How to Practice Activist Engineering

Illustration of a brain and heart, each made of circuits, connecting.
Illustration: Shutterstock

By: Darshan M.A. Karwat

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

Engineering work has far-reaching implications, both designed and unintended. For example, continued engineering investments in weapons of mass destruction may not be creating a more peaceful world, and deepfake technology is changing our perceptions of truth itself.

It’s crucial for engineers to have the ability to understand and act on the implications of their work. Some reflective engineers, inspiringly, are speaking up, like those who started the Engineer’s Declare movement in response to the climate and biodiversity crises, or those at Google who successfully fought to end their company’s involvement in building artificial intelligence technology to be used in warfare. 

While certainly provocative—and for some engineers, inspiring—these stories are not the norm. The norm is probably more like the case of my friend who works for a large defense contractor. He got his PhD in aerospace engineering—just like I did—having studied computational fluid dynamics. He wanted to do engineering work that he thought was meaningful to the world. But he couldn’t find any other good job close to his partner, so he wound up in defense.  

He really doesn’t want to help build missiles, though. He feels like his skills are not being exercised to their fullest potential, and he questions the utility, social value, and impact of weapons development. Unfortunately, he can’t talk to anyone at his work about his conflicts, even though he is absolutely sure others feel the same way. 

For some engineers, the stability afforded by an engineering job may outweigh the moral, ethical, and personal conflicts raised by that work, or the feeling that there are more important problems that engineers can focus on to serve the social good. For others, there’s simply nothing wrong with how engineering is done today.

But my friend’s story highlights how, in many cases, there’s little room for engineers to openly and critically discuss the endeavor they’re part of.

Engineering workplaces are often not safe spaces for such debate, and it’s not always easy to find an engineering job that does align with one’s values. Furthermore, most engineers aren’t well-equipped to be advocates for change. Engineers are often anonymous cogs in a vast bureaucratic machine. They learn to take orders and have little sense of purpose. And studies have repeatedly shown that engineering education, on the whole, strips away engineers’ concern for public welfare. 

Yet I know that so many engineers of all ages and across many fields want to focus on engineering work with more positive outcomes for society and the planet. So what can we do when our work doesn't align with those values and goals? 

Over the past few years, I’ve been developing a philosophy and approach called “activist engineering,” a term I coined (pre-print here). The goal of activist engineering is to empower engineers to step back and ask, What is the problem? And does this problem require a technological solution? 

As “problem solvers,” it’s important that we engineers ask who is defining the problem for us, and why it’s defined that way. I’ve created a list of questions (which you can find here) that engineers can reflect on (pre-print here) to make the philosophy of activist engineering more practical.

The questions provide a structure to help any engineer consider the social and political, environmental and ecological, and peace and security considerations of their work. The list also has questions to prompt engineers to think about incorporating feedback, alternative problem-solving approaches, and addressing personal conflicts in the work they do. 

I created this list with the input of engineers in academia, government, and the private sector, along with engineering students. All kinds of engineers can use this to start talking to each other and create the conditions for change in engineering.

Answering these questions, even partially, can help make it acceptable to ask critical questions about engineering. It can also help us understand how engineers and engineering may be implicated in creating many of the problems that we are now trying to solve, and give meaning to vague concepts like “public welfare” or “sustainability” in engineering. But perhaps most importantly, it can build a community of like-minded engineers to act on the dissatisfaction they may feel about their work.

While engineers can and should push for structural and policy changes to reimagine what engineering is for, engineers need to invest much more in creating the conditions that can lead to such change. We must engage in the kinds of debates, reflection, and idea sharing that can set the stage for more organized efforts to shift the culture of and motives for engineering. 

What could these spaces of debate and reflection look like? We can push to create spaces within classrooms, companies, boardrooms, and government offices where we can openly question and debate what engineering is and ought to be for.

Reflection could start in small informal discussion groups, with a few individuals initiating an honest conversation about their role as engineers in society. We can imagine discussions evolving through reading groups, or lunchtime seminars in firms or engineering departments about how a particular engineer (or a group of them) is incorporating values of environmental protection, peace, and justice into their work. 

Might it even be possible that answering these questions become part and parcel of the engineering process? A colleague of mine, Jeffrey Fowler, who works at Xerox, thinks so. He said that companies can modify these questions and incorporate them into the practice and business of engineering, with strong norms supporting adherence at levels of an organization, akin to the Project Management Professional Examination Specification and Lean Six Sigma.

As I describe in my paper, these questions are relevant to engineers in small or large firms, in government, in training or in academia, and in non-profits. I believe that discussing these questions can support the technical rigor in engineering work; lead to better engineering research, development, and design; and increase engineers’ and engineering’s accountability to the public.  

My engineering lab, called re-Engineered, takes the ideas of activist engineering and self-reflection to heart to shape how we conduct our research and our accountability to the human and non-human world. I hope you’ll join us in organizing discussions and performing your own self-reflection using these questions, or developing your own process to explore how engineering can better promote environmental protection, justice, and peace.

About the Author

Darshan M.A. Karwat is an assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and The Polytechnic School at Arizona State University.  His PhD is in aerospace engineering and environmental ethics. He was formerly a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 3 April 2020.