The co-founding team has found it difficult to walk away from Just Engineering when it feels like the work is incomplete in many ways. The “work” we mean here is not the specific action items that were left on the organization’s to-do list, but rather the big picture work of transforming engineering work to be humanizing and engineering industry to be more justly applied. This transformation takes way more than just one volunteer organization; it requires us as a global, technological society to investigate, advocate for, and indeed practice justice in engineering.
We as individuals have pledged to keep working for this change, but also hope to bring more people into this big, multifaceted movement. The following is a list of changes we hope others will pursue. Some things are specific, some are more broad and require imagination on how to make happen. If you are at all interested in seeing the engineering profession transform into a more just space, we hope you will get involved in some of this work. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me, Triple (firstname.lastname@example.org) or anyone else on the founding team for ideas on how to get started.
Without further ado, here are things we hope for engineering as a profession, field, and industry:
1. While engineering is inherently action-oriented, we do need more spaces to discuss what justice in engineering looks like. Space to imagine alternative futures. Space to talk about what work needs to be done.
Our hope is that these spaces will include a diversity of perspectives: people facing problems technology attempts to solve, community leaders, NGO leaders, engineers working in industry, team managers, corporate executives, engineering students, historians, sociologists, data scientists, design researchers, policy makers, local government leaders, international agencies, and many more.
These spaces can be hosted by universities, non-profits, for-profits, think tanks, local community gatherings, virtual gatherings, governments, international agencies. We imagine a world where every school, company, and government has a “Department of Justice in Technology”.
2. We need a fundamental shift in how people view engineering & technology, moving away from an understanding of engineering & technology as “a way to make money” and toward an understanding of engineering & technology as “a way to solve serious problems in the world.”
This cultural change would be facilitated by classes, workshops, books, articles, speeches, art, dialogue, and through impactful engineering projects themselves.
3. One curiosity we were left with is whether the tech-based NGO space could use more investment in designing new or better products. In engineering industry this is known Research & Development. In product design, innovation is found in Design Thinking. Tech-based NGOs (water filters, low-cost cookstoves, etc.) receive lots of donations to produce and distribute existing solutions (i.e. stuff that’s guaranteed to give good impact numbers for a donor) but get precious little in the way of an R&D budget. Could research reveal that investing in organizations to come up with new solutions creates wider and deeper impact? This could dramatically change funding for the tech-based NGO space.
4. We also wonder if the non-profit world could benefit from an infrastructure of specialization. For example, could there be organizations that do low-income market research extremely well? Could there be an organization you go to for rigorous engineering testing of your product? Relieving front-line organizations from ‘doing it all’ could allow them to provide even better service to their community.
5. Our final hope for the non-profit world is that it becomes just as concerned with ‘means’ as it is with ‘ends’. The focus of social impact work is inherently human-centered, and thus the work itself should be humanizing to the workers (technical work in this space is no exception). Obsession with impact numbers creates a work culture that mimics the soul-drain of corporations. We (as funders) need to provide more bandwidth for organizations to reflect on how the work is being done and how its workers are being transformed themselves.
6. We as a society need to think about engineers’ fulfillment and change our work to provide that fulfillment. Quantitative and qualitative research on ‘what work do engineers find fulfilling’ and how unfulfillment negatively affects companies and the industry (or conversely, how fulfillment positively affects companies) would be extremely helpful for accelerating this change that the sector is already seeing.
7, Corporate Social Responsibility programs should be reimagined to more fully engage employees and should become a part of every single corporation (no matter the size). The resources spent donating to random charities and providing engineers time to volunteer can be put towards organized projects that use engineers’ unique skills to leverage big change for social good. We would like to see CSR initiatives (especially at engineering companies) be more creative in how they use their unique resources.
8. The engineering industry (tech, manufacturing, etc.) has massive design and production capacity. If we could harness that capacity to make technology for the world’s most disadvantaged communities, we could eliminate much suffering. Utilizing even just 10% of industry’s technological capacity would blow the capacity of the tech-based NGO sector out of the water. We need executives of these companies to commit part of their resources to solving serious problems (and we mean really solving, not just publicity stunts).
9. We need engineering education to catch up to the socio-political awareness with which young people are graduating. Engineering degrees should feature more coursework on understanding the social, political, and economical context in which we create technology, especially for those who want to create technology for social impact. We also need to do a better job of illuminating potential career pathways for young engineers who want to use their skills for social impact.
10. We need to create more opportunities for professional engineers to do impactful work. Engineers take ‘design for social impact’ courses, then graduate into a working world where there are so few opportunities to do this kind of work, even fewer that pay a decent wage. Let’s create more companies and organizations to employ highly motivated engineers.
11. We need to increase design and engineering capacity within under-resourced communities, rather than rely on external technology experts to design and build on their behalf. Equipping communities (who are the foremost experts on the problems they face) with the technical skills to build well-engineered products and design new systems may be the most sustainable way of solving dehumanizing problems.
This list is not exhaustive. There are so many changes and initiatives we need beyond what have been imagined here. This work takes far beyond what one person or a small organization can do. The changes listed above require thousands of people to make happen. It takes you, who are reading this, and 5 of your friends who are interested in seeing a more just technological world. So please, share this post with a few people and dialogue about some of these action items. What would you be excited to work on? What thoughts feel incomplete and in-need of deeper thinking? Where are you seeing this work already being done and how can you join in to push it further?
The fate of engineering & design as professions are on the line. Are we just going to accept the reputation of engineering and design as purely technical professions used to make money and advance the desires of the wealthy? Or can we transform the reputation of these professions to be one of “levers for great social and economic change for the under-served”?
The latter is how we at Just Engineering see our profession, and we’ve committed our lives to inviting others into this vision. We hope if you’ve made it this far in our “final blog posts” that you are indeed interested in seeing this change across the engineering landscape and will dedicate yourselves to one of the initiatives above. Please, please, please get in contact with us and let us know about what you’re interested in. The work is far from over.