Sunday, May 15, 2011

The modification of engineering

As an engineer, we are taught to "solve problems." These problems are generally created by 1) a perceived lack of functioning of a system ("build another road so traffic can be mitigated"), 2) the never-ending quest for improved efficiency, 3) a social myopia that leads to the creation of objects that just don't fit context and are thus destructive (many examples of this are evident in health care). Yet in the end, what engineers do is create objects - objects that try to defy gravity, objects that span nature, objects that destructively use nature, and objects that have serious social and cultural implications (just like the bridge that is being proposed here in Detroit that I have written about in these past few days).

There are a couple of key issues that go almost completely unaddressed in the traditional engineering curriculum - 1) problem definition and 2) the implications of the approach used to solve the problem. Generally, when working for a big company, the orders for what to do come from above. It is the young engineer's job to obey and work on the given problem, many times without context. Indeed, the definition of what the problem really is is generally narrow and focused, and much of the writings on this blog have been about this reductionism. 

In the general engineering curriculum (you can see the University of Michigan's undergraduate aerospace engineering curriculum here), you can see that there is little if any thought about the implications of engineering, and the responsibility that comes with being given the power of such knowledge. In my time at the University, not a mention has been made of the ways in which knowledge can be or should be used. Without an understanding and thoughtfulness of what it means to create and modify, young engineers can be swayed easily into creating destructive objects - people are involved in the creation of toxic chemicals for warfare and polluting industrial processes. Furthermore, many engineers are given very little skills in seeing what they can do with what we have invested in already. The work environment always pushes towards the use of the new and the untouched, which results in destructive extraction from nature. 

Now while some work is being done to address these issues at the University, it is my experience that engineering is a very conservative field. Students are not taught to be critical readers or radical thinkers. If we are to move toward a more sustainable future, several things will need to be done. Engineers must be taught to see underlying themes to the issues facing us, rather than superficially addressing problems arising far downstream from the source. Ethical considerations must move beyond just the professional - issues of justice must be considered. Engineers should design and build only in the situations that necessitate them and should design and build by thinking of how what they are building may be disassembled easily and reassembled to meet any future needs - this might be called "the engineering of modification."

1 comment:

  1. Sort of reminds me of a book I read a long time ago, Ecotopia. I guess the culture shift is the book thing holding us back from reaching these goals. Changing peoples culture is so hard.

    Problem definition: