An Engineer In Awe of the Natural World

On the one year anniversary of Design Impact (Earth Day 2010), I thought I would share some thoughts about how my experience as an engineer has shaped my view of the natural world. The things engineers create can be phenomenally complex, challenging and surprising their makers. We know a lot about engineered systems (they were created by people after all), but we don’t understand them completely. It may be easy to understand their constituent parts, but because of the numerous direct and indirect interactions within a system, understanding how the overall system behaves is a more demanding task. It’s difficult to conceptualize how a small change might propagate throughout a system. Engineering experience has taught us that as systems increase in complexity, the consequences of change tend to be more profound. People often get first-order effects right, but some non-intuitive outcomes are the result of a chain reaction several layers deep. For example, engineers thought they understood the behavior of the Millennium Bridge very well before opening day, but were in for a surprise:

In hindsight the interaction between the sideways bridge motion and how people walk is clear, but it eluded engineers until it was too late.

Now take a moment and consider what we know about natural systems. They are resilient, elegant, and essential to human survival. We have studied the natural world and have remarkable (but incomplete) knowledge of it. As with engineering systems, we might have reasonable component-level knowledge, but our comprehension of the intricate inter-dependencies within natural systems is truly embryonic. Lack of system-level knowledge hinders our ability to predict the full consequences of human influences. We were caught off-guard by the results of a single interaction in the Millenium Bridge system - something that we built! What then can we expect when we mess with systems that we did not create, systems with structure only partially revealed through our observation and study?

Humans have several advantages when it comes to understanding engineered systems. We made them and know how they are put together. We can consult specifications and computer models used in their design. In contrast, we don’t have access to design plans for sophisticated natural systems that have evolved and adapted over millennia. We are constantly discovering new relationships and behavior, as well as the importance of seemingly insignificant species in ecosystems. As John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” The intricate links between elements of the natural world are astounding and humbling, surpassing by magnitudes the complexity of mankind’s most sophisticated creations. We can understand and predict correctly the effect of some disturbances on natural systems, but the full ramifications of human impact are likely to be more extensive and deeper than we expect — far more surprising than the wobbly bridge.

Even with modern analysis tools, predicting the results of substantial changes in engineered systems is somewhere between hard and impossible. To avoid unpleasant surprises when designing especially complex systems (automotive design, for example), engineers typically put forward designs that are essentially small perturbations of previously proven systems. We are conservative and resist ambitious changes in engineered systems, yet for some reason (economic externalities?) humans are quick to risk big impacts (pollution, unsustainable resource depletion) on the natural systems we depend on. Some dismiss the notion that humans can have extensive impact, even labeling this idea as arrogant. This convenient rationalization for continued consumption growth is short-sighted and blind to history. Human disruption has caused collapse of ecosystems, even whole societies. While past collapses have been regional in scope, modern society is more populous, resource intensive, and globally interdependent than ever, enhancing our potential for impact.

In summary, we need to recognize the limits of our ability to predict the consequences of human disruption; these consequences are likely to be more profound than we expect. Our interest in the long-term health of natural resources and ecosystems provides incentive to be conservative in our consumption and impact. Our current trajectory cannot be maintained; no system can keep expanding without bumping into limits. Planning and self-imposed restraint are more pleasant options than waiting until we run up against hard constraints such as resource depletion. As the most intelligent and powerful earthly inhabitants, stewardship to preserve is ours. Over the last year Design Impact has addressed ways to leverage our intelligence to provide a high quality of life without applying unsustainable pressure on our world, and will continue to explore how we can create a brighter future for ourselves.

Posted: April 22nd, 2010 | Filed under: Design, Sustainability, Vision | No Comments »

Engineering Education for the Rest of Us


An article in last month’s PRISM, a magazine published by the American Society for Engineering Education, discusses the value of a first-year engineering course that exposes freshman engineering students to what engineering is all about. Many engineering programs pack their first year with challenging prerequisite courses, such as calculus, physics, and chemistry, but sometimes neglect helping students get the big picture early on. It’s easy for a student to get lost in the labyrinth of technical topics, and lose sight of what engineering is all about.

The author of the PRISM article, Prof. Henry Petroski of Duke University, advocates including ‘engineering appreciation’ courses in the engineering curriculum, and focuses on the value these courses have to engineering students. Petroski likens engineering appreciation courses to other introductory courses offered in other disciplines that have no prerequisites, such as art or art history appreciation.

