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Occasion of this Speech:

JIE Engineers Award Dinner 2006


Tonight is a one of recognition and celebration where colleagues of the engineering profession honour some from among you. As an outsider to the profession, I am humbled to be asked to address this very august body on this occasion. Coming from a natural science background my understanding of engineering is that it is the application of scientific knowledge to make things work. However, in preparing for this address I decided to check some authoritative sources about what engineering was. I was relieved to find that my layman’s understanding was not too far out. Several sources state that engineers apply the principles of science and mathematics to develop economical solutions to technical problems. Their work provides the link between social needs and commercial applications. Indeed, currently, there are seventeen different areas of specialisation in engineering.

After dinner occasions by definition require at least one joke. So I went on the Web to search for some appropriate engineering jokes. Having looked on the league tables of such jokes and realising that almost every engineer would have visited these sites I decided against it. However, one by-product of that search was that I came upon the true meaning of some terminology that engineers use. For example,

  • Energy saving: achieved when the power is turned off.
  • Low maintenance: impossible to fix if broken.
  • Please note and initial: let’s spread responsibility for the foul-up.
  • Test results were extremely gratifying: at last, the stupid thing works
  • Extensive report being prepared on a fresh approach to the problem: we have just hired some university students.
  • A number of different approaches are being tried: we are still urinating in the wind.

No doubt understanding these terms will help me considerably in future dealings with engineers.

However, let me come back to the nature of engineering. Is this profession socially and culturally neutral? Yes, scientific and mathematical knowledge have a great degree of universality but what determines the practical application of this knowledge? What determines social needs and the commercial value of solutions? When these questions are answered the results reveal that engineering is just as every other field. Engineering is linked and connected to the societies in which engineers apply their knowledge and develop their solutions.

The question that I would like to address tonight if even in a very cursory way, is Engineering and the changing Jamaican and Caribbean society.


There are three sets of interacting factors that are driving societal change everywhere. These are:

  1. Demographic factors related to the growth of human populations. Planet earth is about the same size today as it was when no more than about 1,000,000 people lived in groups of 50 to 100 persons with little or no contact between them. In these ancient circumstances, the adaptive advantage resided with group living. Today in modern society, with approximately six billion people on earth, individual existence is possible.
  2. Ecological changes resulting from the fact that living space for human groups has shrunken considerably resulting in increasing urbanisation globally. Conflict resolution by groups putting physical distance between them is almost non-existent. Conflicts between groups require resolution with the groups remaining in place.
  3. Knowledge and technological development that has transformed all aspects of human existence.


Over the course of human history, these macro-factors have resulted in a change in the form and organisation of human groups. The changing forms can be identified as follows:

  • Relatively small isolated hunter/gathering nomadic extended families or lineages that were autonomous and self-sufficient in the conduct of all human affairs.
  • Larger settled lineages and clans living in subsistence farming communities made possible by the agricultural revolution driven by the technology of growing crops and domesticating animals. In these circumstances, the temple emerged not only as the first monumental structure and the first public space in social intercourse between lineages and clans but also the first site of economic exchange. Priest, potters, and metal workers are among the first non-agricultural workers.
  • Federated villages coming together to form ancient cities in which one clan owned the government and became the royal lineage. Warriors defending the city, priests presiding over the rituals of the city’s gods and kings providing governance, ruled these ancient walled cities through patriarchal succession.
  • Imperial city-states emerging through the establishment of empires which guaranteed their client cities and villages protection from invasion from other cities and marauding nomads, called barbarians.
  • The rise of religious empires, from an imperial city, which exercised their hegemony, in the name of religion, over cities, dukedoms, earldoms, fiefdoms, sheikdoms, chiefdoms and tribes all structured along ethnic and patriarchal lines. The code of conquest that was practiced allowed the conquered city or village autonomy over its internal affairs provided that they accepted the hegemony of their conquerors.
  • The rise of nation-states, over the last 400 years, which broke the yoke of religious empires and established themselves as sovereign entities ruled by constitutional law.
  • The current emergence of globalisation and regionalisation with the resulting comprise of national borders and sovereignty as goods, capital, services and people begin to move more freely.

