Engineering in an Age of Limits

Discusses the role of engineers as society enters an Age of Limits — particularly with oil supplies.

Career Advice

Jobs-Steve-1When I give talks at conferences I am sometimes asked by younger process safety professionals for advice as to the career path they should select. I avoid answering their questions because (a) I am not qualified to do so, and (b) it is difficult to talk thoughtfully in the  informal and rushed atmospheres that prevail at such meetings. Nevertheless, as we enter the Age of Limits it is only reasonable that individuals should consider their career options, so I thought that I would use this post to jot down a few thoughts on the topic. As always, feedback is appreciated.

As I have said many times, I am not a fortune teller — I do not know what the future holds (and neither does anyone else) so any thoughts on this topic have to be very general in nature. All I can say is that I am certain that many changes are ahead — and not all of them will be pleasant. Therefore, when considering career decisions I suggest that the biggest pitfall to watch out for is an assumption that the future will be a linear continuation of the present and that tomorrow will look very similar to today. Such an assumption leads to the risky conclusion that the right career choice for current times will be the right one for the world of 20 years hence.

Steve Jobs (1955-2011), who knew all about succeeding in a changing world, once said,

. . . you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

In last week’s post — Jack of All Trades — we outlined five traits that many process safety professionals possess and that could help them in careers in an Age of Limits. They were:

  1. Systems thinking;
  2. The ability to handle uncertainty;
  3. An understanding that the laws of physics trump those of economics;
  4. Integrity of language; and
  5. Numeracy

Using the above list as a starting point I have outlined below five features of the engineering or safety job of the future based on the assumption that we are entering an Age of Limits and that what worked in the past may not be so effective in the years to come. The five features are:

  1. Make stuff;
  2. Shop locally;
  3. Simplify;
  4. Think holistically;
  5. Be adaptable.

But before developing these concepts it is vital to keep an eye on the value of safety. What has happened in recent years is that more and more companies are saying, “Safety is its own value, independent of other values”. They do not trade off safety and production, even both are values; safety always wins. (For this reason I tend to be cautious about concepts such as ALARP – As Low as Reasonably Practical Risk – because they suggest that we have to accept at least a base line of injuries and fatalities. As discussed in The Newness of Safety maintaining this concept of Safety as a Value is going to be a major challenge for the next generation of engineers and safety professionals. The reason being that, until now ,moneys for safety programs have generally been available if the justification is strong enough. We may be entering a time when such moneys are not available — no matter how strong the justification may be.

Make Stuff

Crude-Oil-Hands-1In our post Pop Quiz we noted that the oil refining business supports a large number of people who often actually know very little about the refining business itself. These intermediaries include:

  • Insurance agents;
  • Conference organizers;
  • Bankers;
  • Shop stewards;
  • Blog writers;
  • Instrument manufacturers;
  • Tax collectors;
  • Book publishers
  • LOPA analysts;
  • Attorneys;
  • Engineering professors;
  • Shipping schedulers; and
  • Human resource specialists.

All of these people may make their living from the refining industry but most know very little about it. One of the questions in the quiz was, “Have you ever had crude oil on your hands?” It is doubtful that more than just a few of the people listed above can answer “Yes” to that question.

As industry becomes more local and simpler there will be less need for intermediaries and less money  to pay them. Hence the people working at a refinery, for example, will be expected to directly contribute to the manufacture of refined products. Any job that involves optimization or writing reports or conducting analyses is going to have less and less value. One way of looking at this is to suggest that jobs that consist mostly of typing symbols into a computer screen will be both less useful and less secure than they are now.

No-SubstituteIn this context  there is really no substitute for industrial experience. It is one thing to learn about a topic from books and videos but it is quite another to  learn from the school of hard knocks. Industrial experience includes not only a hands-on knowledge of industrial processes and equipment, but also an understanding of the realities of client/consultant relationships, the resistance that managers have toward spending money on safety, problems at the management/union interface and how government agencies actually enforce regulations.

Shop Locally

The poet John Donne told us that, “No man is an Island, . . . , /And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee.” His point is that we are all part of many communities — at work, at home and in our social life. When someone dies a little piece of us dies with them.

An industrial process, such as a refinery, can be seen as being part of a larger community — and in the modern world that community is often global. Equipment and instruments are manufactured on the other side of the world, education is carried out through international webinars, customers are everywhere and constantly changing and the enterprise is supported by a bewilderingly large array of support services from a wide variety of sources.

As resources become less available it is likely that many of the complex supply chains will crack and that these highly specialized support services will either disappear or become too expensive to sustain. Increasingly, industry will have to draw upon local resources and services. Hence a successful professional will develop a network of relationships with other people and companies in the local area. He or she can then use that network to help keep his own facility running safety and smoothly at a time when operating conditions are difficult. That network can also be used to find local customers for the products that his company makes.


In the Jack of All Trades post we introduced Joseph Tainter’s chart to do with complexity.


His argument is that complex societies, such as ours, react to problems by increasing complexity. This is an effective strategy if that society is in the left-hand section of the curve, i.e., if the incremental benefits from the action are greater than the incremental costs. However, if a society is on the right hand side of the curve then responding to problems by adding complexity is just the wrong thing to do. The immediate problem may be solved but the system costs associated with the action exceed the benefit.

We have already quoted Steve Jobs once. Here’s another of his insights.

That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.

The concept of simplification can be applied to career choices in an Age of Limits. When an engineer has to choose between two courses of action it is preferable to select the one that uses the fewest resources, that is simpler to operate and maintain and that does not require high levels of specialized skill from the operations and maintenance personnel.

Think Holistically

In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies Joseph Tainter quotes Hardin, “We can never do merely one thing”. Tainter goes on to say, ‘. . . good intentions are virtually irrelevant in determining the result of altering a large, complex system. With the feedback relationships inherent in such a system, one can almost never anticipate the full consequence of any alteration.’ This insight is often summed up in the term ‘The Law of Unanticipated Consequences’.

When resources are plentiful it is possible to correct unexpected and unwanted changes caused by system feedback. However, if resources decline it will be more difficult to do this. Therefore the person who is able to anticipate changes and who can add resilience to a system in anticipation of problems will be particularly valuable to his or her employer. The work of a person who thinks and works holistically is not limited to a single, narrow detailed specialized sphere; instead he can understand management, technical and human systems, and how they interact with one another.



It is often thought that Charles Darwin used the phrase ‘Survival of the Fittest’ to explain his theory of evolution. In fact the term was created by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). However a better term to explain evolution is ‘Survival of the Adaptable’. The following quotation has also often been incorrectly attributed to Darwin, but it still makes sense.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

In the context of employment in the industries of the future, I suggest that it is those who are able to understand the changes that are going on around them and can then adapt to those changes will flourish whereas those who are merely ‘fit’ to conduct today’s activities well will find that their contributions will become less valuable.

One aspect of adaptability will be the ability to cope with unpleasant surprises. Someone who is adaptable will swing with the punches when they find that a critical spare part has not arrived or that the electrical grid is increasingly erratic. He or she will come up with short and medium-term fixes to problems such as these.

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