Engineering for the People: Putting Peace, Social Justice, and Environmental Protection at the Heart of All Engineering
DARSHAN MUKESH ARVINDA KARWAT
Arizona State University
Inequality and injustice are hardwired into current models of technological design and technical work, even in the United States, one of the most technologically advanced and resource-rich nations on Earth. However, the onus for change is not only on those who officially make policy—politicians, lawyers, and businesspeople—but also on those who build policy and create possibilities—engineers. For example, if engineers did not design and build bombs, there would be fewer of them for people to use; engineers can not create the possibilities of mass destruction.
On the other hand, engineers can create possibilities for deep good by aligning their work with the needs of those who are traditionally marginalized and exploited in and by technical work. In fact, there is a rich history of activism in engineering and science that practicing engineers today can build on to put peace, social justice, and environmental protection at the heart of engineering. I describe different ways in which engineers across the United States are incorporating these ideals, and pose questions for engineers to consider in building a movement of engineering for the people.
BACKGROUND: THE HISTORY AND PRESENT OF ENGINEERING ARE COMPLICATED
I do not have to go back home to Mumbai to find technological inequality and its interplay with poverty and environmental injustice and marginalization. I can simply walk the streets of Phoenix, where many have inadequate access to energy services in the desert summer; or San Francisco, the US tech capital, where poverty levels have shocked UN poverty expert Philip Alston; or Detroit, a poster child for
the effects of American industrial capitalism, and whose planning and cars helped create not only an American middle class but also urban sprawl and inertia for mitigating climate change; or Hale County in the Black Belt of Alabama, where even today homes are not built to code. In this, the richest country in the world, a country that has driven the international scientific and engineering agenda for many decades, there remains vast technological inequality.
The history of science and engineering is replete not only with incredible and awe-inspiring advances and achievements like refrigeration, lasers, and getting to the moon, but also oppression, marginalization, and racism, mountaintop removal and poisoned waters, and the continued development of the capacity to destroy life and the Earth. While these are certainly matters of social policy, they also concern science, engineering, and technological policy. They concern how we as engineers justify to ourselves the work we do; they are about engineers’ stake in the world we help build.
CURRENT EXAMPLES OF CONCERN
It might be easy for engineers or companies to say they are “just doing their job” when they are challenged about what they do, like building surveillance technologies or prisons or weapons or ways to drill for oil in the Arctic. But by saying their work is “just a job,” engineers and companies shift the moral burden for bringing politically charged objects into the world from themselves—those who actually do the designing and building—to those who order and pay for those things.
Continued US investment in the development of weapons might be justified by saying that the country needs to maintain military superiority, but such development implicitly devalues the lives of those targeted or affected by the weapons, especially civilians. It is important to remember that while people, politicians, and governments talk about doing something, they do not have the skills to actually do it. Engineers do. This is where engineers and engineering hold power. And because engineering holds power, I believe that engineering has the obligation to systematically do good.
This power is exactly what Google employees exerted when they challenged management about the company’s involvement in providing artificial intelligence expertise to a military pilot program called Project Maven, or Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (Work 2017), which aimed “to speed up analysis of drone footage by automatically classifying images of objects and people” (Conger 2018). Google employees vehemently protested internally, then wrote a petition to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, stating the following:
We believe that Google should not be in the business of war. Therefore we ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicize, and enforce
a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.1
On June 1, 2018, a New York Times headline read “Google Will Not Renew Pentagon Contract That Upset Employees” (Wakabayashi and Shane 2018).
Designs are dictated by selected variables and by assumptions of who is considered important. But the world is always more complicated than the variables chosen. For example, the use of mainly white people to train face detection algorithms (Lohr 2018) resulted in Google Photos “recognizing” black faces as gorillas (Breland 2017; Vincent 2018). Engineering is social experimentation: engineers see challenges in the world and develop material interventions, but they often do so without fully knowing the social implications of what they do.
At the same time, the built world of the future needs to look completely different from the world of today, and engineers and engineering are crucial to that. For example, people can talk all they want about mitigating climate change, but if in 10, 15, or 20 years people are using these same roads, these same cars, this same infrastructure—all of which is the outcome of engineering and planning work—the problem of reducing greenhouse gas emissions will not have been meaningfully addressed. How can engineers push social, science, and technology policy to make peaceful, socially just, and ecologically holistic futures possible?
LET’S GRAPPLE WITH VALUES
The idea of “good” is subjective and normative, and questions of dual use are real; building destructive capacity to one person is strengthening national security to another. Thus it is important to be clear in the goals and visions for the future instilled in engineering designs, because engineers legislate the future (Zimmerman 1995) without really knowing it, creating path dependencies for future generations. What we as engineers do now, each day, really matters. We create—or avert—possibilities, opening and closing technological, social, political, economic, and environmental futures. We need more spaces to hash out these challenges and express care for the future. Just like in the Google case, the engineering community has to encourage open debate about the values, motives, and politics in and of engineering.
