The engineering profession is entering a “golden era” and will contribute to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems, says incoming Engineers Australia National President and Board Chair Dr Nick Fleming FIEAust CPEng.
“Engineering is pivotal to a successful energy transition, to enabling the circular economy, to expanding the frontiers of space and to delivering products and services that genuinely enrich people’s lives,” Fleming told create ahead of his official start in January 2021.
“I think we are in the early stages of what is going to be a golden era of engineering. The scale and significance of these challenges cannot be understated. The energy transition alone is a mammoth task — I don’t think there’s a comparable challenge in size, scope, complexity and pace that Australia has ever faced, and engineering has a really big role to play in that.”
But if engineers are to make these great contributions, Fleming said, the profession “cannot afford to be shy, reactive or ambivalent”.
“Engineering is pervasive in society, perhaps so much so that it’s taken for granted — it doesn’t stand out when it’s everywhere,” he said.
“I firmly believe we can only elevate the attraction and status of the profession, and be called upon as trusted advisors, through actions, not words.”
Fleming follows outgoing Chair Chris Championn FIEAust CPEng, who was pivotal in finalising the Engineers Australia’s strategy for 2020-2023 and led a review of its learned societies.
Thanking Champion for his contribution, Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans Hon FIEAust CPEng said Fleming was well placed to lead the organisation on to the next stage in its development.
“Nick brings 25 years’ professional experience in the private and public sectors,” she said.
“He has worked across infrastructure, natural resources, water, mining, energy and defence in Australia and overseas. He has also contributed to industry as a director of the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia and is a non-executive director of South Gippsland Water.”
Solving wicked problems
While architecture, archaeology and anthropology all caught his eye as possible career choices, it was the job opportunities and the opportunity to produce practical and meaningful work that led Fleming to an honours degree in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Adelaide. He followed this with a doctorate in sustainable infrastructure systems.
Fleming started his own advisory firm, Innergise, in 2015, which works with organisations to conceive and deliver better programs and projects, and currently provides executive development in complex problem solving with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.
“Most of the work I’ve done has been at the interface of engineering, social, political and commercial interests involving a lot of stakeholder engagement,” he said.
“More than anything I love a wicked problem.”
But it is the five years he spent as Chief Sustainability Officer for SKM, now Jacobs, that Fleming said will most inform his new role.
“[The SKM experience] helped me realise that much is technically possible. The real challenge is to make progress humanly possible,” he said.
“It’s these same insights from the engineering, business leadership and behavioural change realms that I bring to Engineers Australia and my work generally.”
With this resume, it’s no surprise that Fleming is particularly passionate about sustainability and the “genuinely existential threat” of climate change, which he sees as an opportunity to do things differently — and better.
“As much as anything, the absence of a ‘can do’ attitude makes me angry,” he said.
“In change there is opportunity, but for years we have seen climate change as a risk and cost we want to deny. People — and our profession — should be better and smarter than that.
“Engineers can help to elevate the discussion to practical solutions that help people and enable the transition.”
The profession could also make a greater contribution to the prosperity of the nation, if given the opportunity.
“Engineering smarts could be used to grow our exports and contribution to global markets, but that takes a desire to connect more effectively with the needs of overseas markets and customers,” he said.
“Australian businesses and their leaders have been too comfortable, due to three decades of economic growth and relative job security in management ranks, so this opportunity hasn’t been realised.”
Looking to the next 12 months, Fleming said he will maintain Engineers Australia’s strategic direction while helping to accelerate its transformation. He also hopes to help develop the profession’s future leaders.
“I want Engineers Australia to be the place where younger people come to connect with like-minded people to collaborate in solving the world’s problems,” he said.
“If I can play some small role in fostering and unleashing the latent human potential in our profession, I will be satisfied.”
Fleming is also passionate about attracting a greater diversity of people into engineering.
“When I graduated in 1991, about 12% of the profession were women. Today it’s roughly the same,” he said.
“We have to do much better — doing more of the same and assuming a different result is insanity.”
And he is eager to elevate the public’s perception of what it is that engineers do.
“A lot of engineering is treated as a commodity — others determine what product or infrastructure asset they want, then get engineers to do the detailed work of design and delivery,” he said.
“The smart, strategic and innovative design of engineered assets to be things that people love and want to pay for is largely overlooked. That’s a big blindspot that’s costly to Australian business and society.”