In a nutshell these developments in human social formations have moved some people from being nomads to villagers to subjects, to believers, to nationals or citizens and, now with globalisation, to consumers. The important point to note is that these transformations have neither been linear or irreversible. One form of human social organisation has not completely replaced the others. Hence, there are still nomadic tribes, subsistent villages, clans and kingdoms scattered across the globe. Put another way some groups are frozen in the past either by virtue of imposed exclusion or the decision by the group to stay with their traditions or some combination of both.

Further, to every forward leap there is a corresponding backward reach. This results in the new forms of societal organisation conserving important aspects of the older forms so that there are nomadic citizens, consuming villagers and believing nationals. To put it in contemporary terms, when we hear or read of tribal groups or clans in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan we must also know that many are not living in mud huts but in well engineered buildings located on paved streets with the infrastructure of electricity and running water, even if war has made these temporarily inoperative. Likewise, when we read of religious leaders that currently command militias, note that such was a common feature of religious empires.

It is important to note that engineers whose profession it is to apply rational and empirical knowledge backed by sound mathematical algorithms, do so in societies whose structures are by no means either rational or logical. In many respect engineers practice their profession in many irrational social circumstances that are at loggerheads with the rational and logical foundations of their profession. This makes it virtually impossible for engineers to retreat within the safe confines of their profession and be mere spectators in the societies in which they operate. Indeed, engineers must be constructively engaged in their societies as engineers and as citizens, or believers, or consumers etc.

The point to note that nothing in the form human social organisation is inevitable or automatic or instinctive. All forms are the result of the choices made by the people who compose the various societies. Hence, while it is possible to learn from the past, the future is constructed by deliberate action based on the choices made by people in specific places and the particular time. Engineers like all other people and professions in society have a vital role to play in the construction of the future of their societies.


The main trends in societal transformation over time can be summarised as:

Voluntary non-kinship forms of association replacing blood-bonded kinship collectives as the bases of identity, social solidarity and cohesion. Hence it is churches, clubs, corporations, unions, schools and associations that have replaced lineages, tribes, clans and castes in many societies.

The individual replacing the kinship collective as the basic unit of social organisation. Hence in the church it is individual salvation, in elections it is the individual ballot, in school it is individual achievement and in society, it is individual material progress.

Rights of individuals replacing rights in persons.

Government by consent replacing government by descent.

Individual material progress replacing perpetuation of the line as the prime objective in life.

Impersonal or even anonymous relationships replacing intimacy as the main modality of social intercourse.

These trends are not only profound but they also carry the disruptive effects of change in general. Further, their effects are by no means positive for all people. Compounding the situation is the fact of the unequal distribution power, resources, and status in society and therefore inequity in the capacity of the different groups that compose society to take immediate advantage of the positive aspects of these changes.

The paradoxically these changes should lead to progress as society becomes more inclusive and just, however, their immediate impact appears to be quite the opposite in many instances. This is because those groups that have the capacity to gain immediate advantage take that advantage with little consideration of those not so strategically placed. In other words, while these transformations are quite universal, and therefore challenging to all, what happens in particular circumstances is the consequence of how the calculus of immediate advantage and disadvantage is applied by those able to manipulate that calculus.

Allow me to illustrate this point with a few practical examples. The fact that millions of people go to bed hungry each night has nothing to do with the knowledge to grow and distribute food in the world. Engineers have long solved that problem. Thousands of children die each day from preventable diseases for which medical scientists have developed vaccines.

To bring it closer to home, let me quote a few local examples. For the past three years, I have had reason to live between Jamaica and Barbados. I came across a comparative survey of wages and salaries in some Caribbean countries. In examining this survey I was struck by the fact that while ordinary workers in Barbados earns twice the wages of their Jamaican counterparts, Barbadian managers earned two thirds the salary of Jamaican managers. Recently I met a colleague teacher who took part in the recent round of salary negotiations. He complained that he came across information which showed that in the two year period that public sector employees were subject to a salary freeze some managers in the private sector gave themselves more than a fifty percent increase in salaries. Inequity in income in society is one of the sources of not only tension but the resentment that threatens social cohesiveness.

