Episode 2 of Talking Engineering: An Interview with Lord Browne, June 2020

After graduating with a First Class degree in Physics from St John’s College, Cambridge, Lord Browne joined BP and worked his way to the top of the company, in 1995 becoming one of the youngest CEOs of a major British company. When he took over, the group was valued at £24.6bn and when he retired in 2007, it was worth more than £108bn.

He has authored numerous books, the most recent of which, ‘Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilisation’, was published in 2019. This eye-opening read was described by John Hennessey, chairman of Alphabet Inc., as an ‘ode to the ways in which engineering has improved human civilisation’.

Lord Browne is equally admired outside the world of business and engineering. An avid collector with interests ranging from pre-Columbian statuary to contemporary German photography, he has previously been trustee of the British Museum and chairman of the Tate.

Notable events in his career include being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, receiving the FIRST Responsible Capitalism Award in 2000, and being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Since leaving BP in 2007, he has taken up senior positions in a number of different organisations, including L1 Energy, the Crick Institute and Huawei UK.

JH: Lord Browne, how did you get into Engineering after graduating from Cambridge and what took you to BP?

LB: I graduated in Physics in the late 60s, and at that time I had planned on staying at Cambridge and doing research, possibly for my whole life. My dear late father, an army man who then worked in the oil business, said he thought it would be a good idea if I tried working instead. I pointed out that doing research was indeed work, but to this he said, “No, no, a real job I mean. How do you know you wouldn’t like it if you didn’t try it?”

I thought that that was a good point, and so I decided I would try the oil industry. I had previously spent a lot of time in southern Iran with my father, experiencing this industry, so I found it quite ‘romantic’ at the time. I applied to BP for a job, saying that I would like to stay for a year and, if possible, go to America. At the time, I thought America meant somewhere like New York or San Francisco, so I think you can imagine that when I got my posting papers (in those days, they were quite abrupt and army-like), I was slightly shocked to read the words: “Dear Browne, Your posting to Anchorage, Alaska is confirmed.”

Nonetheless, in November of that same year (1969), I was on a plane heading to Anchorage, where I didn’t see the sun for about six months. During that time, I very quickly realised that while I had been trained very well and I’d had a tremendous fascination with Computing Science (which was in its infancy) alongside my interest in Physics, it was necessary for me to become an Engineer if I wanted to continue with this line of work. So, I started studying Engineering at night school in Anchorage, which was quite an eye-opener compared to doing Natural Sciences tripos at Cambridge. After some time, I managed to get to the point when I was a registered state engineer.

I actually ended up spending a couple of years in Alaska because I loved it. One sabbatical year from Cambridge led to another sabbatical year, and eventually my professor, Edward Bullard, said, “I think it’s time you just did what you really enjoyed.” So, that’s how my career with BP started. And eventually I did get to New York!

JH: It’s a real eye-opener to hear about the beginnings of your career because what a career it has been. In 1995 you became the youngest ever chief executive of BP. What are some of the lessons you learnt in the early stages of your career that enabled you to achieve this?

LB: I learnt several things. First of all, I think it’s very important to have real depth in one or two things in life. You really need to stand very firmly or very deeply in an area. So, for example, I became a petroleum engineer, and one that knew how to use computers at a time when nobody else did. I created new things. I learnt that for me, the most exciting thing was to try to solve problems that nobody else had solved before in engineering.

I also learnt very quickly that one of the big things in business life was to remember what other people did for the results of your labour. You needed to understand what people were doing either side of you, whether they were geologists or whether they were business people trying to sell oil. I realised that the best way to do business is not to be an expert in everything, but to appreciate what others do, and bring them along with you.

The third thing I learnt was just how important it is to have partnerships – not just with people, but with companies and with suppliers. You always had to remember to include everybody into what you were doing. It’s always worth remembering that people come and go in your life, and so do suppliers and companies. But they never completely go. You are bound to come across them again at some point in the future, and for this reason, it’s important always to have a relationship of respect.  

So, I learnt a lot just by being there in the States. All in all, it’s very important in the early stages of a career to have some time to reflect on what you’re doing and to observe what peers and the outside world are doing. Most importantly, think about what it all means to you rather than just ploughing ahead doing one thing.        

JH: Certainly. Now I’d like to move on to the general themes of Engineering and Innovation, in particular your most recent book, ‘Make, Think, Imagine – Engineering the Future of Civilisation’. What motivated you to write this book?

LB: I have spent a lot of time in my life not just doing business and engineering, but also supporting the arts and humanities. I’ve been Chairman of the Tate Gallery and of the British Museum, amongst many other organisations. So, I’m in a milieu where people talk about the humanities and the arts and often equate the progress of civilisation with the enlightenment of people through these exact things.

I was always slightly worried about this belief, because it can tend to skip over the importance of engineering throughout history. From one of the earliest inventions, the stone axe (which allowed early humans to cut meat and process carcasses), engineering and innovation have been at the forefront of the advance of civilisation. The stirrup, for example, was a way of using horses in a fast in mobile way. Automobiles further improved on transport technology and were one of the first steps in creating the interconnected world we live in today.

Nowadays, when we talk about Engineering and Innovation, space telescopes and reusable rocket boosters come to mind, but essentially it all boils down to the same thing: engineering pushing back the limits of what is possible and helping civilisation to advance. So I suppose that I felt motivated to write the book because I wanted people to understand that civilisation is based on engineering. In addition, I wanted to send out the message that people should never be scared of technological advance.

Once I had decided to write the book, I realised that in my life, I had met people who had done extraordinary things in so many different fields. So I rang them all up (I believe there were approximately 120 of them, each of whom was enormously distinguished in their field) and I asked to interview them. I learnt a huge amount from these interviews, and this allowed me to put together a story of civilisation.

