The Role of Engineers: Designing Society Angelene Gisela McDaniel Braden Engineering-Communication Contest The University of Texas at Austin February 13, 2004 Angelene McDaniel The Role of Engineers: Designing Society Page 2 of 5 The impact of engineering and technology has often come under dispute in society. The construction of dams and their effects on agriculture and the environment gains the notice of politics, and technological innovations such as the internet and cell phones change the way we live, work, and even think about the world we live in. Highways often become man-made economic barriers that divide a low-income part of town from a more affluent section. The engineer thus in a way takes on a major societal role: the engineer has the opportunity to shape and even ‘design’ society, just as much as the engineer has the ability to design his projects, be it bridges or computer programming. The question then arises: are engineers responsible for the impact of their designs? Should, say, civil engineers become ‘societal’ engineers as well? Engineers are committed to designing systems that are safe for the use of society; yet should they be deemed responsible for their systems ‘designing’ society? Yes: engineers should take the responsibility of the impact of their designs. Just as an engineer accounts for the different conditions his design must endure, he must account for the different societal conditions his design will create. The role of the engineer has been regarded as a purely technical or mechanical one. Their education supports this view: an education firmly founded in science and mathematics. The scientific and mathematical world accepts a well-defined viewpoint: given a problem, there is either a right answer, or a wrong answer. Results meet safety specifications, or they do not. The engineer, given a project, is provided a number of requirements to meet, and his design or calculations must coincide with these. The structural engineer concerns himself with whether his building or bridge will stand, and his calculations determine whether or not it will do so. Should the engineer concern Angelene McDaniel The Role of Engineers: Designing Society Page 3 of 5 himself with the societal concern of his building or bridge as well? Or is it that the job of another? Take for example a major interstate highway being built through a city. The highway is a common feature of many cities, and brings a flow of people into and through the city. Many times the highway offers the only perspective a traveler passing through has of the city: driving in his car he passes by thriving or failing commercial centers, affluent or low-income neighborhoods, and a vibrant or dead urban center. His opinion of that city is formed by what he sees. An argument arises here over whether the engineer designing the highway and planning its route should be concerned about ‘selling’ the city – or should that perhaps be the duty of a city politician? It is the engineer’s duty to determine the most economical path the route may take through the city, but it can also be considered that it is the engineer’s duty to choose an aesthetic and appealing route as well – even providing areas along the highway to add aesthetic elements, such as trees or wildflowers plots. The engineer cannot forget that his role is to design or construct for people, and this human element of his engineering becomes an important one. Looking at highways again one finds more societal impacts. A major highway built through the city may pass through a vibrant but impoverished ethnic neighborhood or business area, destroying its vibrancy and vitality. Shops, churches, and offices of community leaders may be torn down to provide space for the new interstate highway. The neighborhood with its unique identity may be split in half, and the newly constructed highway becomes a barrier: children who were once playmates cannot play together anymore, unless they risk running across multiple lanes of speeding cars. The local Angelene McDaniel The Role of Engineers: Designing Society Page 4 of 5 convenience store just to one side of the bridge cannot be reached by those regular customers who now live on the other side of the bridge. Without cars, the convenience store which was once only a convenient walk away becomes inaccessible to many residents, and they too risk their safety by crossing the lanes of this highway. An engineer may be called upon to deal with this situation by building a pedestrian bridge: yet the simple bridge he builds crosses the highway in the wrong place: farther away than convenient to the convenience store, and a distance from the neighborhoods filled with children. The pedestrian bridge goes unused. Adults continue to cross the highway lanes in order to get the items they need from the convenience store, and children race each other across the highway through a gauntlet of cars traveling sixty miles per hour or more. The pedestrian bridge failed. The engineer did not study, to the best extent, the habits of those people for which his bridge was designed. The human element of design lacked in this case. Criticism can also be given to the engineers who planned the route of the highway, in effect destroying a neighborhood which was once vibrant if impoverished. The human element must be added to the technical specifications provided an engineer when he takes on a project. Telecommunications also brings societal impact. Engineers are quickly designing new innovations which are rapidly changing the way we communicate, the way we work, and the ways we live. With telecommunications one sees how engineers and their designs have the ability to shape society. Internet access, e-mail, and cell phones allow people across the nation and world to talk each other in ways impossible before. People are now able to work from a home office rather than travel the distance to an office space in a downtown area. Instant messaging becomes the growing trend of communication Angelene McDaniel The Role of Engineers: Designing Society Page 5 of 5 between young adults. Yet the gadgets and programs – designed by engineers – have their prices too, and computers, cell phones, and internet access becomes costly. These are costs which many economically disadvantaged – which can include minorities – cannot afford. As applications and procedures such as academic or scholarship applications turn predominantly to the internet, economically disadvantaged become technologically disadvantaged as well. The duty of the engineer is then to find more economical means of producing innovations: perhaps finding or creating cheaper materials to use for computers or cell phones, or easier methods of production. Again, the engineer is designing for the people. Thus the engineer must remember his duty to society: not only to provide a product that society can use, but to provide a product for society to use. Constructing a pedestrian bridge was a technical solution to a problem, yet constructing a pedestrian bridge in the right location – after studying the people and their habits – means that the engineer did his job. The pedestrian bridge in the wrong location may have been structurally sound, and even aesthetic, yet it lost its function when it was not used by the target population. The bridge was no longer a bridge, but a mass of concrete spanning a highway. Therefore the engineer must include for himself additional specifications in addition to those given to him: his design must be for the improvement of society. The engineer must remember that his designs have the impact of designing society, and that his role as an engineer is to design for society.