I was fortunate enough to experience two different introductory engineering classes at two separate universities. Each of these courses involved an engaging design project and competition that helped students experience the engineering design process covered in class. In the first course the project was to build a trebuchet (a weight-powered catapult) for launching golf balls. In the second class we built a device that could ride down a model roller coaster, and safely rescue an egg positioned below the roller coaster. In each class I learned something about what engineers actually do in a fun and engaging way; I began to develop my own vision for what I wanted my engineering career to be.

I believe that developing a personal vision for what engineering is (as a profession and how it impacts the world) is essential for all engineering students. This vision can help carry students through the demands of their engineering program, and help them derive more relevance from the individual topics they study. Engineering appreciation courses are certainly a valuable in this regard. I would like to take this idea to the next level. Let’s not limit these courses to engineers or prospective engineers. The art appreciation courses in Petroski’s comparison are not limited to art majors. Engineering, science, and business students all benefit from taking classes like art appreciation, which help them develop a more well-rounded understanding of the world. Why not develop an engineering appreciation class open to all students, targeted specifically for non-engineers? Obviously an engineering appreciation class benefits future engineers, but what about an even broader impact? What would it mean to our society if many college graduates had a solid understanding and appreciation for what engineering is? It could do wonders for the public perception of engineers, and perhaps even contribute to restoring U.S. economic competitiveness by inducing deeper appreciation for and stronger cultural value for technical skills and innovation.

My vision for an engineering appreciation class is one with no prerequisites that college students from all majors could take to fill a science general education requirement; students could take this instead of physics or chemistry. It could be centered around interesting applications students can relate to, things like the engineering behind sports, amusement parks, video games, music, etc., and show how basic math and science topics are relevant to engineering analysis and design. If you were a non-engineering college student, would you consider taking an engineering appreciation class in place of physics? What ideas do you have that could make an engineering appreciation course appealing to a broad range of students?

Posted: January 18th, 2010 | Filed under: Design, Education, Vision | 1 Comment »

Renaissance Scientists, Renaissance Engineers, Renaissance People

A lot of people (including me) are talking about the need to innovate, the need to develop new technology and systems to help solve some pretty important problems right now. In addition to addressing energy and environmental issues, innovation is essential for economic growth and quality of life for society. There is actually recent evidence that a lull in innovation over the last ten years or so has contributed to the current economic crisis.

What can we do to help accelerate innovation? One obvious action is to boost R&D funding (both from government and private sources). We have had some recent boosts to U.S. research and education programs, and a recent Forbes article provided an interesting perspective on what needs to happen for that money to translate into innovation. Forbes pointed out that our current research and educational infrastructure is based on narrowly defined disciples of study, while innovation typically requires the synthesis of ideas from a variety of disciplines. Forbes suggests that we need scientists (and engineers I might add) who can think with both sides of the brain if we want to accelerate innovation (i.e., renaissance scientists and engineers). Forbes also points out that research grants often require very narrowly defined research results, and that we need to support more “flexibility and exploration” in research. We certainly need to endorse expanded curiosity-driven research (in addition to results-driven research) if we are to accelerate innovation, as well as move toward a more open research infrastructure where interdisciplinary collaboration is more commonplace. This would require a myriad of changes, including how research grants are awarded and managed, and improving the balance of funding sources (the share of results-focused industry grants has increased significantly over the years).

The Forbes article points out that some undergraduate programs allow the kind of curricular customization that aids both left and right brain development, but that we need graduate programs that also offer a ‘whole brain experience’. There are actually some vanguard graduate programs that cross disciplinary boundaries (and sides of the brain), recognizing that solving societies toughest problems requires integration of knowledge from many fields of study. Consider, for example, the interdisciplinary Design Science program at the University of Michigan. It breaks away from traditional disciplinary boundaries to address design as a standalone research topic, integrating diverse fields of study, such as engineering, business, and psychology. The Design Science website explains how this field of study differs from established science disciplines: “Traditional science studies the world as we found it; design science studies the world as we make it”.

One of the things I love most about design is getting to focus on an important problem, and integrating knowledge and resources from a variety of disciplines into a complete, creative solution. Design as a discipline really knows no boundaries. I’m glad to see that some are recognizing the importance of linking traditional science and engineering ‘left-brained’ expertise with other disciplines. We would not only benefit from scientists and engineers learning more about right-brained subjects, but by bringing people together from diverse disciplines to tackle tough design problems. Progress in innovation could achieve new heights by linking the skills of engineers with the complementary insights of others. We don’t just need renaissance scientists and engineers, but renaissance people. I hope interest in design expands, and a broader part of our society begins to contribute their ideas and expertise to creating the next generation of energy, transportation, and agricultural systems that will move us toward sustainability.

