Exploring the Societal Engineer


I was recently reading an article, The Role of Engineers: Designing Society, written by Angelene McDaniel and it definitely caught my interest. It deals primarily with how the engineer ‘shapes’ society. The article argues that engineers design systems, but those systems actually design society as we know it. Just as the engineer accounts for the various conditions his design must endure, he must account for the various societal conditions his design will create.

Conventionally, the engineer is afforded a set of parameters to meet and his role is viewed as a purely technical one. For example, the engineer typically is concerned only with how his bridge will stand and endure, not with how his bridge will shape the town. An interstate highway, often times, is the only real perspective of a city for a traveler passing through. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote an entire op ed on how freeways shape cities. So the engineer should not forget that his role is to incorporate the human element, to construct for people, that he is more than a mechanical or electrical engineer; he is a societal engineer.

By most measures, an engineering education is becoming exceedingly popular. Engineering jobs are in demand more than ever. The Engineer of 2020 project is devoted to laying out the ideal picture of an engineer of the future. They recognize that it is imperative for engineers to work within social contexts.

“The future is uncertain. However, one thing is clear: engineering will not operate in a vacuum separate from society in 2020 any more than it does now…consideration of social issues is central to engineering.”

Think about it. Outside the bridge and highways example, look at how products are designed. They’re designed with an eye on maximizing inter-customer interactions and in the setting of societal trends. New products are designed so as to introduce new paradigms into our lives. Every new generation of smartphones and signal processing capabilities shape and reshape modern communication. Changing communication concepts defines how people interact, in turn redefining entire population densities.

The societal engineer has a holistic approach. He or she accounts for a multitude of broad factors spanning efficiency, design, and social constraints and presets. In this vein, it is clear to see why the rise of the societal engineer correlates so highly with the increased prominence of engineers as entrepreneurs. It is a basic requisite of entrepreneurs that they have a broad, holistic strategy and methodology. Entrepreneurship asks the same questions that the societal engineer asks. It is possible to even say then that the engineer turned entrepreneur is a societal engineer. That’s a large part of why I am so involved in business pursuits and the entrepreneurship world. I am an engineering student, but I do not see that as being distinct from a businessperson. I absolutely believe that the new-age engineer should be able to think and act like an entrepreneur as well.

However, engineering education, as much as it has evolved (this is important; it’s changing but not enough yet), still has a ways to go to catch up to the changing realities of the modern world. It is still too fixated on problem sets, and not enough on design challenges. It is too focused on teaching only myopic execution and not enough fostering macro visualization and conceptualization to supplement the hard skills. Engineering education is, to generalize, still too constrained and too constricting. It involves too much training, and not enough educating. There’s a big distinction there. And that is not an environment conducive to developing societal engineers.

Some could even argue that the idea of the societal engineer may be a little overblown. I disagree. It is imperative for engineers to be able to integrate the human element. They hold the power to shape society and entire perspectives. It’s about time that engineers learned to optimize not just efficiency, but also social impact. Let’s build those bridges right.



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