Last weekend, I had the opportunity to visit Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology, abbreviated to GIKI or GIK Institute. I was curious to see the famous university where students learn how to shape our everyday world or just learn how to manage and run it, and become administrators of things the way they are or, indeed, just make a living in interesting and important fields of work.

While at GIKI, I was reflecting on the fact that it is only 200 years since the industrial revolutions began in Europe, making engineers and technicians the leaders of our everyday world. Before that, it was the theologians and philosophers, who had the lead role and the traders and landowners, the kings and feudal lords. And then, in the last 50 years or so, the consumer society has developed in the West and among the middle and upper classes all over the world. Yes, the light bulb is just a 100 years old, but with the lack of electricity production and distribution, and loadshedding, many people in the developing world live in the dark.

The consumer and service society will develop further and although engineers may have seen the peak of their power, I believe that they will still be important in shaping our everyday world.

That won’t be so bad if they can also work with those earlier leaders, I mentioned in my previous articles, and the new ones, notably the experts in social sciences and the humanities. Economists, capitalists and governments must all work in balanced and responsible ways. In other words, we need interdisciplinary thinkers, managers and practitioners. We need to tame and integrate the technological and engineering specialists

At other times, we need to help them so that they can find solutions for our everyday problems - solutions that philosophers, social scientists and politicians can only dream and talk about, but cannot make tangible. There is, indeed, a great future for ‘the new breed of thinking engineers’.

The GIKI graduates and other engineering candidates will be among the future’s premise deliverers and implementers. Let me introduce GIKI to you, the place and the people, albeit just briefly.

GIKI is situated in the hills of Topi, near Tarbela Dam in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in a large campus. Yes, it is an isolated enclave, comfortable and beautiful. It is a good place to study for the some 1,400 young men and women. The women are few, only occupying one out of 10 hostels. There are over 100 academic staff and 300-400 other staff members living in suitable houses and apartments. They have a mosque, a bank, shops, cafeterias, a sports complex, and so on - and no loadshedding of electricity!

I travelled from Islamabad to Topi in the company of two friends, a woman from America, married in Pakistan, who is an educationalist, and a Pakistani-Norwegian lawyer.

We went to GIKI to attend a seminar attached to the “Tech-Fest 13” exhibition and the annual meeting of the Society of Mechanical Engineers of Pakistan (SMEP). This year, it was skilfully organised by the GIKI Chapter. One would not expect less of the ‘MIT of Pakistan’, as they say, comparing GIKI to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in America. Although I don’t like such comparisons and rankings, and I am sure there are many other good or better schools and universities in the US. The same in Pakistan: there are other good schools in engineering, science and technology. So what it is that makes a good university?

Teachers and students from the academic community in a department of a university, work with the overall leadership and oversight and help from the dean and the vice chancellor or rector. Often, the quality depends on funding, on linkages with other universities at home and abroad, contact with private sector companies, and government departments. Top teachers, even with top students, cannot just click their fingers and make a good study and research community where people learn, think, analyse and invent.

They all need to work together as well as alone in pleasant and stimulating environments. They need to feel the passion and compassion and experience joyful craziness along with serious thinking. They need to be told that what they are doing is important. It does not have to be a big invention or study. Often, what we do as students is learning methods for analysing and asking questions. Sometimes we make important discoveries, but most of the time it is just solid work. It is like making and maintaining the bars in a wooden cartwheel. It isn’t always fun, but it is fun when the bars are all there, and when the new ones are better than the old ones.

It is hard work to be a good university teacher and carry out research. It is often lonely work, too, because knowledge is individual, yet, always helped by discussions with others whom we respect and who respect us. We all need to have good colleagues and friends. Young and vulnerable researchers do, in particular, need such environments. Well, on a second thought, we also need it even when we grow older.

It is hard work to be a good student, too; perhaps, more difficult than to be a good teacher because students are always worried about the future - yes, excited about it, yet, also uncertain and worried about it. Exams are one of the things students fear and most of them are counterproductive.

Students worry about their job prospects and scholarships. They worry about finding their way into the field they have chosen to specialise in and so on. In addition comes the worries about the individual and social aspects of life, which are usually more complicated in youthful years, when we have less life-experience; later in life, we just ‘get used to it all’.

If a university community, like GIKI, should endeavour to improve and renew its operations, I would suggest they double their student intake, mainly in (the cheap) social sciences, management and economics. GIKI could also increase interdisciplinary projects and programmes. Degree courses could be organised as themes or in subject-areas, such as water management and environment, energy management, disaster preparedness and rebuilding, future city planning, gender relations and development and agro-business. I am certain that graduates with such degrees will be highly sought after, especially by the public sector. And then, students who study such sectors will discover the new importance of engineering. They will realise that it is not just bricks and mortar, steel and plastic, gas and pipelines and so on. But that all they do is important to the way human beings live together.

Perhaps, it is only when the engineers, architects, telecommunication specialists and all the other modern-day technologists get to study in broader interdisciplinary ways that they will gain a true understanding of what they do? Perhaps, it is only when the engineers realise that they have to include specialists in social sciences and the humanities that they themselves will again become more important?

Engineers should try to become more democratic and relevant. They should debate new, different and better ways of shaping our everyday world. They should help make it more humane. Engineering can become a holistic field.

In order to understand this, the engineers need to have specialised skills and knowledge, and they need to be well informed about the ‘soft sciences’. It is high time that it happens; otherwise, we may get a crisis similar to that the economists, bankers and financiers took us into. They just ‘caught the ball and ran with it alone’.

The engineers must concentrate on helping us all build a more humane, rational and better world. It is students like the great boys and a few girls that I met at GIKI that can do this. They already know that it is important, but most engineering courses are stuck in old-type courses and they are living in isolated enclaves. Education and research are steps and tools for an end, notably to improve humankind’s future. Engineering is best when it can help shape not only our material everyday world, but takes the social aspects into consideration in a professional way.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.