Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) is one of the most preferred disciplines in studying engineering. Its popularity is growing, apparently facing no limit. There are two related global professional associations. They are the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE), and the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). These two associations combinedly have 500,000 members. What is the purpose of studying this discipline? They acquire knowledge by studying physics, chemistry, mathematics, description of electrical and computer technologies and machinery, and many more. They learn how to design and build machines having electrical, electronic, and computing components. It’s well understood that they should boost industrial development and manufacturing. But how do they contribute to creating economic outputs through this competence? Where is the core linkage of this discipline to economic value creation? How far is it fair to say that Electrical and Computer Engineering Fuels Innovation Economy?
Human Beings are after Economic Incentives
Economic incentives are at the core of human activities. In simple terms, they are all after money. Students are investing their time and money to study ECE for making money in their future careers. Often money-making opportunities will determine the type of jobs there are going to pick upon graduation. For what reasons employers will offer jobs to them? They would also like to make money by employing them. Therefore, it could be said that making money is at the core of ECE. But how does money grow in a society? As a matter of fact, money is a synonym of Wealth or economic output. Money transfers from consumers to producers or from employers to employees once certain purposes are met. What are the purposes ECE graduates can meet with their ECE competence to facilitate money transfer?
Some of the common means are (i) selecting, installing, and configuring ECE machinery, and (ii) Operating, maintaining, and repairing these machineries. Yes, these are meaningful purposes. But should we focus on leveraging ECE education for these purposes only? As a matter of fact, in developing countries, ECE graduates find employment mostly for these two purposes.
Evolution of Complexity of ECE Machinery
Once ECE machinery used to require significant knowledge to understand how they operate. The complexity of their manufacturing, installation, and operation used to demand high caliber ECE competence. For example, in the 1970s, installing an operating system or application software used to require very detailed knowledge about the design of the software and the hosting machine. There was a need for high-level ECE competence to use those machines. Although ECE machines, whether software or hardware, are getting increasingly sophisticated, the complexity of making, installing, operating, and repairing is being reduced. For that reason, a seven-year-old kid finds a high-end smartphone quite simple to operate. But this product is far more computationally complex than a supercomputer of the 1990s.
Similarly, the manufacturing of ECE machinery is getting simpler with the increasing role of robotics and automation. Due to increasing software intensity, the installation and repair tasks are also asking less and less ECE competence. For this reason, 3 to 6 months long certification programs are good enough to produce competent professionals. Moreover, the roles of ECE graduates in design optimization and documentation are falling due to the increasing role of software. Therefore, it’s fair to say that there was has been a decreasing demand for conventional roles of ECE graduates.
Does it mean that there has been a decreasing demand for ECE graduates to serve everyday purposes? The answer appears to be YES. Well, is there an emerging opportunity for deploying ECE competence in creating economic value.
Purpose of Buying Products
Human beings have the need to execute numerous tasks. Starting from quenching thrust to having asleep, the list of tasks is long. We buy or recruit products for deploying them to get these tasks executed. As Prof. Clayton Christenson has observed, “When we buy a product, we essentially ‘hire’ something to get a job done. If it does the job well, when we are confronted with the same job, we hire that same product again. And if the product does a crummy job, we ‘fire’ it and look around for something else we might hire to solve the problem.”
For this reason, we buy a toothbrush, microwave oven, or smartphone. The deployment of these products helps us to get our tasks executed better than without them. For example, a microwave oven helps warm food faster as well as better than conventional means. Their deployment in getting our tasks executed contributes to creating economic incentives, consequentially our quality of living standards goes up. For this reason, we demand increasingly better products at decreasing costs to get our jobs or tasks done better than before. For this reason, shoppers in the mall are in the hunt to find better products at a lower price. And consumers are not going to buy any product until and unless the perceived value of the product is more than the price. That means consumers are after the opportunity of making money by buying and consuming products.
Purpose of Producing Products
Well, consumers are after having better products at a lower cost. Ensuring the flow of successive better versions of products for getting our jobs done better at less cost is at the core of improving living standards. But how to make sure such a flow? To supply products, producers are also looking for growing profits. Moreover, they need to pay increasingly more to inputs like labor, natural resources, energy, and others. Such reality creates a conflicting agenda. This agenda demands increasingly better products at decreasing costs so that both consumers and producers keep getting economic incentives, stretching our conventional wisdom. Basically, we have to produce more value from economic activities than the cost of inputs. Ideas make up the difference. The idea of mixing inputs in producing economic outputs is the strategic tool for addressing the conflicting agenda.
Ideas and Objects
For making products better as well as cheaper, we need ideas. To generate more value from a dollar for both consumers and producers, we look for ideas, better ideas. Due to this vital role of ideas in producing economic outputs, Prof. Paul Romer has articulated the output of economic production as a function of ideas and objects. Objects are like conventional production factors like labor, natural resources, energy, land, building, and others. There is a limit of natural resources, as the fixed stock has been depleting. Labor has also a limit to contribute to economic outputs. The limit of precision, sensing, perception, and consistency determines how far labor can contribute to economic value creation. In contrary to the limitation of labor, ideas face virtually no limit. However, ideas do not face such limitations. Above all advancement of scientific knowledge is opening increasing opportunities for creating ideas.
