Women in Engineering: Shaping the World

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Dr. Lucienne Blessing

Women in Engineering photos © SpringerBook Editor, Author & (former) EiC

Co-director of the SUTD-MIT International Design Center (IDC) and Professor in the Engineering and Product Development Pillar at the Singapore University of Technology 

Tell us about your background:

After finishing my MSc in Industrial Design Engineering at the Technical University Delft in the Netherlands in 1984, I started work at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, as educational consultant tasked with the evaluation of courses and the introduction of computing into the curriculum. In parallel I taught a course on computing and after a few years started my PhD research, which I finished in 1994. 

In 1992 I joined the newly created Engineering Design Centre (EDC) at the Engineering Department of Cambridge University, UK, until 1994 as Research Associate and until 2000 as Senior Research Associate. From 1998 I was also Associate Director of the British Aerospace – Rolls-Royce University Technology Partnership (UTP) for Design. During this period, together with a colleague, we founded the consultancy Upton Blessing Associates. 

In 2000 I took over the Chair in Engineering Design and Methodology in the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the Technical University of Berlin (D), where I was Vice-president for Research and International Relations from 2002-2004. 
In 2007 I joined the then 3 year old University of Luxembourg (L) as Vice-president for Research (2007- 2013), Senior Advisor to the President (2013-2016) and Chair of Engineering Design and Methodology (2007 2016). In parallel, from 2013-2016 I was interim Director of the University of the Greater Region, an association of 6 universities in 4 countries. 

In 2016 I moved to Singapore University of Technology as Co-director of the SUTD-MIT International Design Center (IDC) and Professor in the Engineering and Product Development Pillar.

My research interests include: Empirical studies into design; Design methodologies, transdisciplinarity, and design theory; Design methods for early design phases; Product service systems; User interface design, user experience; Diversity (culture, age, gender) and context in design; and Design research methodology. Most research has been in close collaboration with industrial partners. 

I have been teaching since 1985: Machine Elements, Systematic Product Development, Design projects, Design Thinking (also for industry and other organisations), and Engineering Design Research (for Master and PhD students).
In 2013 I was honoured to receive a Peabody Visiting Professorship from MIT (US) and a honorary Doctorate from Mälardalen University (Sweden), and in 2016 a membership of acatech the German National Academy of Science and Engineering, as one of six foreign members. 

Since 1999 I have been co-organiser of the yearly International Summer School in Engineering Design Research, attended by PhD students from a variety of countries. I was one of the founders of the Design Society in 2000, a member of its Management Board until 2005, its Advisory Board from 2005-2016, and currently Chair of the Working Group Body of Knowledge. 

Thus far 25 PhD candidates successfully defended their PhD under my supervision and 5 under my co-supervision. I have been examiner of PhD theses in Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, and of Habilitation theses in Germany, Switerland and Austria. Publications include a book, two edited books, 25 book chapters, and over 160 peer-reviewed publications. I was Editor-in-Chief (Europe) of the journal Research in Engineering Design (Springer) from 1996-2009, and translated the book Engineering Design of G. Pahl and W. Beitz together with Ken Wallace.

Why did you become an engineer?
I never considered becoming an engineer, possibly because there were none in my family and it is not something introduced at schools. I looked into studying maths or chemistry, which seemed too narrow (little did I know). A friend suggested engineering because of my wide range of interests. Mechanical engineering seemed too narrowly technical, but the related, much broader Industrial Design Engineering curriculum fitted my interests much better. Technical at its core, yet considering the whole life cycle and the user, the relatively new curriculum was ahead of its time. The importance of human-centric design only caught industry-wide attention in recent years in the form of Design Thinking. 

I never regretted having had this human-centric engineering focus in my education To the contrary, as time went by I realized its importance in addressing not only individual needs, but also the grand challenges society is facing. Having always worked in mechanical engineering departments, I noticed that the human aspect (often considered “soft”) was largely neglected or confined to courses on product development. Through those courses I tried to introduce the importance of considering the human in the development of products, services and systems. 
Engineering and design provide a link between science and society, by transforming scientific knowledge from various disciplines, including their own, into solutions for needs and problems we face. Ironically, it is technology and its unintended, often unexpected consequences that have caused many of these problems. Any technological breakthrough will have an effect on society (if nothing changes, there was no purpose). Therefore, technological and societal innovation should be considered together.

What advice would you give to young women interested in engineering?
Engineering and engineering design allows you to be actively involved in creating a better world by finding solutions for the many challenges facing individuals, society and the environment. Engineering and design is not only about creating products, services or systems, but also about creating change, new ways of doing things and new experiences. This involves obtaining understanding of the context, the users and other stakeholders; investigating the latest in science and technology; creating solutions combining all your knowledge and experiences; reflecting on and evaluating these solutions for their immediate and future impacts, their viability, feasibility and sustainability using such methods as modelling, simulation, prototyping and experiments; preparing production, distribution, installation, and recycling.

Women have not been involved enough in this process. There is no reason, why women cannot become engineers or engineering designers and contribute to changing this world in a better one. Inventions by women include windscreen wipers, the first workable replacement for asbestos (Geobond), fluid paper (Tipp-Ex), a machine to make flat-bottomed paper bags, Kevlar, and many others. 

Companies gradually understand that the knowledge, experiences, perspectives and ideas women bring, strongly contribute to company success. Research shows that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to perform better, in particular if leadership is gender-balanced (McKinsey). A recent study found that women-led start-ups yield 35% higher returns than those led by men, and a company’s chance of success is increased by 144% when it taps into women to understand female consumers (Centre for Talent Innovation).

Being an engineer, you can change the world, using your knowledge, skills and passion. But remember: careers don’t just happen. You have to speak up, network, have a career plan and find a mentor. Most importantly: belief in yourself, embrace challenges, and follow your heart!

Discover Lucienne's Work: 

Read selected chapters & articles free through June! 

© Springer 

An Anthology of Theories and Models of Design (Springer, 2014). 

© Springer 

Taking a look at the utilisation of function models in interdisciplinary design: insights from ten engineering companies (Springer, 2017). 

© Springer 

DRM, a Design Research Methodology (Springer, 2009). 

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Women in Engineering

Read exclusive interviews with female engineers and enjoy free access to selected content until July 20.