Three years ago I visited Malawi. I saw poverty as I have never seen it before. I came home firmly of the view that our greatest problem is not poverty but rather alienation and hopefulness, especially among our young people from disadvantaged urban communities. When you have all the education qualifications but are denied the job on the basis of where you live, or who you know and not what you know the result is a disconnection between legitimate means of social mobility and the tacit acceptance of illegitimate alternatives.

When one looks through the course of the history of human civilisation one of the lessons that is there to be learned is that societies that have been able to remain socially viable despite diversity, difficulties and adverse circumstances are those that are characterised by four main civilizing features:

  • Some sense of the common good of all which constrains those holding advantage from only looking after their own and which restrains the disadvantaged from ‘mashing up things’ when times are rough.
  • Some accepted moral code which sets the parameters for behaviour by establishing value and worth, defining right and wrong and specifying just relationships.
  • Some commitment to protect the weak whether they are children, the aged, the disabled, the sick or the poor.
  • Some respect for human life as a precious gift to be preserved and used in the stewardship of the giver.

Societies that do not adhere to these civilising features invariably descends into barbarism, break-up, and demise. At the same time, these civilising features are by no means automatic. They do not arise naturally. In every generation, era and society they must be reaffirmed, cultivated, nurtured and fostered by positive effort, exertion, and energy. Indeed, there conform to the law of entropy. Left on their won things tend to run down.

To apply what I am saying to Jamaica Institution of Engineers, it is in not good enough simply to seek the benefit of engineers and your clients. If you are to play a constructive role in the advancement of Jamaican and Caribbean society then you have to operate with a sense of the common good of all, with an accepted moral code, with a commitment to protect the weak and vulnerable and with respect for human life.


The question that arises in whether at this junction the Jamaican Institution of Engineers along with all other professions and people in Jamaica can seek only to build Jamaica. I think not. Let me illustrate.

The alienation and hopelessness of large numbers of Caribbean youth, particularly young men, have resulted in counter cultures characterised by crime, death and uncivilised conduct. This is so whether one looks at the economically better off countries of the Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago or the countries with weaker economies such as Jamaica and Guyana. Despite the huge differences in per capita income between these four the problems with crime and violence among young people are the same. The moral dilemma is the same.

The generation within the Caribbean that benefited from the greatest explosion of opportunities for upward social mobility in the history of the region has presided over the closure of opportunities to their children and grandchildren complete with a lament which bemoans the inferiority and waywardness of young people. Further, labour markets within the region are marked by the legacies of the colonial and plantation past whereby males are rewarded for low levels of education and females are punished for the same. This further fuels the underachievement of males of socially disadvantaged groups. The deep-rooted origins of these issues are of such that they are reinforced and ingrained in socialisation patterns, the investment of poor parents in their children, the investment of many teachers in their students and the self-fulfilling prophecies of many students about themselves.

Jamaica and the thirteen politically independent countries of the Caribbean, that are not part of Latin America, are located in a unique position in the globalising and regionalising world. Political independence freed them from colonial domination but severed their protection by powerful countries of the world. As such these countries are caught in the intersection of the exercise of power in the world.

Powerful countries will on various issues required these fourteen countries to make choices that are related to their contests and conflicts. These choices will almost certainly trigger retaliatory consequences from the powers that have been offended by the choices made. If we are to learn from the history of civilisation all small vulnerable kingdom, cities, states, countries, and peoples located between large powerful kingdoms, cities, states and countries have invariably been battered and beaten up based on so-called wrong choices that only hindsight makes clear.

One of the most important realisations that every country in the Caribbean must come to is that just as superpower contests and conflicts of the past divided the Caribbean to the advantage of the superpowers and to the great disadvantage of the region, present and future superpower conflicts will continue in this historic pattern. The fact that each Caribbean country still has strong bilateral ties to past and present superpowers that often are stronger than our ties with each other is not just a consequence of our geography, but more profoundly of our history and present circumstances. If the Caribbean is to have a future that is different from the past then Caribbean unity and integration are indispensable.

