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Towards Socially Responsible Innovation: An Interview with the Authors of Citizen Engineer

Today's engineers want to take control of the way their work is presented and translated to society. They want to connect science and society. Engineers need and want encouragement to pursue radical new options to old problems and to redefine traditional models. But there's little guidance for engineers who want to enter the new era of socially responsible engineering. In this interview, David Douglas, Greg Papadopoulos, and John Boutelle explain how engineers can take a more visible role in shaping the world.
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Green living, eco-engineering, and sustainability aren’t just buzzwords for one profession. Along with intellectual property issues and knowledge sharing, they represent the most pressing challenges facing engineers today. In this InformIT interview, David Douglas, Greg Papdopoulos, and John Boutelle discuss the tough decisions, creativity, and public leadership these issues demand.

In Citizen Engineer: A Handbook for Socially Responsible Engineering, two Sun Microsystem execs and a veteran writer give guidance on the important--and increasingly public--role today’s engineer must embody. The authors also provide important considerations for anyone concerned with environmental sustainability. Diann Daniel talked to David Douglas, Greg Papdopoulos, and John Boutelle about this new “citizen” role and what engineers and others concerned with sustainability should know.

Diann Daniel: Tell us about the new challenges today’s engineers face. Why did those challenges inspire you to write a book?

Greg Papadopoulos: There’s a level of excitement and passion in the engineering community today that I haven’t seen in decades. And I think it stems from the recognition that today there is a unique opportunity to broaden the role of engineers—and their innovations—in solving problems, creating opportunities, and making a real difference in our society. Much of the focus has been on building a new generation of eco-efficient products and using our natural resources in a more sustainable way, and that’s extremely important... but it goes beyond that.

Today’s engineers want to take control of the way their work is presented and translated to society. They want to collaborate not just with each other but also with policy makers, academia, and advocacy groups. In short, they want to be a true connection point between science and society.

But there isn’t a lot of guidance for engineers who seek to enter this new era of socially responsible engineering. What are the key considerations and challenges in designing eco-effective products and services? How do you build on the ideas of others without infringing upon their rights? How can engineers who are already overwhelmed with project deadlines find time to become more involved in political processes and education initiatives?

David Douglas: Our book addresses these questions head on. We wanted to promote the idea that engineers could, and should, take a more visible role in shaping our future world; and we wanted to fill in some of the basic knowledge gaps that we found to be widespread in the engineering community.

The book is a starting point. It opens the dialogue and provides structured content and specific advice on core topics of interest to Citizen Engineers, but ultimately we want engineers to move this discussion forward and flesh out the details. That’s why we’ve also created a website, http://www.citizenengineer.org, where engineers can add to the content of the book, introduce additional topics, and keep it current.

Daniel: What exactly do you mean by “citizen engineer” and “socially responsible engineering”?

Douglas: Citizen Engineer is an ideal. Greg used the phrase “connection point between science and society,” and that’s the essence of the definition. Engineers have always been good citizens and socially responsible. What’s new and interesting today is the broadening of the engineer’s role in society. Engineers are interested in making a difference, and to make a difference they need to know more than ever—not just about their “stuff” but about intellectual property, ecology, business, and public policy. And they need to know how to communicate and work with politicians, business executives, attorneys, and others.

Papadopoulos: So the term “socially responsible engineering,” refers not only to making airplanes that are safe to fly on and netbooks that don’t overheat and burn your lap, but also to new innovations that have the potential to solve urgent global problems. And that could be a new light bulb that uses ten percent as much energy as the current standard and thereby eliminates the need to build ten new 500 megawatt coal plants every year, or a new car that runs on compost or water vapor.

Equally important, in the new era of the Citizen Engineer, socially responsible engineering means communicating your ideas so that they’re clearly understood by everyone involved. As we’ve seen with innovations such as genetically modified foods or nuclear energy, when engineers assume that their ideas will be properly translated to politicians, executives, and the general public, things can go horribly wrong. Promising innovations can quickly acquire a flavor of controversy that renders them untouchable. Engineers need to be part of the dialogue and take a more active role in advocating for their ideas.

