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Systemic Change Through Individual Experiences

What Just Engineering really hopes to do is create systemic change in the field of engineering. We want to shift the industry to be more justice focused.


Systems thinking and systems design would have us chart out the whole system, draw arrows between key stakeholders or institutions, and identify the biggest leverage points. I think this is important, and Just Engineering certainly hopes to keep these big pictures in mind, but it seems far removed from the experience of real humans.


Systems, I would argue, are made up of humans. Systems, while they can seem to have a life of their own and parts of them that seem to transcend the individual, are made up by and kept in place by real humans. This idea, to me, has riveting implications.


"If you can change the hearts and mindsets of the people who make up a system, you can begin to shift how the system operates"

If you can change the hearts and mindsets of the people who make up a system, you can begin to shift how the system operates and what its priorities are. Gandhi would actually argue, this is the only real and sustainable way of causing change in a system. He would argue that changing a system from the top down without changing the people who make up that system is futile. If you do not change the hearts of the people who make up a system, he argues, they will embody old ways of thinking, and as they operate this new shiny system, it will begin to reflect those old ways of thinking.


The example I’ll use is the independence of India. In reclaiming self-rule of the Indian subcontinent from the British, Gandhi urged against an Indian national government and national identity. He claimed this was an idea given from the British empire to the people of the subcontinent (which were previously broken into many smaller communities and subcultures). “Empire”, he claimed, begot the idea of “nation”, in that it operated on centralized power through the form of law-making and enforcement of those laws through police on people who lived very far away from this law-making center, and that this law-making center could not possibly develop just laws that made sense for its far away constituents because it had no idea who those people were or how they lived.


Sure enough, when the Indian people gained their independence from Britain, they formed as a nation with a parliament that created laws and a police that enforced those laws on far away peoples who before had not even a concept of the nation-state. In short, the people of India changed the system but not their mindsets, so the system they created ended up looking a lot like the old system they didn’t like. A big “I told you so” from Gandhi.


"Give people personal experiences that change the way they see the world and how to move justly within it."

So what was Gandhi’s answer to violent British rule? Change the hearts of the mass majority who make up the system. If everyone thinks in a non-violent and just way, the system will naturally turn non-violent and just. And how did Gandhi change hearts? He let people discover non-violence for themselves. Whether it was walking miles to the sea to grab a pinch of salt or spending hours a day spinning threads on a wheel to form cloth, he provided pathways to discovering inner peace and its connection to how we use our bodies. This inner-soul to outer-body connection is only part of his complex, multilayered non-violence, or satyagraha, of which I do not have the space to get into here, but the point is he gave people personal experiences that changed the way they see the world and how to move justly within it.


I happen to think that the current field of engineering is quite violent. Not how we traditionally think of violence (physical force) but rather in mindset: optimize profit at all costs, design addictive technology, require that people buy more of our products to operate their technology, get away from the physical world, and move faster. Furthermore, I think the field of engineering is unjust in who the primary beneficiaries are and who has access to become an engineer.


"Experience first-hand the power that collaboratively-developed and justly-applied technology has in improving their lives."

This brings me back to Just Engineering. We seek through this organization to create a more just (and you could really add non-violent) field of engineering, or in other words, enact systems change. But we know that in order for the system to truly change, the hearts and mindsets of the people who make up that system have to change, and we want to create personal experiences that enable that change.


This is why Just Engineering, while wanting to change the system that is the engineering industry, is engaging individuals through projects. We want engineers and engineering business leaders who go through a JE project to have a personal transformation, to become more empathetic to life-threatening problems they may never encounter, recognize the importance of listening to the people directly experiencing those challenges, and experience first-hand the power that collaboratively-developed and justly-applied technology has in improving their lives.


Imagine creating a whole industry of people who have this more justice-focused mindset. This is the true systemic change Just Engineering is looking to manifest in the world.


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