Engineering and Sustainability

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My trip to Cincinnati and the conference on Engineering Towards a More Just and Sustainable World was most productive and provocative. Combining mostly academics from the engineering and the philosophy world is bound to be fascinating, and this event was indeed. My presentation was designed to make the concept of sustainability clearer than it is in normal conversation within either of these two communities. The same can be said of any mixture of a profession based on positivism and on some sense of determinism, that is, the world can be described by some sort of model and associated sets of laws or rules, with another discipline accepting of complexity and some form of social construction that sees the world as created through the language used in professional conversations.

One of the participants coming from a strong engineering background with a senior position in an engineering society chided the fuzzy-headed folks in the audience for couching sustainability and justice in language that is too squishy for engineers to deal with. And, further, that if these folks want to be listened to they must find a way to talk about the subject in terms fit for engineers’ ears. My question to him was, “Couldn’t it be possible that the fuzzy heads had something important to say about sustainability and it was the engineers that needed to find new filters that would let their words through?” Of course it is some of both, but the conversation set the differences up as rather a case of right and wrong.

As long as engineers only know about dealing with complicated systems and think in terms of machines, the power of sustainability will be unavailable to them and, as a consequence, be lost to their client, large and small. Sustainability doesn’t come from machines no matter how complicated they may be. Sustainability emerges, if we are lucky, from complex systems whose components are linked together in a mesh of relationships so full of interconnections that the behavior of the system cannot be described or predicted by analytic rules. Such systems are very bad news to engineers whose competence grows out of a fundamental belief that the way to construct anything is to break it into small pieces that can be analytically modeled. That belief harkens back to the sciences on which engineering has come to be built and gets its reductionist flavor from the way science is done.

Having been trained and worked as an engineer, I can say these things from my own experience. It was the increasing frustration with the engineering framing of the problems that I was grappling with that gradually led me to take a critical look at the way I viewed the world and operated within it. It was only after I found alternatives to the “standard” models for human behavior and the way the world worked that I have been able to move outside of the massive constraints of that system of thinking.

I left the meeting very pleased to have been included in the discussion, but not too optimistic that much would result. Sustainability in the engineering world is not well-defined, but is always some kind of thing that can be measured and modeled. Ethical behavior can be reduced to some kind of standard or code, like boiler of fire codes, or to rules of practice that embody the ethical choices in the codes or practice. The engineer has only to mindlessly follow the rules to exercise his or her professional responsibilities.

Unfortunately, from my perspective, this won’t work and it will lead to more and more unsustainability and injustice. The reason is that these critical normative concepts are not the output of some machine. They cannot be reduced to numbers or fixed procedures. The engineer cannot evade the responsibility for the consequences of the work. The best statement of this problem I know is embedded in a great article (Rittel, H.W.J and M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155-169.) about wicked problems, another name for the challenges arising from dealing with complex systems. The authors make ten admonitions and assertions as to how to deal with such problems. The last one is most relevant to this discussion. Here it is:

10. The planner [engineer] has no right to be wrong

As Karl Popper argues in The Logic of Scientific Discovery,it is a principle of science that solutions to problems are only hypotheses offered for refutation. Thishabit is based on the insight that there are no proofs to hypotheses, only potential refutations. The more a hypothesis withstands numerous attempts at refutation, the better its “corroboration” is considered to be. Consequently, the scientific community does not blame its members for postulating hypotheses that are later refuted-so long as the author abides by the rules of the game, of course.

In the world of planning and wicked problems no such immunity is tolerated. Here the aim is not to find the truth, but to improve some characteristics of the world where people live. Planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to those people that are touched by those actions.

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2 Comments

Tiago Cruz said:

Thanks again for your sight. My great problem and dilemma as a young engineer is that lack of sensibility in this area. People are getting used to use a formatted mind and therefore, a one way approach. As i learned in Leiden in a elective course of 'creative research' and as you discuss clearly, that kind for background framed approach can lead to the usual replicas. I believe that interconnection between different study arenas are most helpful if not the only way to develop knowledge in the real sense.. the world is not partial, and as soon as you admit it, you will better on the challenges that people that don't know nothing about engineer have to propose.

David M Carter said:

As someone who has worked in the engineering field (civil) for over twenty years, I can appreciate your "difficult" conversation with the engineer who felt the conversaton needed to be contoured to fit his representation of the world. Unfortunately, engineers rarely partake in educational curricula beyond the technical. This is a shame for both engineers and society as a whole. A more eco-centric understanding of the world would better place engineers in a position of helping humanity's necessary drive toward real sustainability.