Daniel: Despite mounting environmental regulations and eco pressure, plenty of people simply do not believe in the concept of global warming or the importance of being environmentally responsible. And there are plenty of businesses that are worried about the bottom line and will not pay attention to green issues until they are forced to. What would you say to the doubters and the uncaring that could convince them eco responsibility is crucial?

Douglas: Just do some simple math. The planet’s population is now approaching 7 billion, and will likely increase to 8 billion people in the next decade. The ranks of the middle class will swell by as many as 1.8 billion in the next 12 years, according to analysts.

So consider a simple example: What would it mean to give the next 1 billion middle-class citizens of the world a single 60-watt incandescent light bulb? Each bulb weighs about 0.7 ounces, so a billion of them weigh around 20,000 metric tons. Now, turn them all on. Together, they would consume 60,000 megawatts of electricity. Where’s that energy going to come from? With current technologies and standards, it would require 120 new 500-megawatt power plants to keep them burning. Even if those bulbs were only on for a few hours each day, that would still be 20 to 25 new power plants. If they’re coal-fired, each of those plants would burn 1.43 million tons of coal per year. Even if we used solar technology instead, we’d need about 50 square kilometers of solar panels, or more than one-third the land area of either San Francisco or Boston. Just to keep those new light bulbs on for a few hours a day. This is the scale we’re dealing with. Thousands or millions of tons of material. Thousands or millions of megawatts.

And now think about the raw materials consumed to make those light bulbs, the energy consumed by commuting factory workers, the ships and trucks used for distribution, and the waste that is involved when we have a billion burned-out light bulbs. And what happens when these billion people want stoves, refrigerators, TVs, computers, cell phones, radios, and cars?

So to say that environmental responsibility is not really a serious issue, or to say that it’s something that we can pass on to later generations, is ludicrous. And even though I believe in global warming and you may not, the scale of the overall sustainability problem has to convince anyone that we're facing some pretty fundamental problems.

Daniel: You believe the lifecycle of product is an important factor in determining a its true environmental impact. Tell us about that and how lifecycle analysis can help an engineer choose the best approach or enable a consumer to make the most eco-friendly purchasing decision.

Douglas: A couple of years ago, George Will wrote a commentary suggesting that a Hummer is actually more eco-friendly than a Prius when you consider the total impact of everything that goes into producing, using, and ultimately disposing of these vehicles. For example, the Prius has big heavy batteries made with all kinds of toxic chemicals that can have serious negative environmental impacts. And while I strongly disagree with his conclusion about the Prius vs. the Hummer, he has an important point: The environmental impact of any product or service is multifaceted and dependent on many factors, many of which are beyond the obvious impacts. And when you’re designing something to be “eco-friendly,” you need to take all of those factors into consideration.

Our book lays out a structured, but pragmatic, approach to identifying and prioritizing all of the various environmental considerations engineers have to deal with in each phase of the lifecycle—from energy and emissions to chemicals, materials and waste, to the use of water and other natural resources. We even consider the impacts of supply chains, the “mini-lifecycles” of consumables such as batteries and toner cartridges, the hidden impacts of certain products that may require air conditioning or have specialized installation or disposal requirements.

Daniel: Most people are short on time and money, so even environmentally concerned citizens may find it challenging to live as green as they would like. For example, families with tight budgets may not be able to afford local, organic food, a hybrid car, or to live in a city where they could use public transportation. Engineers too must face difficult realities. Products and services must be marketable first and foremost, and often eco-friendliness must be sacrificed in the name of the bottom line. How can we best balance an environmentally approach with everyday concerns—both business and personal—that make an eco-friendly approach difficult?

Papadopoulos: Engineers are not shielded from the complex trade-offs consumers grapple with. There are budget constraints, pressing deadlines, market windows, limitations in terms of technologies, tools and talent, and so on.

