Separated by a common language?

It's one of those issues that seem to have come up again and again recently. People using the same word to mean different things. The meaning each of us imbeds in a word is a product of our education and experience. At the #ScienceMeetsDesign event the other evening, we had several attempts at defining some important words in our own way. That left me thinking about what the actual definitions are. So I looked them up:-

sci·ence [sahy-uh ns] noun 1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws. 2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation. 3. any of the branches of natural or physical science. 4. systematized knowledge in general. 5. knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

en·gi·neer·ing [en-juh-neer-ing] noun 1. the art or science of making practical application of the knowledge of pure sciences, as physics or chemistry, as in the construction of engines, bridges, buildings, mines, ships, and chemical plants. 2. the action, work, or profession of an engineer. 3. skillful or artful contrivance; maneuvering.

de·sign [dih-zahyn] noun 1. an outline, sketch, or plan, as of the form and structure of a work of art, an edifice, or a machine to be executed or constructed. 2. organization or structure of formal elements in a work of art; composition. 3. the combination of details or features of a picture, building, etc.; the pattern or motif of artistic work: the design on a bracelet. 4. the art of designing: a school of design. 5. a plan or project: a design for a new process.

tech·nol·o·gy [tek-nol-uh-jee] noun 1. the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science, and pure science. 2. the terminology of an art, science, etc.; technical nomenclature. 3. a scientific or industrial process, invention, method, or the like. 4. the sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilization.

No-one defined “technology” but I added it to the list because it seems to me to be relevant (and it’s in the name of the organisation I work for!). The clearest difference was articulated by Chris Wise, who pointed out that science is about observing and seeking to understand the world and bringing that understanding into our heads – engineering and design (and by my extension, technology) is about taking what is inside our heads and imposing it on the world.

There is a lot of debate at the moment about the roles the subjects covered by these words contribute to economic growth. Successive governments have struggled to invest taxpayers money in the right places to maximise growth and balancing it with the quality of life.

It is my belief that the bedrock of it all is science (by the definition above). We need to understand how the physical world works – how to improve materials, how diseases affect us (and how to reverse that effect), the complexities of biological ecosystems and many, many more questions constantly test our powers of observation and analysis – but it is what we do with the understanding we get from science that causes growth. Without understanding, there is nothing to work from. Engineering is undoubtedly a part of the means by which we turn science into commerce, but it is not the whole thing. Despite being strong in design (and despite the many definitions of the word we use!) we often fail to harness that strength into successful products and services. Technology mostly gets bundled up with science, but my experience is that it is a different approach and requires a different set of skills. I am seeing increasing evidence that – instead of applying all the disciplines in a coordinated manner to the task of developing new products and services – we are in danger of arguing amongst ourselves who is the most important!

The discussion the other night made it clear to me is that we confuse ourselves as to the necessary skills by being unclear in our definitions of activities. Without recognising the difference between the accumulation of knowledge and its use we feed the stereotype of the inventive country that never benefits from its invention. Maybe the scientists, engineers and designers (and the technologists) need to listen to the language scholars?

(and don't even get me started on the definitions of “innovation” and “entrepreneur”!!)

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