Global Engineering Capability Review

Defining engineering:
From skill sets to mindsets

Perhaps you are reading these words on a screen. Or maybe you are holding a physical copy, looking at ink on paper. Either way, how did this report reach you?

The immediate steps might seem simple: a link in an email or an envelope pushed through your letterbox. But these actions are only small parts of much longer chains, such as your thumb communicating with an email application in a digital operating system, powered by a lithium-ion battery charged via the plug in your kitchen; or a postwoman driving over paved roads, in a van running on petrol distilled from crude oil extracted from the North Sea. At work in all of these processes is engineering.

The field of engineering is broad and evolving. In a diversity of areas, engineers develop solutions that support human well-being, drive economic innovation and enhance safety. Yet many countries struggle to understand the factors that can contribute to engineering strength, and to develop a pipeline of engineering talent that can match growing and diverse needs.

The term 'engineering' captures a wide and growing set of activities. What remains constant is the core function of the discipline: the use of scientific principles to investigate a problem, and to then develop, implement and manage the solution.

Traditionally, an engineer is someone who has completed a professional engineering degree that is grounded in theory in order to understand and apply these principles. Further study and workplace experience hone the problem-solving skills necessary to handle complex challenges. These take place in seven main sub-disciplines of engineering: agricultural, mining, civil, chemical, electrical, mechanical and the newer field of digital or software engineering. [1]

As digital technologies develop, so too does our understanding of the modern engineer. The digital economy is increasingly woven into all aspects of business, requiring massive amounts of energy and new infrastructure. These technological advances have led to a rethink of the skills and abilities that engineers need. Engineers remain central to industrial sectors such as manufacturing and mining, but they are now active in other sectors too, including professional services, the media and medicine. This reflects the strength of engineers to “make ‘things’ that work or make ‘things’ work better”. [2]

The evolving landscape of engineering presents a need for corresponding change in engineering capabilities. Engineering education and routes into the field can recognise this by focusing on the innate critical thinking and problem-solving skills all engineers share, regardless of identity or background. To support this, the Royal Academy of Engineering has identified six 'engineering habits of mind' that all successful engineers should be able to demonstrate.

Six engineering habits of mind


Systems thinking:

Seeing whole systems and parts (and how they connect), pattern sniffing, recognising interdependencies, synthesising


Problem finding:

Clarifying needs, checking existing solutions, investigating contexts, verifying



Moving from abstract to concrete, manipulating materials, mental rehearsal of physical space and of practical design solutions



Trying to make things better by experimenting, designing, sketching, guessing, conjecturing, thought experimenting, prototyping


Creative problem-solving:

Applying techniques from different traditions, generating ideas and solutions with others, generous but rigorous critiquing, seeing engineering as a 'team sport'



Testing, analysing, reflecting, rethinking