Marcus wearing glasses sitting in front of plants

Marcus Kan

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The invention of the first lightbulb by Thomas Edison was a pivotal moment for society. But there is so much more to the story than that invention – and this bigger story is very relevant for how we approach engineering today.

For a start, Edison set out to invent something that had never been done before. He didn’t just look to improve on the kerosene lantern or find a better candle, he took a leap to a whole new technology. And he would have created numerous prototypes that didn’t work before the final one that did.

I believe that’s important to keep in mind for us as engineers. Our teams and our people need to have safe opportunities to go off-piste and improvise. Processes and structures are important, but I always encourage people to step to one side and attempt something different. Then, if they can justify their new idea using their best engineering judgement and we can demonstrate through modelling and other evidence-based testing that it will work – great. Inventing and making what might have seemed impossible a working reality is the essence of what makes us engineers. It is what we are passionate about.

The process and structures we embed in projects including quality management, quality checks and quality assurance are the back-up that ensure new ideas are checked for suitability at multiple points. Having that balance between the team objectives and task flow and the room for individuals to grow their skills and our capabilities through invention is a recipe for excellence.

Net Zero Carbon is one of those ideas that was a leap of science-backed imagination. It cannot be achieved by simply amending what we have been doing up until today. Making a coal-fired power station or a gas boiler more efficient does not eliminate emissions, just like making a better candle doesn’t get rid of the candle.

What these big ideas have in common is they are not stand-alone achievements. Much like a building that requires the talents of multiple disciplines and consultants and tradespeople to take it from drawing to physical asset, a lightbulb, or a net zero approach do not exist in isolation.

For Edison to invent his bulb, there had to be an industrial ecosystem already in existence including glassblowers, wire manufacturers (and the whole mining and refining process that makes wire possible) and the technology for generating and distributing electricity to power the bulb. There is a whole galaxy of engineers and trades involved that are invisible in the story.

Then, following the invention, an entirely new industrial ecosystem was created of materials processing, manufacturing and logistics to make and distribute lightbulbs and wiring and switches and this also helped create the business case for an entire urban electricity grid capable of powering them.

Because there was light and power, new ways of living, learning and doing business also gathered pace. That is the power of invention.

Our current decarbonisation journey is similar. The big idea is net zero and the inventions and processes that make it possible are becoming well-established. But it still takes an entire ecosystem of minds and talents to make it widespread and functional.

Even on the individual project level this is true, which is why multi-disciplinary teams that collaborate and share knowledge and learn from each other is so important.

I think the covid experience has accelerated collaboration, even though it involved individuals experiencing greater physical isolation due to lockdowns and working from home. Because we pivoted to virtual platforms and connecting despite geographical distance, we stepped out of the silos that had sometimes separated disciplines and departments. In the virtual world, everyone’s desk is just a call away from everyone else’s.

Now we are returning to workplaces, but not to silos within them. Team leaders actively encourage sharing of knowledge, because we know it is important for different disciplines to be aware of each other’s contributions and have a general understanding of the fundamentals of each discipline within the whole project. It is similar for the engineering disciplines and sustainability experts too – both need to have insight into the what, how and why of their specific practices and knowledge. Decisions made by electricians affect sustainability, decisions made by sustainability influence decisions around vertical transport and mobility, and so forth. Everything is inter-related within a building.

It is important for leaders to recognise too that everyone in the team needs to grow their unique strengths and follow their interests, so they continue to grow. The overarching structure of the goals of the specific office and beyond that the company are the fundamental architecture, and as leaders we have the duty – and the honour – of serving society by nurturing the next generation of brilliant minds within the company collective.

We also ensure we invest in R&D so there are opportunities for people to better themselves and still converge towards the shared goals. We can’t shoebox people, and we also can’t keep delivering the same design solution over, and over, again. It is also part of human nature to never be entirely content with what we have. We always yearn for better – for greater comfort, for higher, faster and brighter – so society itself challenges the norm every day. As engineers, therefore, we all come together to address those wants and needs and ‘fix the lightbulb’.

If we stop inventing, stop progressing and simply repeat the status quo, it would be like we’d stopped at incandescent bulbs instead of progressing to halogens and then to LEDs with smart control systems. Technology is always evolving – and as we progress into the net zero future, the next lightbulb is waiting to be discovered. Keeping people in the dark about the possibilities is not an option, we need to illuminate the opportunities and keep powering our collective imagination.