Florent's friends include former engineers, market gardeners, switchers, who have left the profession to do something else... He wants to remain an engineer, but questions what he puts behind"being an engineer." Florent set off to explore other possibilities, questioned this much-valued place of the engineer, took his baggage of skills to use elsewhere, accumulated other powers along the way! Here's his story...
"A classic course
Strong in math in high school, he went on to study at the prépa, then Centrale Lyon, an engineering school. "I didn't really ask myself any questions then. It was the royal road", explains Florent. He loves maths and physics, and I'm immersed in the world of techno-solutionist and techno-optimist engineers. It was during his gap year in Brazil, in 2017, that he began to wonder about this. "I already had the broad outlines of transition issues in my head. But, when I saw the social context, the inequalities, the crazy urbanism that some cities over there have experienced - already in France, it's not easy - I wondered how we were going to solve the problem in countries like this."
"I think it's essential to take a critical look at technique, technology and even the role of the engineer in general. Especially in France..."
Technocriticism for perspective
For his final year, he returns to Centrale, and discovers Jean-Marc Jancovici, Gaël Giraud and other environmental and ethical influencers. This was a year before the Youth For Climate movement, but at his school, the first demands were already being made. Some things make him uncomfortable, like the course he's taking on energy transition issues, given by a former Total employee who is a climate skeptic:"it's only a course, but on the spot, it makes an impression." In parallel with his final year, he's taking a master's degree in the history and philosophy of science and technology. "These apprenticeships have made me, I hope, a better engineer, because they have given me a critical and reflective look at my activity." For Florent, it now seems essential to have this critical look at technique, technology and even the role of the engineer in general. "Especially in France, the engineer has a rather unique place compared to other countries. Even on television, the engineer is an expert with an audience. This place is not necessarily more justified than that given to other training courses, which do not have the same audience."
Dissonance in the face of corporate narratives
As part of his end-of-studies internship, Florent joined the CEA: the French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission. This research organization is known for its work on nuclear reactors and the nuclear bomb, and also conducts research on climate and renewable energies. A job he finds interesting. He discovers working life, offices, colleagues... Everything is nice. But, after a year and a half, after an internship and then his first contract as an employee, he begins to enter into dissonance with the narratives carried by the structure,"techno solutionists and techno optimists", while the aims of his job worry him. He cites an example: "I was working on the design of solar panels that were going to be installed to decarbonize mines. So yes, we need to decarbonize the mines, but our partners or partners' partners, were waiting for these panels to say that it was a clean, green or ecological mine". His questions came at the beginning of 2020, before the covid, and for him, it was certain, it wasn't at the age of 24, in a region where he didn't project himself, that he was going to make such an ethical concession. So he decided to resign.
"I had a break from what I was doing in CEA, but my diploma passed on skills that were still useful for this job."
Join the Transition Campus
The first covid confinement arrives and Florent says to himself: "I need a drop-off point". He looks for offers on various media: jobs_that_makesense, the Low Tech network... And via the latter network, he stumbles across an action research civic service at Campus de la Transition. In this eco-environment, around twenty people are experimenting with a transitional lifestyle. Florent joins them as a civic service resident. "Over there, I'm working on the documentation of sobriety and low-tech approaches in ecolieu, I'm doing carbon footprint calculations for the inhabitants, I'm working on territorial concertation, on cycling mobilities in a rural area. An engineer in a conventional company could very well do this type of work."
"I put technology back at the service of people".
At the Campus, Florent is experimenting with a different way of working, interacting with different stakeholders from a variety of disciplines, solving concrete problems and understanding the uses of each inhabitant. Until now, for him, being an engineer meant simplifying a problem into a technical solution, without asking oneself whether this solution answered a general problem. "We put our blinkers on by simplifying the problem. And the blinkers, we keep them on until the end." At the Transition Campus, during his civic service, he finds it stimulating to "put technology back at the service of people". He also appreciates getting involved in a collective, in which he is aligned on the main lines. He lives in participative housing, which enables him to forge social links in a different way. Lastly, he feels more himself than before: "The stories that the CEA had, asked me to sit on my humanity and remain an engineer. There was something I was leaving at the company's door. At the Campus, I was able to bring the two together: the human and the engineer."
The desire to get back into a metro - work - sleep rhythm
In November 2022, Florent left the Campus de la Transition, and felt the need to take a break. He moved back to Nantes, was unemployed and took the opportunity to organize climate murals and other awareness-raising workshops. He also wants to get back to a normal rhythm: metro, work, sleep, home. "I needed a clearer separation between my professional life and my personal life, after 3 years of covid, where I teleworked and then lived on Campus, where everything was mixed up." He also re-envisioned office life to keep a social link.
"Resuming an engineer's job, with a structure that gives itself the time and means to remove the blinkers."
A technocritical engineer, rather than a techno-solutionist
At the moment, Florent is looking for work. He has two avenues open to him: return to technical engineering work, with a structure that gives itself the time and means to remove its blinkers, by asking questions about social and environmental issues. His second suggestion is to work on issues of territorial strategy, to relocalize the production of goods and services. "For me, it's a real challenge to plan for these issues" he says. For Florent, the challenge is not so much to branch out as to be a different kind of engineer."I think that today, there's a challenge for engineers to communicate with other disciplines. The day an engineer sits down with an urban planner, a philosopher, a sociologist and a doctor, maybe we'll be able to think about the city of tomorrow." The engineer of tomorrow must communicate with others and not cut himself off from himself. "Today I see myself more as a human being, before being an engineer." His Linkedin description reads: "Human, engineer, anthropocene."
Mourning future stories and projections
Behind the term engineer, there are also stories: multi-figure salaries, responsibilities, time off, identifications with the school's alumnis and their lifestyles. "Overall, I've managed to mourn all those things that are clearly privileged stuff," says Florent. He admits that the fact of not having experienced precariousness surely enabled him to take that leap without a parachute by resigning from the CEA without knowing what he was going to do next. Today, Florent's only sticking point is his vacations. "5 weeks is a short time, especially if you travel at a reasonable pace and in a less carbon-intensive way. I'm very attached to that. It's not what's going to make me go back to a traditional engineering job, but it's something I'd find hard to put aside." He's had 3 other mournings since engineering school: the mourning of perfect organization, the mourning of certainties, and the mourning of purely technical answers.
5 recommendations for engineers
#1 Forking things over, changing things from within, exploring and testing, there's no wrong way to act. As long as the desire to get involved is there, everyone can do it in different ways.
#2 Take time. Take breaks. It's important to get to know and listen to yourself.
#3 Accept the uncertainties. There are so many different voices on the subject of transition, so many arguments in every direction, that it's hard to know which arguments are the right ones. Even I was talking nonsense 2 or 3 years ago. But with my skills and my legitimacy as an engineer, I had convinced myself that it was good and everyone listened to me and believed me. In fact, I was wrong.
#4 Don't despair of the day when technology and people will be reconciled;
#5 Accept to come down from your engineering pedestal.