What we recommend is that engineers take a structured, pragmatically focused approach to making design decisions. In general, you’ll find that there are some areas where you must make improvements, some areas where it’s advantageous to make improvements, some where it’s easy to make improvements, and some areas where it won’t be worth your time and effort. Once you determine your priorities, then you can establish the requirements and goals for those areas.

In setting priorities, we have found that it is useful to look at your product or service from four different points of view. First, what are the legal requirements? Next, what are the business requirements or opportunities presented by your target market? What are the largest potential impacts? And finally, which things would be easy to fix? Each of these perspectives will guide your decision making, and will provide a framework for establishing requirements and setting goals.

Daniel: Why does creativity play such a large role in eco-engineering?

Douglas: Sometimes the best answer comes from simply looking at the problem differently. The “paper vs. plastic” argument went on for years at grocery stores, but a better answer emerged when some stores simply started asking shoppers to bring a couple of recyclable bags to the store. Or consider what Netflix did for the traditional video rental model. Rather than try to find new ways to make the old model more efficient, the company changed the whole distribution system. And in the process, it cut the carbon footprint of video rental dramatically.

Engineers need to be encouraged to pursue radical new options to old problems, and supported in their efforts to redefine traditional models and explore a whole new approach. They certainly have the creativity; they need a corporate culture that strongly encourages them to apply it in new ways.

Daniel: You talk about design that actually nourishes the environment. What areas have the most possibility for such an approach?

John Boutelle: The traditional assumption has been that a product lifecycle is a one-way street: cradle to grave. We make it, we use it, we discard it. Maybe we can reuse or recycle some parts of it, but eventually “it” ends up in a landfill.

But as Dave was just saying, new options come to light when you look at accepted practices in new ways. William McDonough and Michael Braungart have written a book called Cradle to Cradle that offers a compelling new perspective: Rather than focus on making products that are less bad for the environment than previous-generation products, why not focus on making things that are actually good for the environment? Just one example: Instead of building a roof with asphalt shingles or wood shakes, why not make a roof that’s also a garden? Use a light layer of soil and cover it with plants. This way the roof is actually a growing grid that can provide insulation and keep the temperature stable inside while also sequestering carbon and absorbing storm water. And this is not just hypothetical; it’s an increasingly popular way to build a roof in many parts of the world today.

The possibilities for this type of eco-effective design exist in virtually everything engineers produce. The key is to allow yourself to be more creative in how you approach product design.

Daniel: Any thoughts on green-washing and the special challenges it presents engineers?

Douglas: Green-washing creates serious problems for eco-engineering because it makes it hard for anyone to tell which ideas are genuinely eco-effective and which are not. That means legitimate ideas are not taken seriously and in many cases promising projects are not funded. Green-washing also contributes to “green noise,” which is basically information overload that results in environmental claims being uniformly dismissed as hype or PR.

The way engineers can counteract green-washing and green noise is to provide hard data through measurements and benchmarks. The EPA’s fuel-efficiency ratings are one example: a miles-per-gallon rating for “city” and “highway” driving. They give you a basis for determining how one car’s gas efficiency compares with another’s, and you can quantify the benefits based on your own driving habits. These benchmarks have been slow to emerge in the world of electronic devices but we’re seeing progress now, with eco-rating schemes such as Energy Star, EPEAT, 80 Plus, and Climate Savers Computing.

Daniel: Any companies that do eco-engineering right?

Douglas: We’re seeing a lot of momentum behind genuine eco-engineering initiatives at companies of all types and sizes, worldwide.