I can state my motivations simply: I want all engineers to instill the values of peace, social justice, and environmental protection in all engineering work, from aerospace to naval architecture. I advocate for more engineering and design to benefit the poor and marginalized (including here in the United States), for engineering that reduces the potential for armed conflict, or, for example, to reimagine migration corridors for animals whose ability to migrate is disrupted
by land development. I’m idealistic because it is possible and even practical to create new visions of what engineering should be.
This ethos is not new. In the fervor of the anti–Vietnam War movement in the late 1960s, scientists and engineers founded Science for the People (https://scienceforthepeople.org), which raised critical questions about how and why their intellectual labor was used to develop weaponry and perpetuate war. As chronicled by historian Matthew Wisnioski (2012), on March 4, 1969, faculty and students at MIT shut down the Institute for a teach-in that featured panels on military technology, the Vietnam War, and DOD- and ONR-sponsored research being done at Lincoln Laboratory. After the shutdown the MIT Fluid Mechanics Laboratory—which at the time had three full and three assistant professors, a support staff, and approximately 20 graduate students—underwent a complete transformation. It changed the focus of its research from fluids research for military purposes to four other areas: air pollution, water pollution, biomedicine, and desalination (Wisnioski 2012).
All of this comes from the recognition of the deeply political nature of science and engineering. Who decides what to research, what is considered a good design, even the simple act of posing a question—all reflect values and motivations, and circumscribe the tools and methods that can be used to accomplish goals. Engineering is a political endeavor.
Activities That Make a Difference
Here are some examples of engineers, scientists, technical workers, and other leaders who today are thinking differently about how engineering and technology can be used to explicitly promote the values of peace, social justice, and environmental protection.
Linking Experts with International Need
On-Call Scientists: Access to technical skills and resources can add significant value to groups that cannot afford to hire technical staff. The American Association for the Advancement of Science program for Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law runs On-Call Scientists (https://oncallscientists.aaas.org/ en), which connects scientists, engineers, and health professionals interested in volunteering their skills and knowledge with human rights organizations that need technical expertise. Through On-Call Scientists, a hydrologist enabled a Kenyan human rights group to incorporate social impacts into the requirements of a government-mandated environmental impact assessment for exploratory oil drilling in that country. And when the Syrian government denied that it was using chemical
weapons on its civilians, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were connected with a forensic anthropologist, a pharmaceutical scientist with expertise in toxics, and a biochemist with expertise in the detection of chemical weapons to provide the NGOs with evidence to dispute the denials and build international will to address the war crimes (Harris 2017).
Connectivity for the Overlooked
The Equitable Internet Initiative: A quarter of both urban and rural populations in the United States do not have broadband internet access or can’t afford it (Smith 2018), creating a digital and information divide. The Detroit Community Technology Project’s Equitable Internet Initiative (http://detroitcommunitytech.org/eii) is increasing access through the distribution of shared gigabit internet connections in three underserved neighborhoods, increasing internet adoption through a training program that prepares residents of those neighborhoods with the skills necessary to bring their communities online, and increasing pathways for youth into the opportunities of Detroit’s burgeoning Innovation District through intermediate and advanced digital literacy training.
If You Can See It, You Can Change It
SkyTruth: Throughout the 1990s John Amos worked in the private sector as a geologist who used remote sensing as an exploration tool for the fossil fuel industry. But when he looked at a time series of remotely sensed images of his hometown in Wyoming, he saw the landscape that he grew up in and loved transformed from one of raw beauty to one marred by fossil fuel rigs. That spurred him to lay the groundwork for SkyTruth (https://www.skytruth.org), a nonprofit that uses the view from space to motivate people to protect the environment. In 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon disaster happened, SkyTruth questioned BP’s and the US government’s estimates of how much oil was being pumped into the ocean and found that the flowrate of the spill was being significantly underreported—by a factor of twenty. That analysis thrust SkyTruth into the spotlight, and since then the company has used satellite technology and remote sensing to monitor threats to the planet’s natural resources from urban sprawl, fracking, mountaintop removal mining, and overfishing of the oceans. Their goal is not just to report on disasters but to inspire a global movement where everyone can both easily access the technical resources that SkyTruth uses and be motivated to protect the planet from future catastrophes.
Engineering for Peace
Peace Engineering: Drexel University’s Peace Engineering is “the nation’s first program dedicated to preventing and reducing violent conflict through education
and research that integrates innovative technologies, approaches, and policies with the studies and practices of peacebuilders.”2 Important action-oriented engineering projects and research programs can be developed with the goal of creating the conditions for peace and reducing the possibilities of violent conflict. For example, given the current flux in social justice, economic inequity, political fracturing, and ecological degradation, system models can be developed to predict how disparities in health, education, and access to resources affect the dynamics of interacting economic and social systems and can lead to conflict. Such models can also enhance understanding of the impacts of sudden population changes, like those that occur in disasters like hurricanes or armed conflict, on economic and social systems in communities that absorb the displaced population. At their core, programs like peace engineering expand the definition of what engineering can be and what it is for.
