If you get a chance, read Greg Papadopoulos’ excellent post titled “Charting a Course from Recent Grad to ‘Citizen Engineer'”. In there Greg asks “Wanna be a great engineer?” and talks about the role that engineering plays between science and society, which has always been important, but is increasingly so.
But given my role, I want to take Greg’s point a step farther. Naturally, engineers are most focused on the act of creation – ‘engineering’ is what they do. However, the products that an engineer creates have lives that extend well beyond the effort and timeframe of the engineers involvement in the product. And we’ve seen too many cases where unforeseen circumstances led to major problems, such as CFCs and the ozone layer, or mercury in our rivers.
While these cases are dramatic, I believe they represent the reality of every product today. In the computer world, we are creating land fills of PCs in Africa. Our products are consuming electricity that’s predominately created by burning coal and other fossil fuels. And the things we build take large amounts of energy and resources to create, but due to the onward march of technology are often rendered obsolete within a handful of years.
I suspect that I could walk into just about any industry and come up with a similar list. Even software, which looks like it should be relatively “pure” isn’t without it’s environmental costs.
So I’m calling on our “citizen engineers” to start to take a larger responsibility for the products they create. Not only what they will do during their useful lifetime, but what it took to create and distribute them, and what they will become when their useful lifetime is up. This isn’t taught in our schools yet, so you’ve got to do some learning on your own. Get curious and ask some tough questions about your products. Make a difference.
In the end I believe this is win-win-win. Society will be better off because the products it relies on will have less and less impact on the environment. The company which employs the engineer will be better off — I’ve yet to see a well designed environmental product effort that didn’t yield product and operations costs savings beyond the “traditional” approach. And finally, I’m convinced that the green citizen engineers will be the most sought after engineers in every industry within the next 10 years.