5G as the driving force behind the birth of the ‘new, new engineering’

My grandfather built bridges, great big bridges. As a civil engineer he also designed road junctions and traffic systems. This was mostly in the 1950’s and 60’s which meant that the junctions that he designed and built back then for major routes in Edinburgh and onto the Forth Road Bridge would be considered as insufficient for the vastly increased traffic volumes of 60 years later. However, such criticism is not what he and his generation of civil engineers are most remembered for. It’s more the fact that they were the last of the ‘golden age of engineering’, when young under graduates would select engineering as a profession of choice and high status. Following in the footsteps of Stephenson, Brunel and McAdam, they were the generations of architects and builders of our physical infrastructures of the last 200 years.

Forth Road Bridge (Photo: Dave Conner CC-BY-2.0)

Since then the profession of engineering, both civil and its other forms, has seen a formidable decline in popularity and a resultant reduction in the numbers of graduates studying in this field. Even in countries such as Germany, where civil engineers are held in the same professional status as doctors and lawyers, numbers have started to reduce also. The decline can be attributed to several factors, including the digitisation of the design process, the decline in major new infrastructure building, and maybe most importantly, the mindset that engineering is somehow intrinsically linked to the manufacturing sector which has been rapidly overtaken by the services sector. However, I propose that a change is on the horizon.

The uptake in STEM subjects being studied is now on the rise and we’ve seen recent examples of similar shifts in attitude and working practices already. Most recently, the ‘IT Crowd’ has flourished and internet savvy engineers and developers have become more commercially minded and entrepreneurial. Revolutionary new information technology networks have been built across the world and data is the new fuel that can drive business sectors globally. However, it can be argued that even the internet is still limited by the capability of the technologies and interfaces that are currently available, and although game-changing, enterprise cloud solutions and apps on devices should still be considered as IT rather than the new form of engineering.

However, 5G can change all that and become the true rebirth of engineering, and just as big as the previous generations knew it. 5G will bring the advent of true capacity rich solutions which can drive hyper connectivity on our personal devices, but much more importantly, the ability to connect machines with each other and the world around them. The development of connected vehicles can only happen with the advent of 5G, along with its partners in crime, the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence. Smart Cities, Smart Buildings and the Connected World will flourish with the capabilities of 5G – as long as the new generation embrace it for what it can do. In embracing it, they can become the new golden age of engineering which designs and builds the infrastructures of the future. This won’t entail the bricks and mortar structures of previous generations, as the new infrastructures will inhabit spaces above and beyond these and provide the enhancements and efficiencies that we so demand. Systems which are often invisible to the user, but that require the mindset to design and build the physical and theoretical layers of IT networks and Radio Frequency technology capabilities will demand the engineering brain to not only be reborn, but reinvented for the huge spectrum of possibilities in the 5G environment.

With AI, a new dawn of automation in the physical world will be powered by software platforms that live on remote computing devices. This machine learning capability and development will further swell the ever increasing demand for storage and server space, and can only be communicated in real time over ultra-high speed connected networks. High capacity fibre connections along with billions of IoT connections powered by wireless networks will be the new super-highways for ever-increasingly smart data. Consequently, improvements in efficiency and productivity, will be the catalyst for ever-faster, more reliable solutions that not only make our environment ‘smart’, but ‘smarter’. As our connected lives evolve, the need for developments, upgrades and newer applications will only grow faster.

To this end, I propose that this can only be achieved with the conjunction of multiple solutions – physical and theoretical. Therefore, ‘the new, new engineers’ will be those that fully realise the combination and development of IT and RF technologies that interface through 5G and the solutions which they represent in the advent on new technologies. Their mindset will be in the values and mechanisms of connectivity and how they can transform our lives for the better. Systems, as yet un-designed or even considered, will be delivered to bring benefits across society, in our working and personal lives, and truly enable the enhancement of our individual and collective activities.

My grandfather died before the first mobile phone was available in the UK so couldn’t have understood the potential impact of the technology’s capabilities. In fact, very few did, even in the progression from analogue phones to 2G and the advent of text messaging. The notion then that the future lay in accessing the internet on your connected device was still long off. Of course, there is no argument that the internet itself should be considered as the most significant game changer here, but it cannot work without the supporting technologies (fixed, wireless and application based) that drive it.

What is not in doubt, is that those from the previous golden age would applaud and cherish the fact that a new breed of engineers was on the horizon, and that their great grandchildren could not only solve many of the issues created by the designs of the past, but then drive them forward to handle and accommodate the demands and ambitions of the future generations.

– Mick Goulding