Dr Richard Templer
Richard Templer completed his BE and PhD in Mechanical Engineering with us, and is set to take on the role of Chief Executive of Engineering NZ in November 2020.
What does engineering mean to you, and how does that philosophy contribute to our engineering culture?
This is quite a challenging question. To me, engineering is basically creating solutions to difficult problems, but doing so in a way that makes the world in general — and New Zealand specifically — a better place.
For me, it is not sufficient as engineers to just come up with solutions. We have to think about what is the impact those solutions are going to have on the country. We have to put things into the context of New Zealand and think about the social, the cultural, and the environmental implications of those solutions. It's also an incredibly exciting profession because the training and the talents we have means we get to solve some very difficult problems.
What have you learnt throughout your experiences — either at work or study — that you think would be valuable to the profession for years to come?
I think that your experiences always change you, but I've always been incredibly grateful for my engineering education because I think it was a great balance of fundamentals and specifics.
To be able to solve difficult problems, you need to understand the fundamental rules, be they kinematics, electromagnetics, or physics. You need to get that fundamental understanding but the beauty of the way I was taught, and the way engineering is still taught is the use of specific examples to teach fundamental concepts. A good example is when you're looking at flow around an object. I can remember one of our lecturers used a dolphin as an example, and all the different things that dolphins do to improve the way water flow moves around them.
We were learning the fundamentals of fluid dynamics and flow, but that specific example made it really real and really memorable. So it's that lovely balance of the fundamentals, which allow you to understand and solve any problem, and the specifics, which make it memorable and enjoyable. It's that systematic approach to problem solving, which is the key that allows you to break things down, so I’ve always been very grateful for the education I’ve had.
I think this still remains of importance to teaching. We need to know the fundamentals of engineering, but do so in a modern context, such as thinking about inherent safety in everything we design, or thinking about the sustainability of our solutions. I consider developed thinking to be the ability to look beyond just solving a problem, to seeing what the implications are.
I think this is a constant challenge for the profession: how do we become efficient, and solve problems quickly and efficiently, on time and on budget, and also see the broader focus? I think there’s a compatibility here between the Engineering NZ perspective and the educational perspective on how these skills can be turned into a reality without, you know, ending up with a ten-year degree!
What’s the biggest challenge for engineers in Aotearoa today, either as undergraduates, postgraduates, or professionals?
One of the things I recognize is that the young people who are entering engineering now will be solving problems that I haven't even thought about. They will literally be creating new roles, new companies and organizations, and fields which may not even be thought about today.
For New Zealand, I think we have a really exciting as well as challenging time for the engineering profession in that we're going through a major health crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that is precipitating some major economic challenges. And there is a huge opportunity presented by significant levels of government investment in infrastructure and in industry for engineers to help us come out of this in a substantially better way.
The key to that is this broader thinking: It's not just fit-for-purpose infrastructure, it’s fit-for-the-future infrastructure. It's not just getting businesses back to the way they were, it is getting businesses back to a future model, and it is one that incorporates greater diversity, better cultural connections, sustainability, and improved effects on our environment. The challenge for our engineers are the “and” problems. So it has to be on time and on budget and good for the environment and have a positive social impact.
That actually makes it really exciting, because those problems are more challenging than simply “design a series of struts to support a load of this way”. When someone says, “okay, can you come up with a solution to support something in a space... which has the lowest impact on the environment” it’s just a much more interesting problem.
How do you think each individual within engineering — at school or at work — can contribute to improving the culture of the profession?
It’s kind of clichéd, but i think it comes down to caring about people. When you’re doing your job, you should be thinking about people, caring about your workmates and your clients, and the community that you’re part of. Engineering work can become very demanding, including timewise, so it’s crucial to work out as a team how you can manage workloads. We want people to have time with their families and to relax, and recognise those who have more work to do that we can work out how to help them cope.
It’s caring about people, so you can create a more diverse environment in engineering — to create an environment in which people are comfortable being their real, genuine selves and it is celebrating the diversity in our profession. We also should create environments so that we can become more diverse.
When I went through engineering school, it was dominated by white males, and the sad thing about that is we were probably missing out on at least 50 percent of the best engineers. Out of my class of 60 in Mechanical Engineering, we had two female students and probably 45 or so of us were Pakeha, so there's a huge talent pool we were missing out on.
The profession has come a long way, but it needs to keep working in this space. To change the culture, we need to, as individuals, care for other people. It’s thinking in a caring way: what are the decisions I make when I’m hiring people, supporting people, and working people? A more diverse environment is a more interesting environment. People will deliver more, be happier, be more productive, and they’ll get the word out. People will want to come and work with you.
I can say in my role as the Chief Executive of the Manawatu District Council, we focused on people and making it a better environment to work, and it pays off. We have more engaged staff, higher productivity, we have better customer service, which increased customer satisfaction — all because we've created a more caring, more welcoming environment, and we have diversity which is fantastic and it is just… you just get a better organization. On one hand, it sounds really simple, but it does work.