Make, think, imagine: Engineering the future of civilisation ?

This month’s insight was written by Lord Browne of Madingley. John Browne trained as an engineer, was CEO of BP from 1995 to 2007 and is now Chairman of L1 Energy. He is Chairman of the Crick Institute, a Fellow of the Royal Society, past President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and former Chairman of the Tate. He is a collector of antique books and art and the author of four books.

Throughout my life and career, I have always been connected to the arts and to cultural organisations. When I applied for a scholarship to study physics at the University of Cambridge, I had to submit an essay about something completely different to my core area of study. So, I submitted a piece about the Safavid architecture of Isfahan.

With my first bonus cheque from BP, I bought a David Hockney print.

And since then I have been a passionate and consistent supporter of the arts, serving on the boards of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the British Museum, the Tate and the Courtauld Institute, amongst many others.

I relish the time I spend with these organisations, but there has always been something about the arts and cultural sector which has troubled me. I have heard people assert again and again that arts and culture are the foundation of civilisation, and that to understand the history of civilisation, one has to study the history of art.

But while great art is essential for understanding the human condition, it is preceded by great engineering, which is the true foundation on which civilisation is built.

This is why I wrote my new book Make, Think, Imagine: to make the argument that engineering is the lifeblood of all progress, and the beating heart of society.

What do I mean by ‘engineering’? I think of it as a head with two sets of eyes: one set looks to the fruits of scientific discovery, while the other looks to the needs of commerce and customers. The brain in the middle integrates all that it sees and comes up with solutions: the tools and systems that we all use to understand and shape our worlds.

From the hand axe which changed the way our distant ancestors got food, through to the James Webb Space Telescope, which is going to be launched a million miles away from Earth so we can look further back in time than ever before: engineering is the platform upon which everything else is built.

Engineering is also our source of hope for a better future.

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