JH: To follow on from that, do you believe the role of Engineering has generally been undervalued throughout history?

LB: I think it always varied. It depended on whether engineering threatened you or helped your life. It is clear, for example, that coal and steam engines helped people enormously, but equally it was very scary to people who were concerned that machines would take their jobs and livelihoods. However, it is worth noting that these new technologies opened up entire fields of work that provided more jobs than what they took away in the first place. As time goes on, certain areas of work become automated and new areas of work open up. People will always find it hard to accept this change at first, but they will realise later on how it has benefited their lives.

If anything, Covid-19 is showing us that there are some things that will change permanently. Our reliance on face-to-face meetings may disappear as we become more accustomed to video calling. We may also begin to accept that there is a need to track certain people (in this case, people with Covid-19) for the general safety of the public.

JH: We have talked about one issue facing humanity at the moment. I’d like to now move on to talk about another, arguably greater issue: energy and the environment. How urgent is the need for change?

LB: Everyone wants more energy and energy is used to complete every task we perform. Indeed, 6 and a half billion YouTube views of ‘Despacito’ consumed as much energy as 50,000 US homes do in a year. There will always be demand for energy, and so it’s of extreme importance that we produce clean and good energy.

What humanity is currently doing though is messing with the climate with all the greenhouse gases and pollutants we produce. We should not be experimenting with nature on a grand scale because we don’t know what will happen when it comes back at us – nature is far more powerful than any prime minister! So I believe that it is indeed urgent that we recognise the need for change.

JH: And how easy will it be for large corporations to implement change, either by investing more in renewables, by improving current technologies such as fission, or by innovating new technologies such as fusion?

LB: Change is difficult and the reason for this is that there’s an awful lot of money and livelihoods invested in existing infrastructure. Think of it like a legacy. People want to exploit the legacy before they go and do something for the future, otherwise they feel threatened that the legacy will not be used and they will lose their livelihoods. They require help to go from A to B. There are plenty of factors that can help. One is demand: currently, there is great demand for companies to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that they produce, and so companies feel more inclined to embrace new methods of producing energy. The second factor that can certainly help is regulation. Laws set out by politicians can nudge corporations into accepting the need for change.

All the technologies to create a net zero energy system are available. It’s just that some of them are primitive – they haven’t been used enough. The more you do about something, the cheaper it becomes. This is called the experience curve and it can be seen in technologies such as solar cells, the price of which has dropped by 250 times over the last 30 years.

We also have tools to absorb carbon dioxide as you produce it (very few people are doing this at the moment, but it will expand as time goes on). In the future, hydrogen will be on the agenda as a clean fuel. We’ll be able to use surplus electricity from renewables, or from hydro-power, to electrolyse water and produce hydrogen at pressure. Existing nuclear fission reactors could potentially become cheaper if they get smaller and modular. With regard to fusion, I would expect that by the end of the century, we’ll have a commercial fusion reactor (though this will certainly take time to develop)!

JH: What does the future hold for oil and gas?

LB: Oil and gas will never just disappear. They will be used, but they have to be used in a very specialised way. Oil will probably be used for some aviation, and for lubricating oils. Natural gas will be used to generate electricity, but only under certain circumstances. It after all is an easier way of storing potential energy than batteries. Natural gas will likely be the thing we will use to fill the holes when we can’t meet demand: we can simply store it where it exists and use it when we need it. This is in contrast to storing energy in batteries, which is very expensive and very difficult.

JH: I’d like to continue to talk about the future. You are a great optimist, as clearly suggested by the views you express in your book. How hopeful are you that Engineering and Innovation will be able to overcome the challenges that humanity is facing?

LB: Well, yes, I am a great optimist – if you’re a business person you have to be an optimist. I’ve always been taught that the best is yet to come, and I really believe that. This is because, in the end, we humans are intelligent beings always looking for solutions to problems. When I wrote the book, I purposely called it ‘Make, Think, Imagine’. Many people said I got it wrong, that you first imagine then you think and then you make, but I believe that humans tend to make things, think about what they’ve done, and then imagine the next step. That’s certainly my cycle!

So, although it’s clear that we have number of huge challenges ahead of us, I have no doubt that innovation will help us to overcome them, as it has done since the birth of civilisation.

JH: In your book, and throughout this interview, you have stressed the importance of technological advance in shaping the world around us for the better. Looking forward, what aspects of technological advance most excite you?

LB: We have now advanced hugely the scope and scale of computing machines and their ability to use different forms of code so that we’re able to take gigantic data and really make sense of it. In particular, the applications of this in medical science will be one of the great breakthroughs of the future. Rather than the medieval approach of ‘tell me what’s wrong with you’, doctors will be able to take a few measurements and a few samples, and immediately obtain a very accurate prognosis of a patient’s condition. I’ve always believed that we will get to this point, though it’s a great challenge because every person is different. This is just one example of the exciting things that the future holds – there are many more!

JH: Finally, as someone with such a distinguished career, what advice would you give young people thinking of studying engineering?

LB: Nowadays, engineering is one of the most sought-after professions. If you look at many countries, approximately half of the CEOs of the top couple of hundred companies are, by background, engineers. Engineering is the way to do something great for humanity, but it certainly requires some dedication. It lies between science and discovery on the one side and the market and humanity on the other side, converting one into the other. So my advice is that if you have a flexibility with numeracy, and are interested in making and creating, then you should definitely pursue engineering. Finally, always remember there’s a remarkable amount you can learn from everyone around you no matter their background.

A note from the writer: I really hope you enjoyed this interview. This is the second instalment in the ‘Talking Engineering’ series. Be sure to follow the rest of series at etonstem.com for yet more exciting discussions with engineers.

– Jasper Hersov

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