Engineering for Long Term Solutions

Engineering for Long Term Solutions

Long Now Boston and The Maintainers joined forces to present a conversation melding our two key concepts of long-term thinking and the maintenance mindset. The event was led by Maintainers Movement Fellow Tona Rodriguez-Nikl and hosted on June 6 02022 within the Long Now Boston conversation series. 

VIDEO:  Recording


The conversation event was led by 2022 Maintainers Fellow Tona Rodriguez-Nikl. Tona is a professor in the department of Civil Engineering at California State University, Los Angeles. In addition to technical research, he is interested in the broader impacts of technological development and the role of engineers and technology as we address climate change and other future challenges.  Tona introduced each of the speakers.  Their comments are summarized as follows:

Bill Bulleit – Emeritus Professor of structural engineering at Michigan Tech

The Engineering Way of Thinking (EWT): Uncertainty and the Future

  • EWT is way to approach design, using heuristics, to develop, maintain, and and manage artifacts (all in their broadest sense of their terms)
  • Heuristics: anything that aids a probable solution 
  • EWT is knowing that failure will emerge
  • Because we live in a world of uncertainty, we want to make space for small failures and experimentation for all the big stakes in our world. 

Key ideas:

  • Think globally, act locally
  • Many experiments, with corresponding criteria for failure, are required.
  • Diversity in the broad sense, is essential
  • Big, relative to the system, is bad

Guru Madhavan – Director of Programs, National Academy of Engineering 

Politics of Recognition

  • Maintenance is simultaneously  life and larger than life. 
  • Engineers often celebrate themselves as innovators, when a vast majority of Engineers are maintainers, trying to avoid disruption. Engineers may need a re-branding, both in how engineers are viewed by the general public, but also how they view themselves!

Politics of Project Management 

  • We are well familiar with the delays of mega-projects (of a billion dollars or more), especially as they relate to maintenance, often over by 200-1400%.
  • When lacking concrete goals:  schedules, costs, and teams get derailed in mega-projects. 
  • Monitoring accountability is necessary, and we must create pathways of conversation between maintainers and those planning/engineering.

Today’s innovations are tomorrow’s vulnerabilities. Without maintenance, failures flourish.

  • We need to grapple with the politics of recognition, and the politics of project management. This is how we can responsibly channel the role of engineering if we are to tackle any wicked problems. 

Donna Riley – Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University

Engineering and social justice: Power relationships must be named and challenged in regards to who is involved in problem definition.

  • Who defines our problems? We have many futurists telling us what we “ought” to want. We must question: A future for whom, and what is the quality of that future for all?

Many disasters have been long in the making. 

Engineers tend to be ahistorical (Donna says this as an engineer). 

  • Engineers cite unanticipated consequences, however Henry Petroski points to the big bridge collapse, and how similar bridges have failed for similar reasons… had engineers learned engineering history, they would have learned from these failures. 
  • However, Donna argues, more than nuts and bolts history, we also have a social history.
  • Eg: Before the Flint, Michigan water crisis, there was a Flint governance, racism, economic crisis… Fixing the pipes doesn’t solve the problem for a long term. If we don’t look at each of these aspects, we’re not certain we’ll reach a long term solution. 

Moving to an ecosystem focus for engineers, and increasing engagement between engineers and non-engineers, is needed to contribute to problem solving together. Engineers need to be less arrogant and more humble (also saying this as an Engineer). 

Kai Whiting – Researcher and Lecturer, Sustainability and Stoicism, UCLouvain

What does ancient living tell us about the ways in which we desire “the good life”? 

  • Eg: We build a bridge not to cross a river, we build the bridge because something or someone we want to connect with is on the other side. 

What is the meaning of life? To exist – or to do something more? The good life = the life worthy of being lived. Humans are naturally sociable. What we need is good character overall. 

  • Character building to live a good life: Developing the wisdom to moderate yourself for the sake of the whole community. To know what is good/bad/and to take courage for a collective good, not just for the self. 
  • Eg: What’s best for me, is what is best for all… not one size fits all. 
  • We all have commitments to different arenas. What are my skills? What community am I in? How can I collaborate with my network? How can I think carefully about the knowledge that I have to offer and what is my role? I have multiple hats in multiple parts of life. 

Conversation and Discussion:

Tona: We ought to rationally think about our situations and our impacts. Parallels to Bill’s presentation in thinking about our situation to make change. This is Engineering work. Donna’s contribution about who decides, relates to Kai’s question of “why” do we do what we do and how do we manage it.  Panel: highlighted role of the engineer, and how we hold together 

  • Non engineers can learn from engineers. 
  • Engineers can learn from non engineers. 

What are the limitations behind the scope of experimentation? 
Bill: long term solution is actually to maintain, alter, then maintain again. Because we don’t have any set goals, or know exactly where we’re going yet…. Any experiment or any movement within a system should not require decisions that could lead to collapse, so instead, make small changes within a complex system. 

Eg: the baby formula fiasco: the problem in one plant set the whole crisis  in motion. 

Donna: Bringing values into the conversation and assuring that the voices that need to be there are at the center. 

  • Engineering principles… which values? What if engineers were taught they’re supposed to value nature, but this ends up supporting national ideals, and the locals get made invisible. Eg: Need Science, but with room  for the people to raise questions 
  • This all relates to thinking small, and it’s a nice experiment to add  thinking long. Vulnerabilities are created when not thinking long term. How to provide visible, shared, and community values in more equitable ways.
  • Tona asks: how do you do this!?: how do we bring in a topic of virtues when people aren’t interested in thinking about it. 
  • Seneca: we learn not for school, but for life. How to create this space for students… when folks are thinking broader. 

General vs liberal education. How to give an introduction about how each field thinks about something. How can educators of engineers bridge this gap? Engineering the way of thinking about education. 

Engineering the questions of Know How vs Know What. We’re still clueless about how to competently build things now. 

  • Something to keep in mind: how do you avoid premature speedbumps? 
  • How do we prematurely slow down so that projects can evolve? 

Mega projects – a better transition to clean energy  will involve mega projects. Something to think about: maintenance of the mundane or the subliminal. We don’t currently have a system to achieve a design approach for net zero. 

  • Local public utilities:how  to do large scale projects on a small scale… requires talking about coordination
  • Large projects create cost overruns / how to negotiate commitments 
  • How deal with Uncertainty 

What we need to be asking:  how do energy and services combine to lead to human flourishing? How do we have a clear understanding of what it is that energy provides?  How do we   meet our needs?  What is it that’s harmful? 

Theme: the world we live in today is much more complex than ever — we need to be able to expand the engineering mindset to a larger/broader scale, one that is values-centered. Question: is that a fair assessment? We need to think about a broader way of doing engineering or maintenance?? 

  • Not more complicated, more complex. We can’t handle complexity, we can handle complications.
  • Engineering has to think about  more values, and what values engineers want to approach. 
  • Guru: meta  point: engineers are dual citizens in the world of  both disasters and blessings, needing to bridge wonders and worst case scenarios. What matters is peer review,  good engineering needs to be open and transparent

June 6, 2022 – the concept of a global celebration on June 6 2269 (being promoted by is useful to think about. 


The ideas shared during this event confirmed that the practice of engineering must evolve to stay up to date with the challenges of an accelerating world.  That acceleration is being driven by global and technological factors that require new modes of thinking, planning, design, construction and maintenance.  But this is what engineers do, and the perspectives shared by the panelists provide encouraging evidence that the needed change are moving forward.

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