Posted: June 5th, 2009 | Filed under: Design, Education, Policy, Vision | 1 Comment »

Baby Steps, or War-Time Effort?

Today I read two sharply contrasting items. The first was Michael Moore’s vision for what should be done with GM following it’s bankruptcy. The second was Baby Steps to Better Choices, a new blog that (like many others) eases readers into small changes that will help the environment. Baby Steps advocates shunning bottled water to have a ‘huge impact’, while Moore implores us to undertake a wartime effort to remake our transportation system. The Baby Steps approach is less intimidating, perhaps less likely to offend, and may inspire more people to make some change. But this change will be slow, and the impact insufficient. I believe we need to pay attention to both strategies. Let’s do our best to live sustainably as individuals, but not lose sight of the needed large-scale change. Focusing only on small personal changes runs the risk of mollifying us, satisfying our desires to do something, and thereby distracting us from paying attention to the bigger picture. We have a great opportunity right now to remake not only ourselves, but our nation and world.

So what is the bigger picture anyway? What constitutes a ‘huge’ impact exactly? Fifty percent fewer water bottles? Petroleum-free transportation? To make informed decisions, we need to actually look at the numbers behind any choice. This will help us prioritize. We need to get a feeling for what a kilowatt hour of energy is (and a megawatt hour, and a gigawatt hour). That’s great if we have more folks switching to CFLs, driving less, biking more, consuming less and recycling more. We all need to do what we can as individuals, but let’s not lose sight of a holistic, long-term solution. Genuine transition requires more than disconnected individual good choices. We need new systems for living, new ways of doing things. We need compelling incentives and thoughtful policy changes to drive a more unified effort, and to capitalize on the resulting synergy. Moore’s vision for transportation is a good start. It may not be perfect, but his sense of scale is about right. We need better design of systems for producing and consuming energy, agriculture, and other aspects of living, as well as farsighted leadership and insightful policy design that will drive changes in the right direction and at the right pace.

Earlier I advocated declaring an Earth Decade, a time of transition and concerted effort where we get ourselves back on track. Small indivudual changes will help, but the most important thing we can do is help persuade others. We need more citizens who think long-term, who won’t reject a politician’s proposal for higher gasoline and energy taxes (in exchange for lower income taxes). We magnify our influence when our voice is echoed by others and is heard by decision-makers who can set in motion a grand transformation. What a great opportunity to make a better lives for ourselves, and for generations that follow!

Posted: June 2nd, 2009 | Filed under: Sustainability, Vision | 1 Comment »

Better Urban Design

I usually write about better design of vehicles, renewable energy systems, or other engineered systems. We need to keep in mind the importance better design of other things. Here is a nice video I came across tonight that presents a vision for better urban design:

 

 

In engineering system design one must consider the interaction between all the subsystems. For example, in designing a car, the powertrain engineers need to work with the suspension designers to make sure the two systems work together well. Otherwise you could end up with great individual subsystems, but an unusable car. I view our plans for new transportation and energy systems in a similar way. There are a lot of interactions that we need to manage. Urban design is an issue that interconnects so many other aspects of life, and it deserves attention. We need to think about how our cities are laid out influences how people move, interact, and work. Better urban design and infrastructure could make transportation options viable that are not right now. For example, like cycling works in some situations right now (check out this bike move), but the right infrastructure (along with incentives, education, and availability of high-utility bicycles) could make it work for a large portion of our transportation needs.

Posted: May 28th, 2009 | Filed under: Cycling, Design, Policy, Vision | No Comments »

‘Slow’ Design

Last year I read a book by Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness. In essence, Honoré advocates living a little more deliberately and less frenetically: doing (and enjoying) a few things well instead of obsessing over speed and quantity. Consider how life would be different if society was concerned more about Gross National Happiness than Gross National Product. Honoré provides insights into how to experience more depth in life and focus on things of greatest importance. He describes how Slow philosophy can be applied to a range of areas, including food, work, play, and raising children. I would like to suggest that Slow be extended to another area: design.

In proposing Slow Design, I’m not suggesting that we increase the time it takes to get products to market, but perhaps we can apply elements of the Slow philosophy and focus our creative efforts on issues of lasting value. We need to be working on the right things in the right way, and create more overall value. Slow Design engenders a new cultural perspective on design, more thoughtful consumption, and a shift in priorities.

