Ontological conundrum: What am I?

Over the last 10 years, in collaboration with colleagues I have been working and coaching on a number of transdisciplinary projects. When collaborating, most people have a fairly clear idea of what others expect of them and what to expect of others, since identities and roles in a project are based predominantly on specialist knowledge and skills.

To develop relationships and establish expectations, when working across disciplinary boundaries it is usual to be asked: “What [discipline] are you [a specialist in]?”. Usually, I reply engineer when asked. But it depends…

Student: “Are you an architect?”

Me: “Why do you ask?”

Student: “You must be. I imagine you work with someone like Rem Koolhaas.”

Me: “I’m an engineer.”

Student: a look of disappointment.

From a conversation with an Italian student of architecture.

Perhaps the student hoped to have been taught by a colleague of Koolhaas, or she imagined an another architect might be been flattered by the association with the Harvard Professor of Architecture.

Or, perhaps architects find engineers disappointing.

This was my immediate inference, possibly reflecting the relative status of architecture and engineering as generally perceived in UK. But it seems unlikely; while in English the word engineer derives from engine, in Italian and many other European languages it derives from ingenious.

Does Dilbert translate into Italian?

My first area of research was to investigate the behaviour of magnetic materials used for storing information. This involved developing and using experimental techniques, instrumentation and computational models to study the effects of interactions between assemblies of magnetic particles.

So what specialist knowledge or skills, do I bring to a collaboration on the social and built environment, say? What might help others frame and evaluate my contribution, and understand my perspective?

Fortunately, it turns out that models of interacting magnetic particles can help understand social, and other complex adaptive systems (CAS). How? I ought to write this up properly, but Lewin’s Force Field Analysis for example, used in change management, and the notion of social activation give a sense of direction. I should clarify: they help me understand social, and other CAS.

CCTV Building, Beijing. Koolhaas (2012).

I have studied, trained and worked on projects in Business, in Arts, in Science and in Engineering. Which of these informs what I am depends on what I’m working on and with whom I am working.

Fuck context“? No, I’m neither a colleague of Rem Koolhaas nor am I an architect, though I should ‘fess up… I was flattered. Engineers are human too.

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