For this reason, ideas are at the core of the capacity of producing increasing outputs from depleting resources to meet our growing consumption. Therefore, we should pay attention to creating and exploiting ideas for opening a sustained economic growth path.
Profit Making Competition from Ideas
Profit-making firms pursue ideas for offering better products at a lower cost. As a matter of fact, this is the strength of the free-Market Economy. In his famous book, Prof. Schumpeter placed entrepreneurs at the heart of capitalism. Competition of profit-making firms for offering products in getting our jobs done increasingly better at decreasing cost is the underlying premise of capitalism. And ideas are the fuel of meeting this challenge. Often such profit-making competition leads to the formation of the next wave of innovation, which unfolds by causing destruction to products, firms, and industries based on the previous wave. We call it Schumpeter’s creative destruction. Ideas powered by Schumpeter’s gale creates instability in the market economy, which fuels economic innovation and the business cycle.
Genesis of Ideas
From where do we get ideas. We know sources of natural resources. We also know sources of labor and energy. But where is the source of ideas? In ancient philosophical writings, there has been a reoccurring topic of human beings’ innate ability to produce ideas in Getting jobs done better. Carl Marx was intrigued by this observation in developing his economic theory– the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and the Theses on Feuerbach (1845). Marx uses the term “praxis” to refer to the free, universal, creative, and self-creative activity through which man creates and changes his historical world and himself. This is an activity unique to man, which distinguishes him from all other beings.
Ideas and Knowledge
In order to generate ideas, we need knowledge. Knowledge is the input to our creative process of producing ideas. We human beings gather knowledge through three primary means. Through experience, we gather tacit knowledge. Imagination and intuition lead to the formation of qualitative knowledge in the form of art. We perform controlled experimentation to establish quantitative relations between underlying variables to produce scientific knowledge. Tacit and art form of knowledge often leads to idea generation. But for finding effective, efficient, and scalable means of implementing such ideas, we need to transfer knowledge residing in tacit and art forms into scientific knowledge. This scientific knowledge has been at the core of the capacity of developing scalable means of creating increasing wealth from depleting resources.
By the way, scientific knowledge’s progression is an important input to the creative process of idea formation. For this reason, in addition to acquiring the existing body of knowledge, we should focus on R&D for advancing the existing stock. For example, the advancement of computer vision, image processing, and machine learning is vital for generating ideas for innovating autonomous cars. Simnailry, the advancement of battery chemistry is vital for maintaining the Flow of Ideas for making lithium-ion batteries increasingly better and also less costly. Moreover, in the absence of such continued advisement, the flow of ideas could be ensured to make great ideas like electric vehicles or autonomous cars succeed. As a matter of fact, many start-ups fail to succeed due to the poor flow of new knowledge. Therefore, we should pay serious attention to creating the flow of knowledge to feed the creative process.
Electrical and Computer Engineering Fuels Innovation Economy
Electrical and Computer Engineering is a rich body of Scientific Knowledge. But the existing body of knowledge is not sufficient to produce innovative ideas, as such opportunities have already been exploited. The advancement of this knowledge is often essential to produce ideas. These ideas are used to add new features to existing products, improve existing features, improve production processes, or innovate new products and processes. As a result, we succeed to offer increasingly better versions of existing products at less cost by leveraging ECE. And we also move forward to offer new products. By the way, not all products do have features based on ECE ideas.
But more or less, all products are being produced with the production processes having ECE knowledge-based ideas. As a result, ECE has taken a central place in our journey of addressing the conflicting agenda of offering better products at a lower cost. The question could be if Electrical and Computer Engineering Fuels Innovation Economy, why are we seeing growing unemployment of ECE graduates in developing countries, like Bangladesh? Moreover, why should we care about it?
Example of ECE Ideas for Creating Economic Outputs
Philips and Ericsson generating approximately $25 billion per year each are European economic powerhouses. Each of them has created 100,000 jobs; 5% of them are in R&D for generating ideas. How are they fuelling this revenue generation? The most powerful production input is patent–ideas for redesign and innovation. These patents are combining all other inputs to produce revenue. For example, Philips has over 79,000 patents to fuel its MedTech and Electronics business. With 54,000 patents, Ericsson is a dominant telecom equipment maker. In the absence of these patents, and the ability to continue adding additional ones every month, neither infrastructure, factories, logistics, nor other inputs are going to keep these two companies afloat in producing economic outputs, paying salaries to over 100,000 employees of each of them, dividend to their shareholders, and taxes to the Governments.
Challenges to profit from the potential: Electrical and Computer Engineering Fuels Innovation Economy
There appear to be four most important Challenges. This first challenge is to (i) know the existing body of knowledge of ECE. The next one is to acquire the capability of (ii) advancing ECE knowledge. Upon doing so, we should focus on the creative process of (iii) developing ideas based on ECE knowledge for redesigning existing products and processes for improving the quality and reducing the cost, and innovating new ones. In addition to them, the most important part is the fourth step. We need to succeed to (iv) trade those ideas in a globally competitive Market for generating profitable revenue. Such challenegs should be given due importance in balanced way to benefit from the opportunity: Electrical and Computer Engineering Fuels Innovation Economy.