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25 March 2010

The School of Engineering Distinguished Speaker Seminar
Entrepreneurship Forum - The Competitive Edge of Engineers in the Business World
Red Ocean to Blue Ocean: Transforming Today's Businesses
President's Speech

Dr Tan, Dr Lau, Prof Letaief, colleagues, students, ladies and gentlemen:

If you look up "engineering" in the dictionary, it says it is "the activity of applying scientific knowledge to the design, building and control of machines, roads, bridges, electrical equipment etc." That is the definition we grew up with, and to most people, that is still the primary meaning of engineering.

But now, "engineering" has become an umbrella term, encompassing some 18 disciplines or sub-disciplines, from the traditional big four of mechanical, industrial, civil and electrical engineering to new arrivals such as genetic engineering, and even financial engineering. That is just a reflection of how fast our world is changing. I will like to add my own definition of "engineer" as someone who "makes things happen", who create something where none exists before. Being an entrepreneur will fit into this definition.

The engineering profession is in a state of flux. The practice of this profession has its own challenges in Hong Kong. Here and there I have heard stories of graduating engineers unable to find work as engineers, and ended up as insurance agents. Lacking an industrial base, finding employment that brings personal fulfillment is quite a challenge. But if Hong Kong is anything, it is a world-class business city. Business opportunities abound, here, as well as north of the border.

Besides, if you were to boil down "engineering" to its core skills common to all branches of engineering, you might say that it is the use of "scientific concepts and resources for the solving of our problems and the meeting of our needs in life." I understand that historically, engineering grew out of our need to improve the quality and efficiency of life. As engineers, you may be called upon to solve our environmental problems, energy supply problems, clean air and clean water problems and even disease-fighting challenges. These problems translate into business opportunities, if you stay alert. In a world that is changing so fast, our engineering graduates need generic skills that will stand the test of time, such as language skills, leadership skills, creative thinking skills, management and entrepreneurial skills. It all comes under the rubric of "problem-solving" and "meeting needs".

They say that there are two objectives in education: education for living, and education for making a living. Being an engineer should be more than just about making a living. Ideally, an education should be both deep and broad---"deep" in the technical knowledge of one's discipline, and "broad" in one's ability to get the big picture of a situation. Being "broad" gives you the ability to adapt.

In any case, when you reach the top of the ladder in the engineering world, inevitably you will be dealing with business decisions. Modern engineering is no longer just a technical degree. Modern engineers should be cross-trained for multi-tasking, and that includes business-building, management and entrepreneurship. And if you should become a business founder, as Dr Lau here is, then the need for generic skills are even more urgent.

At its broadest, then, engineering is all about problem-solving and seeking new frontiers. This seminar on giving engineers a competitive edge in the business world stretches the engineering education even further. I am therefore very pleased to see just creative our dean and professors in the school are in designing an engineering program that broadens the educational experience of our students, giving them inter-disciplinary, and problem-solving abilities, and a whole set of skills and learning experiences that go beyond the technical. Paradoxically, the modern economy values specialization and generic skills such as leadership and management at the same time.

If you tell me 20 years ago that an engineering education includes training in preparing a business plan, or knowledge of finance, law and accounting, I would laugh at you. But today, engineering is not what it used to be. That is why I hear just how popular your "entrepreneurship option" has become, attracting more and better students to the engineering profession. I am proud and I am convinced of the innovative approach that our school of engineering is adopting, and the leadership it is showing in creating something that wasn't there before.

Interestingly, in America, its political leaders are mostly lawyers. In China, they are mostly engineers, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. So, if you want to lead China, your chances are much better if you are an engineer. Lawyers just don't make the cut. At least not yet.

In the old days, people entered one job and stayed there for the rest of their lives. Those days are gone. A well-educated engineer must now be versatile and occupationally flexible, creative and resourceful. The ability to adapt is not just about survival. It is about self-fulfillment in a world that doesn't stop changing.

An all-rounded engineer requires not only technical knowledge. He also requires a larger vision so that he can see the social impact of what he does. In Hong Kong's case, for example, it is not enough that civil engineers know how to build skyscrapers. They must also know the social consequences of urban renewal and the preservation of our cultural heritage. Engineers who can see this side of things have an edge over those who are "merely technical"

I always admire engineers. They are the ones that shape our world and build something that last over time. They are the ones who leave symbols of human civilization. They are often the ones to find the solutions to our fundamental problems of existence. Those who can shape our world should be able to become competitive in the business world. While technical knowledge may become outdated in this fast-changing world, generic skills in decision-making and leadership have no sell-by date. It would be a contradiction in terms if we only educate engineers technically. Actually, that will only be a training, not an education. A changing society has constantly changing needs and challenges. Its needs a broad-based education, not a narrow training. If you take care of this, you will help take care of our mission, to help turn Hong Kong into a hi-tech society that cherishes its entrepreneurial tradition. Remember, you are a human being and a leader first, and an engineer second. When you lead, our society will follow.

Thank you.


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