Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.



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?

Add New Comment


  • Sean Conner


    Yes, I totally agree with the sentiment, and I think a fundamentally different way that these problems/challenges are approached is needed... but what I feel is missing in virtually all discussions around new approaches is an understanding of geopolitics and realpolitik.

    For example it's one thing to be creating solutions that will operate in an environment of benign neglect from the powerful governing bodies of the world, but it's a completely different thing to be creating solutions that will operate in an environment of complex geopolitical forces.


  • Bob Gower

    Great post Ryan. I too have been heavily influenced by the books you cite and am also passionate about the solutions technology can offer. I also believe part of the problem is not only what we build but how we build it. 

    As we see the death of our industrial society - or rather as our industrial society begins to overwhelm and compromise the very things it once supported so well - I think we need not only new technologies but new types of organizations. 
    Everywhere I go I companies composed of passionate, intelligent and caring people that somehow collectively manage to behave like selfish, spoiled children. For me the new frontier is in collective intelligence and it is why I'm so drawn to Agile and Lean as philosophies and methodologies. 

    What I see is that we need organizations that allow for the collective values and passions of the individuals to be fully present and accounted for and who are equally accountable so people and planet as they are to profit. 

  • UncleGroOve

    Unfortunately the article - whose underlying principles I completely share and approve - fails to challenge one of the unchanging facts of the carbon-capitalist culture.
    Someone wants to make a quick buck, better yet a billion bucks, by "owning" or engineering outright a crisis.
    Water treatment and supply for example - it is more profitable to a well-connected firm to win a contract to reengineer water mains and distribution systems, rather than see one million citizens drastically alter their consumption behaviour. Water your lawn 7/24!! Why bother to have to conserve?
    Why build a more durable cellphone, a tool that lasts say 10 years, when you can nudge the collective behavior in an infinite cycle of destruction of the old (and working) and upgrade to the new?
    What is truly needed is a reengineering of shared values, more than of hardware and software (open source or not) - and engineers can contribute to promote this by adopting a creatively critical stance in relation to the prevailing and destructive consumer culture.

    Peace and good vibes


  • Eric

    I'd love to change the world. In fact, I work in one little specialization that I think can and does change the world. But, I'd also like to live a comfortable life and build wealth. When we address the fact that it's easier to become wealthy making iPhone games than it is to solve the world's hard problems, maybe engineers will, in greater numbers, focus on world-changing ideas. Otherwise, I wouldn't be surprised if folks rather choose the path that allows them to buy a nice house and send their kids to good schools.

  • Ryan Martens

    Thank you for your comment.  I tend not to see things in zero sum games of A versus B.  I think you can do both.  The folks at Method Soap are doing just that.  By starting their design process with the ultimate sustainable solution, they are able to incrementally move towards it.  They have also drug the entire market in that direction too.  The Standford podcast on them is a fantastic story of their startup life. See

    I hope their story helps you find a way towards both.


  • NoNewAilements

    Engineering medium are not necessarly happy mediums.  The fear of confrontation with environmental activists is often a concern as close as within the workplace.  Yet many engineers can also report less hours spent at work with new technologies leading to greater competition.  Engineering opportunities exsit for interested workers so often the questions turn to who can help with the search for new jobs.  My advocate from Co.Exist recommeded I pay close attention to the success the most recent start-up here are having as many will information about Engineering Careers.


  • Ryan Martens

    Please see my comments above about Method or to Peg about EWB.  As a Citizen Engineer you need to grow these special powers:
    - see big systems
    - collaborate across boundaries
    - create your desired future
    - rapidly prototype and learn

    Join an EWB chapter and you will see work all these muscles and I bet you will find a path to your desired future. 


  • Ron Graham

    My comment is what I told Fast Company on Facebook.

    The question "why aren't engineers working for good?" is answered easily. (1) "Working for Good" requires a little funding. Even engineers
    need patronage. The writer of the article has a whole company behind
    him. (2) "Shared Intellectual Property" requires an audience willing to
    take what the engineer has to offer. If the engineer has to beat the
    bushes to be heard, then see (1). Finally, (3) licensed engineers will
    tell you theirs is a license to be sued. Engineers make mistakes on the
    way to finished designs. Who will bear the burden of any mistakes made
    or blind alleys traveled?

    When those three questions have answers, then sign me up.

  • Ryan Martens

    Ron, Thanks for the comments.

    I can appreciate your positons - this is not easy, but we have to find ways to move forward.  Let me see if I can help:

    The current measures of the system do not make it easy to drive innovations that deal with the externallities of our take-make-waste system. (ie no tax on waste or carbon)  Yes I have a whole company behind me, but I have to justify our work too.  Like the the two Citizen Engineers that I met at the Unreasonable Institute, you have to think like a bootstrap entrepreneur.  Those engineers won grants and contests to get their initial seed funding.  Based on seed funding they built  more elaborate prototypes that kept knocking down customer and investors hurdles.  With their trip to the Unreasonable Institute, both we able to touch impact investors that were there to help them scale. 

    In our business, we have leveraged programs with the City of Boulder, Ecocycle and CORE Colorado to help us make progress on sustainability.  Now as we are finally becoming the primary lease holders on our entire building, we are in a much better place to negotiate alternative energy packages that are win/win for tenant and owner.  To fund efforts, we leverage savings on software subscriptions from both Salesforce and NetSuite based on our B-Corp membership.  Our venture backed business does not make a profit and our investors are focused on financial returns.  As such, I can not justify using venture capital to fund efforts that do not pay back in 12-24 month windows.  This does not stop me, it just keeps me scrappy. To grow our funds, I am in the midst of launching a social enterprise inside Rally to grow our sustainability funds over time. Too much money is not a good thing in this space, it creates solutions that are not scalable for the world.

    With regard to "Shared Intellectual Property," you certainly need a following.  In the book Citizen Engineer, the authors focus non-software engineers on the world of open source software.  In that world, successful projects are certainly measured by the number of contributors and the frequency of project updates.  So, you are correct that it is a bit of a chicken and egg process.  But if you can break through a tipping point, your project can gain the support of engineers from around the world.  Engineers that both help build and apply the technology.  A more physical example of this market is the Makerbot marketplace at  Thanks to creative commons licensing, these things are freely shared with attribution and the extensions are kept in the open source with the share-and-share-a-like clause. 

    I understand PE's being concerned about signing off on designs, but I do not see how that applies here.  My call to action was to have engineers begin to add sustainability and social justice to their evaluation criteria and not just settle with feasibility, effectiveness and desirability.  We still have to make solutions that are safe for people.

    I hope these answers helped?

  • David Hewson

    I think Peg nailed it. More constraints can lead to the most creative, and best, solutions, because you're forced to break out of your normal thinking.

    This reminded me of a great article on the subject by Globe and Mail writer Russell Smith:

    At the end, after detailing all the ways he'd procrastinated in writing his article, he says: "I should be able to use my terrifying deadline as a wake-up call for my art."

    Climate change has given us engineers some terrifying deadlines. Hopefully it can be a wake-up call for our art, too.