The one that stands out to me, and provides the best example of a comprehensive focus on eco-efficient design, is Interface Carpets. This is a leading company in an industry that’s notorious for eco-insensitive waste, and that makes it all the more important to study and learn from this example. We’ve provided the details in our book, but the short version is that back in 1994 Interface launched a total overhaul of its operations centered around environmental sustainability. It began measuring and monitoring every aspect of its environmental impact and also that of its suppliers. It set out very specific goals and objectives, both from a business perspective and an environmental perspective. And the results have been phenomenal. Interface cut total waste sent to landfills by more than 66 percent; they reduced total energy used at carpet manufacturing facilities by 45 percent; they reduced GHG emissions by 82 percent when you include improvements in process efficiencies plus the use of credits. And in the process they saved more than $370 million. So yes, it can be done, and it can be done in a way that makes business sense while yielding environmental benefits.

Daniel: Beyond environmental engineering, you’ve also concentrated on intellectual property (IP) issues. Why are issues of intellectual responsibility so important for today’s engineer? 

Papadopoulos: Readers of our book will notice that the emphasis falls on two broad topics that may not seem to be natural bedfellows: eco responsibility and intellectual responsibility. The reason is simple. These subjects are redefining the way engineers do their jobs, yet most engineers are just beginning to understand the full impact each brings to bear on their work. Now what exactly is intellectual responsibility? It is the use of ideas—your own ideas and those of others—in compliance with intellectual property law.

And why is this important to an engineer? Because when you master the mysterious and arcane world of IP law—patents, copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, and so forth—you gain a powerful tool for propagating your ideas. You make it possible for others to build on your ideas without fear of legal entanglements. You encourage the creation of new products that are consistent with your ethical goals and your company’s financial objectives. In other words you gain control of the destiny of your ideas.

Daniel: How has open source—both the actuality and the concept—influenced IP issues that face engineers today?

Papadopoulos: The open source model has created an explosion of innovation because it opens up a given technology to the ideas of everyone, not just a small development team. And we’ve seen massive adoption rates for open source technologies—Linux, MySQL, GlassFish, the list goes on.

But at the same time, open source can create new headaches from an IP perspective. Who owns the ideas that improve open source software? Which licenses apply and what are the rights of code contributors under each license? Under what circumstances should you sign a contributor agreement and what happens to your rights if you do? The complexity can become overwhelming. What we’ve tried to do in our book is lay out the basics so that engineers can understand what the issues are, get answers to core questions, and know when and how to seek advice from an IP attorney.

Daniel: Aren’t there some dangers of information and ideas becoming more widely shared?

Papadopoulos: There has always been a dynamic tension between creativity and control. Tighten the controls and you inhibit innovation; but without any controls the rights of innovators can be trampled. Our view is that innovation is best served by structures that promote openness and sharing. The reason is simple: Virtually all creative works are in fact derivative. Ideas build on each other, particularly in the realm of engineering. Great ideas come from everywhere, and great ideas should be shared. Again, our book discusses this topic in considerably more detail and provides examples.

Daniel: Any Citizen Engineer projects we should know about?

Boutelle: There is a groundswell of enthusiasm, particularly among students and young engineers, for applying the principles of the Citizen Engineer to real-world projects. Just a few days ago the local paper here in Madison, the Wisconsin State Journal, featured a front-page story about a group of local engineering students who are taking time out from their studies to do engineering projects overseas: a water-purification project in Tanzania, bridge-building in Haiti through the Engineers Without Borders organization, and more. In Panama, engineering students are using small wireless sensors to do environmental research. At Rice University, graduate students are using biotechnology to build eco-efficient water treatment systems. In Brazil, an engineer has devised a scheme for using solar power to irrigate suspended gardens of chili peppers, which could then be bottled and exported as gourmet vinaigrette.

And this isn’t limited to students and researchers. Engineers at Tesla Motors are building a high-performance electric car with zero exhaust. Engineers at Global Research Technologies have demonstrated a new technology that captures carbon from the air. There are hundreds of other examples. The important point is that the era of the Citizen Engineer is real; it’s changing the way engineers see themselves and their role in society; and it’s making a real difference in improving the quality of life worldwide.

Diann Daniel is a freelance editor and writer based in Massachusetts. She counts environmental issues as one of her many passions.

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