The fact that the Caribbean has recognition in the world has nothing to do with the sizes of our countries or population, or our military might or economic clout. The fact is that the Caribbean has visibility in the world that is far beyond its political, economic or military importance. Rather, it has to with the world-class talent and abilities of our people demonstrated in widely different arenas of human engagement. Our future survival needs to build on this foundation by fostering Caribbean identity, developing the intellect, inventiveness and imagination of our people, through the integrity of our relationships with each other, by cultivating an indomitable spirit that refuses to be crushed by adversity and setback, and by taking full advantage of the opportunities now being offered through information and communication technologies. These represent the power of the weak that we must employ in facing the political power and economic might of those who will use the same to our disadvantage.

The rationale for The UWI, CXC, West Indies Cricket Team, CSME and the Caribbean Court of Justice resides in the logic that adaptive advantage resides in unity among these small vulnerable countries in the Caribbean. Unity has a higher survival coefficient than bilateral exposure to the economic shocks and political threats that are almost certain to come to each of these countries from the countries holding power in the world. However, this unity will only increase the chances of survival it will not eliminate the shocks and threats.

It is must be repeated that the reason that the Caribbean is divided into Dutch-speaking, English-speaking, French-speaking and Spanish speaking countries has nothing to do with the Caribbean. These divisions are the legacy of past super-power conflicts and contests played out in Caribbean waters and on Caribbean shores. If the Caribbean is to have a future different from its past, as the present and coming super-power conflicts and contest are played out in the region, then the countries so exposed need to unite and integrate in order to have a fighting chance to determine the future in their own terms.

There is a least one thing of which the fourteen politically independent countries of the Caribbean that are not part of Latin America can be sure of for the future. They are going to be beaten, battered and severely bruised by being caught in the middle of power contests and conflicts within the Western Hemisphere and in within the wider world. The economic, social, political and cultural consequences of the decimation that will result be much greater if they are divided. However, difficult is maybe Caribbean unity increases the chances and will mitigate some of the negative consequences that will come from power conflicts within the Hemisphere and the world.


Just as there are political threats and economic shocks that await the region in the future there are also great opportunities and possibilities that must be grasped. The Caribbean has great potential for the future in at least three areas:

Given the region’s history of political stability and the progress made in people of different religions, racial backgrounds and ethnic groups in learning to live together, the Caribbean has the possibility, if it is able to contain and reduce crime, to become and to be known and accepted in the global community as a zone of peace and stability. The strategic importance of such a niche in the political economy of the world is enormous. Just as Singapore made itself a zone of peace and stability within the instability of South East Asia during the 1970s and 1980s, the Caribbean can do the same in the first decades of the twenty-first century.

Given the demonstrated capacity of Caribbean people to create works with of international appeal and therefore of great value, the recognized talent to bring originality to many fields and given the increasing value placed on intellectual property, the Caribbean should be able compete in these areas much better than it did with respect to mass production and the extraction of raw materials.

There is increasing demand in the world economy for teachers, nurses, doctors, entertainers, engineers, ICT specialists and related areas. At the same time, these are areas in which the Caribbean has a long history of producing persons with these skills. The Caribbean, therefore, has the potential to meet a significant part of the world demand for such persons.


While tonight the JIE honours outstanding members in the very conducive ambiance of this hotel where sartorial elegance of men and feminine beauty complement each other, I wish to challenge the Institution to continue and intensify its constructive engagement with Jamaican and Caribbean society not only with the practice of your profession but also with extraordinary challenge of societal transformation. In this regard, there is no greater challenge than engagements with our young people that express and demonstrate in practical and tangible terms a sense of the common good, a moral code, commitment to protecting the weak and respect for human life.

Equally important is for the JIE to become meaningfully engaged in the very challenging undertaking of building a Caribbean community which not only stems from a common history but also by an imposed common destiny. While these twin challenges have not been traditionally within the ambit of the work of engineers, by responding to them with your unique skills and particular perspectives who may, in fact, create yet another speciality within your profession.

God bless you.

Errol Miller

November 18, 2006

Professor Errol Miller has had a rather unique professional and public service career which has given him almost a three hundred and sixty-degree exposure within the education enterprise. He has been a high school science teacher; university lecturer in science education; college principal; university professor, chancellor of a university college, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education; independent senator in the Parliament of Jamaica; a president of the teachers’ association; a chairman of the board of the state broadcasting corporation; chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica; a researcher; an author; an international consultant; chairman or member of several school and college boards.
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