The Learnings - Closing Blog Post Pt. 2

Updated: May 13

I’ve always described Just Engineering as a ship sailing out to uncharted waters. We did not know how far we would get, or what we would find, but we knew that this way of exploring justice in engineering was better than just standing on the shore talking about what might be out there.

In thinking about how to end well, our team agreed that sharing our learnings from this experiment would be a way that our work could live on in the world. In the sense of the analogy, we’ve agreed to take the ship back to port, and share with folks what we saw and learned. This document then, is our rough, hand-drawn map of justice-in-engineering’s unexplored waters.

These boiled down learnings come from not only from the last few months of introspection, but from 3 years of consistent reflection. We paused several times to reflect and kept active documents on what we were learning as we went. The nuggets you’ll read below are refined and condensed with time, and surely have more time to mature. Know that they come from years of hard work, but are also incomplete. This list is also not exhaustive of everything we have learned. If you’re curious to hear more, or dive deeper into any of these topics, do not hesitate to reach out to any of us here at Just Engineering.

Without further ado, our learnings from 3 years of exploring:

1. It is extremely difficult to innovate in three spaces at once (non-profit space, corporate social responsibility space, design-for-good space). If we were to do this all over again, we would focus on innovating in one space while relying on more tried-and-true practices in other spaces.

2. Volunteers’ excitement and energy comes in short bursts. It may be more effective to utilize their skills in this short time period rather than trying to get a long-lasting commitment out of them.

3. Using part or all of an engineer’s work week obviously requires striking a deal with their company. While more companies are allowing their employees to volunteer as part of their work week, we are still a far way from formal collaboration around a structured project or paying engineers for their work in social impact. An expert in corporate partnerships could make huge waves here.

4. Skills-based volunteering for professionals is a developing field (ask us about the organizations in this space), but it's sorely lacking in opportunities for engineers and designers.

5. Some engineers like to be given specific, technical deliverables. Other engineers like to be involved in big-picture decision making. Figure out what energizes each person and get them into the correct meetings.

6. In technical projects, you must carve out intentional space for meaningful human connection. Reflecting on why you all are here, the big picture of your project, or just getting to know each other, these things won’t happen if you give all the meeting time to discussing technical deliverables.

7. Meeting in person is vital. Especially for cross-organizational work. Especially for hardware projects. Especially for serving populations that are not your own. Especially for integrating heart and spirit into technical work.

8. Developing a robust product that can be manufactured at scale takes a long time. It is, if done successfully, a multi-year endeavor. Getting volunteers to stay committed to a project for multiple years is a near impossible task. Find interim ways to reward hard work and have the flexibility to find new volunteers when others inevitably move on.

9. Design Thinking can get you to a great concept for a product, but in order to engineer it well, you may need to change frameworks. Be flexible in using different workflows at different points in a project. This will probably require bringing on new expertise at different points in the project.

10. One of the most helpful things we brought to partner organizations was not the engineering itself, but rather technical project management. How do you structure and deliver the development of a new product? It is essential to have one person dedicated to this task. A good PM goes a long way in a pretty disorganized field.

11. Engineering & project management practices do not transfer 1:1 from the for-profit sector to the tech NGO sector. You must adapt these practices to account for the circumstances of each individual organization (e.g. not disrupting indigenous culture, local manufacturing capabilities, precious little R&D budget).

12. Consulting, or “middle man” services, may be profitable in the for-profit world, but there’s no such place carved out in the non-profit world. Donors want their money to create as much direct impact as possible, and that means giving to organizations who work directly with the communities in need.

13. The non-profit world is more focused on measurable impact within our current systems than on the exploration of ideas / new realities. This is helpful in so far that it holds do-gooders responsible for creating real positive change, but it makes it hard for non-profits to be a place for reimagining the way we do this work. In other words, it’s hard to be “means” focused in an “ends” focused space.

14. There are many ways to create systems change that are not starting a non-profit (in fact, this may be one of the most constricted ways to create systems change). There is policy, academia, mutual aid, community organizing, think tanks, for-profits, and so many more. All of these things add up to create a movement. In the end, this is what I as the founder of JE am most interested in.

This list above features learnings we could not have expected from the beginning. The following is a list of our original convictions that have become even more true to us in the last three years:

1. Engineers are desperate for more meaningful work. It seems like everyone we talk to is thinking about how to get into more impactful work, whether through career changes, volunteering, or taking time off. Most people report feeling stuck. Extremely few view meeting the technological needs of the poor as a viable career path.

2. While the demand is high (and increasing), the supply is low. There simply aren’t enough opportunities, paid or unpaid, for engineers to get involved with social impact work via technology. We need to create more.

3. Industry has a ridiculous amount of resources and influence. Its resources (engineering talent, manufacturing capacity, money) can be refocused toward alleviating the problems faced by people groups & countries currently marginalized by the wealthy. Its influence (control of social networks, service providers, advertising capacity, and ties to policy makers) can be used to shift the priorities of our culture.

4. We need to change the way society sees technology. Instead of seeing the creation of technology as a way to make money, we need to see it as a way to solve problems. And our concept of “problems” needs to shift from issues of comfort in the US to meeting basic human needs around the globe.

5. Access to basic resources for well-being is not a problem technology alone can solve. Every problem we are trying to solve via technology is created by and caught up in a web of historic oppression, political corruption, and economic conflict-of-interest. Thus the solutions need be social, political, and economic in nature. Technology plays just a part of solving these problems.

6. More humanizing engineering work is possible. Giving engineers the opportunity to interact with the eventual users of their product, to influence the reach of their product, to get to know each other beyond the work context, and to spend time on other life-giving practices, these things are possible to do without sacrificing the technical bottom line, and should be norms in both for-profit and non-profit work.

Like many maps of the world, it takes many iterations from many explorers to gain an accurate picture of what is out there and what is possible. The space of justly applied engineering is vast, and we hope more brave explorers contribute to our global understanding of it. We also recognize that we can come to understand the space not only through individual explorers but also through alternative methods of seeing and charting the space. This is where research in this space, which is so underdeveloped, plays an important role.

We share our hopes for future ventures, research, and general understanding of this space in part 3 of our final blog post, which you can read here.

Thank you to everyone, our partners, our mentors, and our friends who helped us reflect on this journey as we moved through it. We owe these learnings to our constant dialogue with you. Let’s keep learning, and let those learnings turn into effective, impactful action.

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