Editor’s comment: Activist Engineering – social responsibility for engineers…

Author : Mark Gradwell | Editor | EPDT

03 December 2021

Activist Engineering
Activist Engineering

A new initiative from electronic components distributor, RS Components (RS) caught my eye as I was writing this month’s column: Activist Engineering. Engineers have been at the forefront of shaping the world we live in, RS point out. But although engineering has shaped the way we live & work, it’s also contributed to many of the environmental challenges we face today...

This editorial leader was originally featured in the December 2021 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Our hunger for the latest tech has created a throwaway economy, with many devices having much shorter lifespans than previously. Much of this sadly ends up in landfill earlier than it needs to, either due to low quality or obsolescence…

Engineers play a key role in society. The products and technologies they design and develop can directly affect people’s lives and wellbeing, as well as the health of our planet. At November’s COP26, world leaders assembled in Glasgow to address how together we can tackle the problems that are damaging the planet and the health of its inhabitants. RS’s DesignSpark platform is a community for engineers that offers access to design tools, helping provide technology building blocks for engineers. Its new DesignSpark #ActivistEngineering programme aims to help educate and influence engineering responsibility to all generations of engineers.

Mark Gradwell, Editor, EPDT
Mark Gradwell, Editor, EPDT

As sustainability becomes higher priority for companies and individuals, everyone needs to play a part in looking after the environment and its inhabitants. Engineers can make a real difference in the way that products are designed. From conception, ensuring that products are designed to last longer and use fewer components and materials, as well as being more aware of what happens to them once they reach their end of life. Can they be re-used, recycled or more easily repaired? Are they using precious natural resources that end up in landfills across the world?

Through its #ActivistEngineering programme, RS is asking engineers to step back and ask how they can create engineering outcomes that have a more positive impact on the world around us. To support this vision, RS has unveiled a new cloud-enabled open-source prototyping platform to help address the challenge of rising air pollution, consisting of open-source hardware and code developed in collaboration with DesignSpark partners, including Raspberry Pi. Affectionately known as the “Jam Sandwich”, this Environmental Sensor Development platform will power a first initiative to raise awareness and understanding of air quality where we live, work or commute.

Aerospace engineer and academic, Darshan Karwat, has spent the last few years developing a philosophy and approach under the same name, “activist engineering”, that aims to empower engineers to step back and ask: What is the problem? And does this problem require a technological solution?

EPDT December 2021 cover image
EPDT December 2021 cover image

He recognised that engineering work has far-reaching implications, both designed and unintended. For example, continued engineering investments in weapons of mass destruction arguably may not be creating a more peaceful world. But he also acknowledged that for some engineers, the stability afforded by an engineering job can sometimes outweigh the moral, ethical and personal conflicts raised by that work – or the feeling that there are more important or deserving problems that engineers can focus on to serve social good.

Karwat provides a framework for engineers to reflect on the work they do, its value and benefits, who it serves and how that fits into a broader context of social responsibility. It shares parallels with Engineers Without Borders, a programme targeting engineering students that aims to put global responsibility at the heart of engineering, in order to radically change the culture in the engineering sector to ensure a safe and just future for all. This is important, because as I’ve often said here in EPDT, engineers will ultimately solve the problems and grand challenges facing society, from addressing climate change and harnessing renewable energy sources, to maximising the benefits of robotics and AI for all.

EPDT's December 2021 issue also contains features on Power technologies and Consumer applications, plus the latest edition of EPDT's twice-yearly IoT & Industry 4.0 supplement. Read more on what's inside EPDT this month

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