The concept for the Engineering Change Lab – USA (ECL-USA) Engineering Ideas Institute is to offer an extended deep dive into the most complex issues facing the engineering community. The second edition of the Institute (first in-person) was held last week, appropriately at the Colorado Chautauqua in Boulder, Colorado. The Institute offered the opportunity for participants to take deep dives into two major themes – “Engineering in an Age of Acceleration” and “Engineering and Racial Justice.”
The “Engineering in an Age of Acceleration” theme stems from the observation in Thomas Friedman’s 2016 book, Thank You for Being Late, that the gap between technological progress and humanity’s ability to adapt to technological change is growing ever wider. The graphic below illustrates this concept.
Provocateurs Bob Prieto, Chairman and CEO of Strategic Program Management and former Senior VP with Fluor, and Bruce Bartolf, Executive Consultant and former Principal and CTO at Gensler, traced the accelerating trajectory of technology, including technologies that could potentially bend the curve of human adaptation. They also described new capacities that the engineering community needs to develop to help society successfully close the gap, including new approaches to projects and overcoming our aversion to risk. Alison Wood, Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering at Olin College, described how Olin is helping to create a new engineering education paradigm, utilizing its unique academic community to prepare engineering students to “do good in the world” by making values part of engineering and the development and application of technology.
In group exercises and discussion, participants explored the implications of variances in the gap for different segments of society, personal and organizational capacity to adapt, and the engineering community’s capacity to help society. Important takeaways included the following.
- We can ramp up our efforts in educating the public and policy makers regarding beneficial uses of technology and the ethics of technology.
- We can choose to consider more fully the impacts of technology and of our work on society and the environment.
- We can advocate for changes in codes and standards and public policies that hinder advancements in the application of technology.
- We can help and care for people who suffer the greatest harm from falling behind in adaptation to technology.
- To close the gap for the engineering community, we will need to be less risk averse, and we will need to use our “agency,” our ability to act independently based on the relationships of trust we have established, to push for changes with our clients and with regulators.
Thomas Friedman observes that the most effective way for society to deal with the accelerating forces of technology, as well as with accelerating changes in our environment and in society, is by focusing our efforts on building healthy communities. The engineering community, through its trusted relationships and technical and problem-solving skills, has the potential to make major contributions to the challenge of building healthy communities.
The second theme for the Institute was “Engineering and Racial Justice.” This section looked at the history of engineering’s relationship to racial inequality and explored the ways that the engineering needs to change to contribute to creating a more just and equal society. We approached this complex issue by examining four dimensions of the issue.
- Becoming Aware – of how some aspects of engineering have contributed to inequality, while also recognizing that this is not the total story of our history. Provocateurs Khalid Kadir, University of California Berkeley, and Donna Riley, Purdue University School of Engineering Education, reminded participants of engineering accomplishments that played a role in exacerbating inequality, such as dams that displaced indigenous communities, highways that divided communities, polluting industrial facilities sited in poor neighborhoods, and technologies that are contributing to climate change. Provocateur Yolanda Webb, CEO of WEBB Advisory Group, told the story of Lincoln Heights, Ohio, a predominantly black suburb of Cincinnati, whose residents’ efforts to incorporate as a black, self-governing community were systematically thwarted leading to a gradual deterioration of the community.
- Educating Ourselves – listening to understand the perspectives of people in minority communities that have been impacted by racism.
- Accepting Responsibility – from a place of deep knowing, as a necessary step in re-thinking how we can change the work of the engineering community to help create stronger, more equitable communities.
- Taking Action – recognizing that this is a “wicked” problem with no easy solutions; not being constrained by the idea that we only implement the ideas and decisions of others; and re-defining our work as a people- and community-based enterprise. Provocateurs Nancy Pridal, President and CEO of Lamp Rynearson, and Erin McLaughlin, Vice-President of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC), provided examples of “taking action.” Pridal described her efforts to lead change in her firm’s practice through personal commitment, employee education, and community partnerships. McLaughlin described her work to provide background information and research to support the inclusion of “social equities in the built environment” as a part of ACEC’s new strategic plan.
Group activities and discussions focused on these four dimensions and concluded with an extended dialogue on what we think we know about the crossroad we are facing now with respect to engineering and racial justice in America. The discussions were designed to help participants begin to define possibilities for action, within ourselves and within our organizations, as we begin to confront this wicked problem. ECL-USA, through a group of volunteers from the summit participants, will work to continue this discussion, looking for the most effective ways to initiate change throughout the engineering community.
All provocateur presentations are available on the ECL-USA website (Summit Information | Engineering Change Lab – USA (ecl-usa.org)). Look for a more detailed summary of the summit in the coming weeks.