Give the People What They Need
Understanding the engineering, science, and technical needs of environmental, energy, and climate justice groups: In the environmental movement, many communities across the country do not have the technical resources they need to be more effective advocates to address environmental and social justice challenges, and are often overlooked by government, academia, and nonprofits. Communities are concerned, for example, about what climate change means for them or, if they are near industrial facilities, about how the facilities are polluting their air, water, and land. What might help these communities? And how can more engineers and scientists be mobilized to address their needs? In my lab group, re-Engineered (www.reengineered.org), we start by asking, What are the scientific, engineering, and technical needs of environmental, energy, and climate justice groups across the United States? What we learn will help shape our engineering research and development work. In addition, we are building an online portal to provide opportunities for the rest of the engineering and science community to be involved and get linked to communities in need.
These examples show that engineering for the people is happening. And engineers need to help normalize this kind of work in day-to-day engineering practice, to scale it up, create ways to value it differently, and ensure the proper training of engineers, scientists, and other technical workers to do this work. But such work raises many barriers and questions. First are the connected issues of values, financial security, and debt. It is not only a matter of educating future engineers differently. The vast majority of engineers around the world are not in
school—they are out in the working world, with jobs, families, and maybe a mortgage, and they probably went to college at a time when thinking about issues of social justice and environmental protection and sustainability in engineering was not part of their educational experience. How can they be engaged and mobilized?
It seems to me that a lot of engineering jobs take creative, talented people and turn them into cogs in a bureaucratic machine, order takers, with little sense of purpose. In contrast, engineers who engaged with On-Call Scientists, for example, remarked that their experiences completely changed their sense of purpose (Harris 2017). What is needed is to change this work from being pro bono to paid work with a decent paycheck. What are ways to reach engineers in the working world to highlight opportunities for engagement? How can they create these opportunities for themselves?
Student debt can also lead to unfortunate compromises in values. I overheard a conversation among graduating engineers at my alma mater, the University of Michigan, in which one student said, “I really don’t want to take this job building missile systems, but I have a ton of student debt, and this would be a good paycheck. So I’m going to try to make the best missiles possible that kill only their intended targets.” The problem of student debt thus shifts the moral burden of graduating students from challenging the dominant system of engineering to one in which they are morally conflicted internally. The most socially and environmentally conscious generation of engineers is now graduating. How can more opportunities be created for them to find work that aligns with their values?
We engineers need to be clear about what problems we want to address and solve. That clarity will guide the kind of research and development done. Some might say that there are trickle-down civilian benefits to military research—new materials, new sensing technologies, quieter commercial aircraft, and so on. Sure. But what could be done by engineers and scientists in the United States directly for schools and colleges, poverty alleviation, hunger reduction, environmental remediation, the opioid crisis, and climate change resilience with the $200 billion that has been added to the military budget over the past two years (Korb 2018)? I recognize that this question challenges fundamental values and principles that guide US science and technology investment.
The world today has in no small part been created by engineers, and engineers will continue to dictate the design and development of technologies that shape humans’ relationship to the Earth. To infuse engineers with ideals of justice, with practical tools to understand the impact of their work on people and the Earth, and with the ability to work closely with those who have different kinds of knowledge, is to change the world.
And so I end this essay with questions I think all engineers should grapple with3: Why are we engineers? For whose benefit do we work? What is the full measure of our moral and social responsibility?
Breland A. 2017. How white engineers built racist code – and why it’s dangerous for black people. The Guardian, December 4.
Conger K. 2018. Google employees resign in protest against Pentagon contract. Gizmodo, May 14. Available at https://gizmodo.com/google-employees-resign-in-protest-againstpentagon-con-1825729300.
Harris T. 2017. Building academic/practitioner teams for human rights projects: Examples, lessons learned, and pitfalls to avoid. Conference on the Social Practice of Human Rights: Charting the Frontiers of Research and Advocacy, November 8–10, Dayton.
Korb LJ. 2018. Trump’s defense budget. Center for American Progress, February 28. Available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/news/2018/02/28/447248/trumps-defensebudget/.
Lohr S. 2018. Facial recognition is accurate, if you’re a white guy. New York Times, February 9.
Smith R. 2018. A quarter of urban Americans don’t have broadband access. Here’s why. World Economic Forum, January 18. Available at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/a-quarterof-urban-americans-dont-have-broadband-access-here-s-why/.
Vincent J. 2018. Google “fixed” its racist algorithm by removing gorillas from its image-labeling tech. The Verge, January 12.
Wakabayashi D, Shane S. 2018. Google will not renew Pentagon contract that upset employees. New York Times, June 1.
Wisnioski M. 2012. Engineers for Change: Competing Visions of Technology in 1960s America. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Work RO. 2017. Establishment of the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (Project Maven). Memorandum, April 26. Available at https://www.govexec.com/media/gbc/docs/pdfs_edit/establishment_of_the_awcft_project_maven.pdf.
Zimmerman AD. 1995. Toward a more democratic ethic of technological governance. Science, Technology & Human Values 20(1):86–107.