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The end of the entrepreneur: Why engineers are the makers of the future

In the second article of a three-part series, Makersite CEO Neil D’Souza proposes a shift from “make it faster” to “make it better”, and outlines how engineers can lead the way.

Every hero needs a villain. It’s a narrative as old as time. And our story is no different.

In my previous article, I outlined our “take, make, waste” culture and the figureheads—our villains—who fuel it. I also spoke about how our future will be defined by collaboration, not individualism, where it’s still possible to be profitable, but success is not just measured by money or the value of shares.

We have irrevocably damaged our planet; however, there’s still time to reclaim our world and retool it for a better future. History has repeatedly shown us that by working together, we can achieve more than we ever could by working alone.

Lessons from the moon landing

July 1969 was a big month—as in “one giant leap” big. It was the month we went to the moon. Walter Cronkite described it as the “greatest adventure in which man has ever embarked.” It might have been more than half a century ago, but there’s still a lot we can learn from the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

While it exhibits the miracles of science and engineering and the drive and commitment of NASA, it also teaches us about teamwork, leadership and the importance of new ideas. About the importance of working together for a greater goal, of giving our engineers and innovators the support to succeed in their aims.

It takes a village. We’ve all heard that before. But in the case of the Apollo 11 landings, it was a very big village. Spanning government, private industry, astronauts and the American public—estimates have put the entire Apollo team at around 300,000 people. From planning to building to launch, millions of components were involved. Success was only possible because there was a collective realization and understanding that everyone involved had a duty to solve the problems and challenges they faced—and they knew they could only do that by working together.

Today—when it comes to fixing our planet and ending our culture of waste—the same thinking must apply.

Grand achievements aren’t built on the shoulders of a single person or by an unrelenting drive for profit. They’re built on encouragement of ingenuity and creativity, outstanding levels of commitment and an understanding that mistakes aren’t problems but lessons to learn from. After all, the great success of Apollo 11 was made possible in large part by the tragic failure of Apollo 1.

What engineers need today

So, how do we prevent our own “tragic failure” from happening? This is where our hero comes into the story. Research shows that approximately 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined during the design phase. Empowered with the right tools and best practices to make better products faster, engineers can provide the solutions needed to collaborate and take the actions that will make a difference. Products can be more sustainable, more efficient and more cost-effective while still making money and ensuring a profitable, healthy business. However, we must give engineers a foundation to work from first.

“Build it and they will come.” Shoeless Joe Jackson might have been talking about a baseball field rather than product engineers, but the message resonates here. If we present engineers with the data they need, they will use it – and use it well. No one wants to make a ‘bad’ product, but ‘good’ products can only be made with the the right decisions informed by the right data. That is what will make the difference. Not so much “build it and they will come”, but rather “give them what they need and let them build it.”

With data and a goal, the engineer can fly. But the benefits don’t stop there. The market is ready and waiting for a better approach. Some may argue that this is wishful thinking or is not worth the effort. However, a Bain & Company study found that while only 40% of businesses are on track to meet their sustainability goals, companies have an increasingly conscious and proactive base of consumers willing to pay 11% more for sustainable products and employees that will help.

A recent IBM report also noted that organizations that embed sustainability in their product design processes experience a 16% higher rate of revenue growth. They’re 52% more likely to outperform their peers on profitability. And they’re two times more likely to attribute great improvement in operating costs to sustainability efforts.

It’s not just blue-sky thinking for a greener future either. The most significant driver for companies to do anything has always been growing revenue. A 2022 report – the Sustainable Market Share Index – by NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business examined what actually happened in the last decade and found that the share of CPG products marketed as being sustainable grew twice as fast as conventional products and accounted for one-third of the total revenue growth in the industry. Customers paid 27% more for those products.

With a massive demographic shift bringing more environmentally conscious buyers into the market already well underway, the time never has been better to build better products.

Accordingly, there must be a stronger push for change. We are not there yet, but there are green shoots rising from the soil. Early adopters and innovators striving to make a difference. SchneiderSiemensEstée LauderIKEA. Companies like these understand what’s at stake. They might remain the early majority, but they show us we are not hopeless.

The old tools and processes were defined by siloed data systems and slow information exchange. Now, we find ourselves in a new era defined by real-time data that facilitates inter-departmental visibility and collaboration, in turn leading to more informed—and more sustainable—decision-making.

We are shifting from “make it faster” to “make it better”, where product design is led by an informed consideration of materials and the environmental footprint of our choices. Now, more than ever, the spotlight turns to the engineer who not only understands the intricacies of design and manufacturing but also the broader ecological and socioeconomic context.

As the American engineer and educator James Kip Finch is credited with saying: “The engineer has been, and is, a maker of history.” With the right support and technology, and in a world where the balance between money and purpose is equal, the future is theirs to define.

 

A version of this article appeared on Forbes.com. You can also read the first part in the series here.

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