Engineers are considered problem solvers. They create the infrastructure and technology that enable society to function. Their far-reaching impact comes with the responsibility to ensure technology doesn’t create inadvertent harmful effects, says Mark Abbott, executive director of the Engineering Change Lab (ECL). He also suggests that engineers go one step further – that they focus on challenges that matter.
“Humans are really good at making technology, but we need to become equally good at ensuring that the technologies have the best possible positive impact – that is at the heart of the Engineering Change Lab,” he says. “Our aim is to support the engineering community in translating this concept into action.”
Recently, the questions of responsible technology use came to the forefront when Facebook revealed that Cambridge Analytica had accessed the social media giant’s data in the course of working for the Trump presidential campaign. Facebook’s initial reaction of “We are just a tech company” didn’t satisfy the general public. “The consensus was that with increased power comes increased responsibility,” says Mr. Abbott.
Another high-profile example, this time of engineers and technologists aiming to shift the course of their work, is the petition signed by several thousand Google employees. It prompted Google to refrain from bidding for the next round of contracts for artificial intelligence work with the Pentagon.
Such engagement of the engineering community is not new, says Mr. Abbott. “For example, you can look back at the leading role engineers played in helping shape our relationship with energy over the course of the last century, harnessing the power of hydrocarbons and electrifying the world. The leadership of engineers has helped bring about many benefits, and also unforeseen consequences.”
An example of a current effort that is seeking to shape our technological future with greater intention is the Energy Futures Lab, which is engaging engineers and diverse other perspectives to affect advances in building the energy system the future requires of us, where production and consumption align with the scientific principles of sustainability.
We want to ensure that technology development addresses challenges that matter and that technology is used to make the world a better place for all.— Mark Abbott
“What is needed is an awareness about the highly complex impact of technology on society,” says Mr. Abbott. He proposes that not doing harm is not enough – that technology should be intentionally designed with certain values and goals in mind and considering broad perspectives. The ECL calls this concept “technological stewardship.”
“We want to ensure that technology development addresses challenges that matter and that technology is used to make the world a better place for all – more equitable, inclusive, just and sustainable,” he says.
The ECL has already engaged more than 200 senior leaders from workplaces, universities, government agencies, associations and non-profit organizations that form a microcosm of the Canadian engineering community in discussions on how engineers can contribute even more to society, says Mr. Abbott. He adds the ECL is working to develop practical principles that can serve as a roadmap for the engineering profession.
Mr. Abbott believes that stewarding technology presents an opportunity for collaboration. “We need to draw on different types of expertise as well as an awareness of the big picture. We live at a time when many issues require a collective response,” he says. “We have to get experts out of their different silos to build general literacy around the question: How to make sure technology is beneficial for all? Everything flows from that.”
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