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Engineers: Why Aren't You Doing Work For Good?

Designing software is easy, but engineering to make a difference—being a Citizen Engineer—is the true challenge.

I am an engineer.

Like all engineers, I got a ton of science-based education during my studies. Like all engineers, I am used to taking science and figuring out how to apply it. Like all engineers, when something gets under my skin, I can’t help trying to visually prototype ways to solve it. And the science of climate change is starting to scare me as the numbers keep coming back even worse than scientists’ worst-case models. Right now, we have one-third more CO2 in the atmosphere than we have had in the last 400,000 years.

At a world population of 7 billion, which is projected to reach between 9 and 12 billion by 2050, we are straining the natural systems that maintain clean water, clean air, fertile soil, biological diversity, and the planet’s temperature. With the degradation of these natural systems, life on earth will be inhospitable for human beings by the year 2100. That’s only 88 years from now.

How old are your kids and grandkids?

It turns out that the way of life that we all helped create is not sustainable for the future, and we need to fix it. Are you an engineer? If so, our society needs you to apply yourself to the global warming problem for the remainder of your life.

That is the role of a Citizen Engineer.

Citizen Engineer is not my term. Dave Douglas and Greg Papadopoulos coined the term in their great book of the same title. In it, they discuss the role of the open source software movement and the importance of sharing intellectual property in order to rapidly spread social impact innovations throughout the world. My geology professor, Bernard Amadei, drove home the importance of citizen engineering when he started Engineers Without Borders in 2002. His premise? That engineers need to make public welfare paramount in our engineering efforts.

As my friend Christopher Avery likes to say, "The keys to responsibility come in three steps: Intention, awareness, and confrontation." We need to become engineers that set our intention by answering: "Why am I working on this? What is the meaning and principle behind my work? How can I make it even more meaningful?"

As Citizen Engineers, let’s own the problem of climate change and take responsibility for it together.

Step 1: Intention

The intention to create more meaningful work must start with an analysis of real-world situations. For example, the climate data from University of Colorado scientists and the climate simulations from Climate Interactive were used to prepare for the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2010. If you start with this model you will see what it takes for an 80% reduction in CO2 output by every country to keep the the global temperature from increasing less than 2 degrees by 2050. Scientists believe that more than 2 degrees change will structurally change the climate system; I hope you see this as a problem you want to own.

Step 2: Awareness

Awareness means moving beyond denial, blame, justification, and quitting to take responsibility for the problem. Are you burying your head on this issue, or have you just given up?

You can start working on this problem today. What if we all started measuring ourselves and our jobs on more than just scales of "feasible" and "effective"? Many design-thinking folks have added "desirability," but how about adding "socially just" and "environmentally sustainable" as the 21st century criteria?

Google is working hard on net neutrality. Method Soap is working from a starting point of sustainability. For me, the folks who really drove my awareness in the environmental movement were Paul Hawken in Natural Capitalism, Peter Senge in The Necessary Revolution, and Al Gore in Our Choice.

Step 3: Confrontation

Confronting this problem means committing to creating the future that you want. It means integrating work, life, and purpose. It means drawing sustainability and social justice boundaries from which to work inside.

I mentored an emerging class of citizen engineers from around the world this past summer at the Unreasonable Institute. I worked with 26 entrepreneurs from 11 countries who all have the potential to change the lives of 1 million or more people. Myshkin Ingawale, for example, founded a company called BioSense which seeks to detect life-threatening anemia in pregnant women. He was inspired to quit his job as a consultant to confront this particular problem after witnessing the death of a mother and newborn from a disease that is easily controlled with iron pills.

Another, Tricia Compas, was deeply affected by the extreme poverty she observed while growing up in South Korea. She discovered that, during and after the Southeast Asia tsunami in 2005, 140,000 people died, and that 85,000 of those people died of waterborne diseases. Compas was inspired to start Day One Response, an organization which tackles the problem of how to provide clean water to victims of natural disasters. Compas and Ingawale used their skills as entrepreneurs and engineers to tackle difficult problems fearlessly.

You could be the next Citizen Engineer. What are you waiting for?

Governments around the world have not confronted the problem of climate change in a timely manner. I hope it is obvious by now that individuals, companies, and smaller state and local governments must act first.

At my company, Rally Software, we are confronting this problem by setting a goal of attaining Net Zero by 2020. Net Zero is a state in which our positive impacts outweigh our negative impacts. We were inspired by Ray Anderson’s pledge to get his company Interface to zero by 2020 and also by the great, digestible example of the Net Zero concept presented Colin Beavan’s book No Impact Man. As a first step, it seems clear that we at Rally have to separate our growth from CO2 emissions. We must create constraints for the business. This means capping our carbon output and committing to grow and innovate inside the boundaries of sustainability.

I believe sustainability is a challenge that will inspire us to develop creative solutions. I believe it will drive impact and income, meaning and purpose, principles and practice that lead to a future I can talk with my son about.

How about you? Can you tell your loved ones you are working for a future that you want?