Engineering Impact On Society

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					 The Role of Engineers: Designing Society

        Angelene Gisela McDaniel

Braden Engineering-Communication Contest

     The University of Texas at Austin

            February 13, 2004
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        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
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himself with the societal concern of his building or bridge as well? Or is it that the job of


        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
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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
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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.

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