Arthur Mutambara: An Image of the 21st Century Engineer?

Who is Mutambara? What does he stand for, and why is it that a growing body of engineering academics are increasingly looking beyond his political activism to finding inspiration in his ideas? This is what I set out to explore in this article.

Mutambara: a brief biography

Over a relatively short period of fifty years, Arthur Mutambara has quickly risen from being an obscure orphan eking out an existence in a remote village in rural Eastern Zimbabwe to becoming an African household name who regularly hobnobs with the great and might of this world.

Mutambara is clearly an enigmatic character who is seemingly involved in a wide range of human activity, and who is achieving success after success in everything that he puts his hands and mind to. He is a noted academic who has achieved academic distinction and recognition in every institution that he has attended, including the august University of Oxford, where he was awarded a PhD in a little over two and a half years. Following Oxford, he embarked on an academic career that saw him achieving success as a noted researcher in the field of robotics, and as the author of two academic tomes aimed at undergraduate engineering students.

Not only that, Mutambara also achieved fame, or notoriety, depending on how you look at it, as a student and social activist. During his young life, he struck fear and awe in the hearts of academic administrators, and at the height of his fame, or notoriety, he sent shivers down the spines of Zimbabwean government ministers. At the turn of the century, he cut short a clearly successful career in the USA as an engineering academic, and rushed home to grapple with the political instability in Zimbabwe.  Alongside other activist opposition politicians, he successfully arm-twisted an unwilling and politically entrenched Robert Mugabe to share power with them for about four years. Now he has moved on, and is now a revered business person and thought leader with a global presence.

Mutambara’s vision of society and technology

In his own autobiography, entitled “In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream”, Mutambara describes himself as a person who is driven by a burning desire “to change the world by igniting citizen activism through ideas.” He also paints himself as a person who is committed to “pursuing the ambitious vision of the African dream, characterised by a peaceful, stable, integrated, democratic, technology-driven, industrial, and economically prosperous continent.”

Mutambara’s vision closely chimes in with the emerging vision of the kind of person who should be embarking on an engineering career. Previously, the emphasis of engineering schools was to recruit students who were competent in mathematics and the sciences. Similarly, the engineering curriculum focussed almost exclusively on engineering science and technology. Now the focus of engineering schools is on recruiting students who desire to use their knowledge of engineering to make a difference in the world. These students have an innovative and entrepreneurial flair, and they look to engineering as an intellectual and practical tool that one needs to change the world for the better. Even the approach to engineering education is changing – a greater amount of time is now being spent on applying engineering knowledge to resolving socio-economic issues. In most of the forward-thinking engineering schools, students are learning to apply engineering know-how to problem solving right from day one in university. For example, at UCL Engineering we have adopted the following motto “To change the world you need to be taught differently.”

The ideal student – according to Mutambara

Mutambara believes that students should simultaneously seek to attain academic excellence, and to engage in addressing social issues. In his world-view, academic excellence alone in today’s world is not enough. Similarly engaging in social activism whilst neglecting academic studies is clearly unacceptable. In his own student days, amongst other things, Mutambara successfully organised a graduate employment drive which brought together the university student body, the university, government, industry and business to address the critical problem of graduate unemployment that was then emerging. Thirty years later, this collaboration between students, universities, government and industry is now a common feature of progressive higher education.

Mutambara also believes that students should be authors of their own academic destiny. In addition to attending standard engineering courses, Mutambara took an active interest in other disciplines, notably business, sociology, philosophy and politics. Nowadays, forward-thinking schools of engineering are engaging students in curriculum development. For instance, at Olin College of Engineering, students were actively involved in the design of the college’s curriculum. Another recently inaugurated university, the New Model in Technology and Engineering, based in the UK, has adopted this approach. In my own school at UCL, we believe that it’s never too early for students to contribute to their own learning and to the development of the engineering school.

What it means to be an engineer in this century

There is a general perception that since the end of the Second World War, the main goal of engineering education has been to provide engineers for life-time steady jobs in industry. Technological developments, coupled with the pace at which technological innovations are taking place, has changed all that. National economies, business organisations, and individuals now need to be nimble and agile to survive. This means that innovation, creativity and social awareness are now critical engineering attributes.

Mutambara, as a committed “21st century Pan Africanist” strongly believes that Africa should strategically position itself for this brave new world by investing in technology. This includes investing in more effective technological education curricula, and putting in place technological policies and strategies that take into account the African situation. In short, Africa needs technologically aware individuals with the skills to adapt emerging technologies to African conditions. Run-of-the-mill engineering graduates destined for outdated factories are clearly not the answer. It’s the time for the 21st century engineer, one who is technologically nimble and yet sensitive to the existing socio-economic environment.

Mutambara’s future legacy: an educated guess

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Wright brothers achieved fame by being the first to successfully build and fly a fixed-wing, heavier-than-air aircraft. They were amongst a slew of aviators who developed and experimented with flying machines. However, their lasting legacy was more obscure, and much more important, namely the development and demonstration of the flight control mechanism which is still in use today. Likewise, Mutambara has achieved much, and given his boundless energy and intellectual ability, he is destined to achieve much more. However, it is much more likely that his lasting legacy will be his contribution to the transformation of engineering and technological education. This is what Africa and the whole world are crying out for, and the erstwhile student-activist-cum-politician is very well positioned to take the lead in this regard.

4 thoughts on “Arthur Mutambara: An Image of the 21st Century Engineer?

    • Thanks Themba. I do believe that Prof Mutambara has much to offer to aspiring engineers and techpreneurs, particularly in Southern Africa, a region which I feel is increasingly lagging behind the rest of the world technology-wise.

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