Humanitarian-Focused Engineering

Launch of Engineering and Humanity Week promises to explore solutions to global human improvement from the ground up.

Geoffrey Orsak

 Geoffrey C. Orsak

Engineers love to chase big challenges. Some of the biggest challenges today include advancing green technologies, new applications in immersive computing and high-tech health systems that extend our life expectancy, just to name a few. But, by my assessment, the greatest remaining unmet challenge for engineering isradically improving the quality of life for the so-called "bottom half" of the world's population.

Some of our key professional societies (the IEEE and ASME included) have begun to take notice of this new challenge and have recently partnered to create the website "Engineering For Change," full of good examples and ideas. Academia is also catching on - two years ago we established arguably the first institute (Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity) focused on engineering's role in the developing world.

The more than three billion who struggle to survive on less than $2 per day have so many interwoven challenges that it is hard to know where to begin. Everyone has an opinion, or more precisely, an interest area such as water, microfinance, immunizations, etc. These issues all need champions and progress, but before you run off to do good work, let me offer you one important suggestion: first experience the world from the perspective of those you seek to help.

Their world is not a pristine laboratory, or even a messy garage with scattered tools. Their world begins and ends with a laser focus on personal survival.

New individual technologies aren't the solution this diverse and seemingly anonymous community seeks. Yes they help, but progress in health, education, personal safety, jobs and individual freedom are ultimately more vital and more important than new approaches to water purification, school and shelter design, or low-cost transportation.

So how do we walk in the footsteps of those whose lives are so fundamentally different from ours that the mere ability to read this editorial seems to hopelessly divide us?

To get right at this, we are trying something challenging that we hope will become a new national initiative for students and engineers interested in the humanitarian impact of our field.

The first Engineering and Humanity Week will take place April 11-15, 2011, with an ambitious beginning on my campus in Dallas, TX. The centerpiece of this effort is the student-led construction of a "living village," which will be an active and realistic test site for evaluating and improving a variety of ideas that are ready to be deployed in the developing world.

The concept is simple - our engineering students will construct and live in a small village that utilizes a variety of existing ultra-low-cost approaches to shelter, water, sanitation and food distribution. These students will blog daily about their personal experiences and develop specific plans to improve the functionality of the village.

From an educational perspective, the overarching goal is to develop future engineers into highly innovative problem solvers who are fully immersed in the real challenges of their "clients" - whether they are communities in the developing world or companies in the competitive commercial world.

The problems of the bottom half the world are immense and seem to be getting more difficult by the year. Big thinking and brave engineers are going to be key in turning this around, but we must begin somewhere. And this project is as good a place as any to start, and possibly the best for the engineering-minded humanitarian.

Geoffrey C. Orsak is Dean of the SMU Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at dean@lyle.smu.edu.