Just Engineering is founded on some bold, yet simple ideas. Tying those ideas together to create a narrative of what engineering truly is, how it has been violently misused, and how it may be more justly applied, has provided a guiding star for our venture, one we constantly return to whenever the work is feeling dead.
In this post I will tell this life-giving narrative as simply as possible; a formidable challenge when this narrative could become an entire book and field of study.
We start with a question: What is technology?
In its most basic form, technology is simply this: tools to solve problems.
That’s it. Everything created by humans, from campfires and refrigerators to the alphabet and systems of governance, that solves a problem, can be considered technology.
What then is engineering?
In its most basic form, engineering is simply this: the process of creating technology, or the process of creating the tools that solve problems.
This is something that sets us apart from other species as humans, the ability to create tools to solve problems, the ability to engineer. We evolved this way, our brain growing in its ability to see patterns, think beyond the present moment, and use our dexterous hands to craft. In other words, one of the things that makes us human is our ability and drive to create technology. To engineer is to practice a fundamental part of being human.
Human beings face problems that cause suffering.
Human beings create tools to help solve those problems.
How beautiful is that?
To us at Just Engineering, that’s what engineering means. Creating tools to solve problems that cause suffering.
Let’s go deeper.
Combining Engineering and Empathy
Another essential part of being human is the ability to empathize with the suffering of others, and innate drive to serve or care for those who are suffering. Whether it is helping someone who has fallen in the street, or donating to an organization aiding an entire community, we often can’t help but feel compassion for those who are suffering. In these moments, we go beyond the self to care for others. This ability to selflessly serve others out of love is also part of being human. Again, so beautiful.
Can these be combined? Creating tools to solve problems and selfless service? What a lovely existence that would be! This combination, humans transcending the self to create tools to help solve each other’s problems, is at the core of technology for social impact. It is its purest manifestation.
Can you imagine this world?
A rope maker cannot twist twine wet from the rain. A carpenter builds or helps her build a house with a roof to shield her from the rain.
A woodworker cannot carry his harvest of wood back to his village. A rope maker twists for him a harness for carrying lumber.
A carpenter cannot build houses with a broken hammer. A woodworker crafts for him a new, stronger hammer.
Everyone is creating tools for each other. Ah, wow! What a great exercise of two wonderful and deeply human abilities.
Of course we know our ecosystem is one where love is not paid forward only through making.
The carpenter may very well be building a house for his mother, who provides unconditional love to him and his family.
The rope maker may very well be twisting a net for a fisherman to feed his village.
The mother has amazing skills for loving the world that aren’t creating things.
The fisherman loves the world through providing fish to eat, which is also not building.
So, I think the more refined vision is this: Every human is using their unique gift to selflessly love the world, and as engineers, our selfless loving can look like creating tools to help people solve the problems cause their suffering.
Let’s go even deeper.
The Question of Justice
We as engineers are creating technology that serves our fellow humans, but what specific humans are we serving? What specific problems are we trying to solve? What specific suffering are we trying to end?
This is where the question of justice comes in. If we have a limited amount of engineering power (talent, money flow, manufacturing capabilities, etc.) to produce technology, should we really be spending 90% of it solving the “problems” defined by the richest 10% of our global population, while there are billions of people still struggling with real problems like food security, dependable shelter, and stable income?
The justice question is complicated. It is tied up with large forces like the global economy, geopolitics, the down-stream effects of colonialism, religion, psychology, and more. These topics and how they touch the global system of engineering developed by the West deserve more attention than this blog post can give, but are indeed the connections that Just Engineering wishes to explore and discuss.
I want to wrap up this narrative by going back to “deeply human qualities” for a moment. While the question of justice is complicated, the human intuition for justice is simple. If “seeing patterns” is part of being human, and “transcending the self in empathy with others” is part of being human, then it follows that being bothered by “seeing resources go to the well-resourced while others suffer in being under-resourced“ is also an innate ability of every human.
If you ask a child what is fair, they are quick to tell you because they see it so clearly, unhindered by the large forces in the world they have yet to learn about. Unfairness bothers them. They are vocal about it, because it is uncomfortable to witness. Justice is an intuition we are born with.
Let’s pull it all together.
The Three Strand Braid
We’ve discussed that:
Engineering, the process of creating tools that solve problems which cause suffering, is an innate part of being human.
Transcending the self to empathize with the suffering of others is an innate part of being human.
Having a sense that resources should go to those who are currently under-resourced is an innate part of being human.
What do you get when you combine all of those together? A narrative of justice in engineering that inspires and animates our organization, the work we do, and our shifting the global system of engineering.
If this narrative is a life-giving tree for you as it is for us, know that it has countless branches to explore. Our blog is the place for that exploration. If you would like to learn with us, join our mailing list for updates on new posts. If you would like to contribute, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.