Think of all the creative effort and resources devoted to developing products of convenience; items that make our lives just a little easier (or appear to make them easier, but actually make them more complicated). What is the real impact of all this effort? Is it genuine progress? Does it raise the standard of living for many people? It certainly generates profit for some, and employs manufacturing workers around the world. Perhaps this phenomenon is a natural result of a market (until recently) full of consumers eager to spend. But what about now? What should we shift out design efforts toward? The present is an ideal time to reflect and reprioritize.

Let’s focus on living with a purpose greater than consumption. Let’s pour our creativity into things of value, things of beauty that really enhance our lives, even improve the way we live. How much variety in injection-molded plastic do we really need? Our design priorities must include clean energy systems, better transportation, common sense agriculture systems, and cradle-to-cradle design, not consumer junk. So much of our creative capacity is wasted on wares worth so little.

What do you think of Slow Design? What past and present design priorities have been a hindrance? What do you think we should focus design efforts on, and how else might Slow philosphy enhance design?

Posted: May 26th, 2009 | Filed under: Design, Vision | 5 Comments »

Earth Decade

One month has passed since Earth day 2009 (today is Design Impact’s one month anniversary). Many of us participated and made some changes on April 22nd. You may have been asked last month what you did to celebrate Earth Day. A better question might be to ask now what have you done since Earth Day. Have any of your changes stuck? You probably have heard some say that ‘every day should be earth day’, that sustainability should become a built-in way of life for each of us. Some even go so far as to say we should throw out Earth Day, which has become a ‘feel good token’. I’m not sure we should eliminate Earth Day, but after 40 years we need to move on to something that fosters bigger impact and faster progress. Our efforts should be continuous; perhaps Earth Day could become our date for annual review. 

We need a more focused approach that goes beyond green choices one day per year, or even green daily choices year-round. We need to get familiar with the numbers that help us quantify and compare the impact our decisions make, and focus our efforts on things that will provide the most impact, particularly over the long term. As we learn more, it becomes clear that good individual choices can make a difference, but will not bring the large-scale change we need for our energy and agriculture systems. So instead of focusing all of our green efforts on whether we have unplugged our phone charger, or if we should skip beef for a day, let’s do as Joe Romm of Climate Progress advocates and ‘get political’. Let’s awaken the full power and creativity of our society and direct it toward changes that will lead to a sustainable future. 

Perhaps the something we need is an ‘Earth Decade’. Have a look at the WE Campaign, which has issued a challenge to the U.S. to ‘commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years’. This is the kind of vision and plan we need—one that is on the the scale of other grand mobilizations or transitions (think WWII and the space race). In the words of Al Gore: 

“our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges - the economic, environmental and national security crises. We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. … If we grab hold of that common thread and pull it hard, all of these complex problems begin to unravel and we will find that we’re holding the answer to all of them right in our hand. The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels. In my search for genuinely effective answers to the climate crisis, I have held a series of “solutions summits” with engineers, scientists, and CEOs.  In those discussions, one thing has become abundantly clear: when you connect the dots, it turns out that the real solutions to the climate crisis are the very same measures needed to renew our economy and escape the trap of ever-rising energy prices. Moreover, they are also the very same solutions we need to guarantee our national security without having to go to war in the Persian Gulf.”

I believe we can solve this. Let’s declare an Earth Decade. Let’s unify and get moving.

Posted: May 22nd, 2009 | Filed under: Energy, Policy, Sustainability, Vision | 3 Comments »

David MacKay on Energy

powertransmission

I just had to share with you a great article from CNN: David MacKay, physics professor from Cambridge University, is urging us to actually look at the numbers when it comes to conserving energy. He explains that ’small actions will not deliver a solution’ to our energy problems, and that ‘our failure to talk straight about the numbers is allowing people to persist in wishful thinking, inspired by inane sayings such as “every little bit helps.” ‘. As I discussed in Feeling Green, doing small things to conserve may help us feel better, and are important to pay some attention to, but in many cases have imperceptible impact. We certainly should do everything we can, but we need to keep things in perspective. If we actually look at the numbers, and get a feel for what a kilowatt-hour is, then we can think more critically and focus our efforts on activities that will make a big difference. For example, we need new energy production, energy distribution, transportation, and agricultural systems. Small actions are not going to remake these systems. We need to come together as a society and voice our desire to make these transitions happen. Important policy changes are being debated right now, and we need to urge our representatives to think long-term and instigate policies that will bring real change. We can amplify our voice by talking about these issues with others and sharing our insightful enthusiasm for the solutions. Perhaps we can inspire others to speak up as well.

Looking at the numbers behind issues allows us to make objective comparisons and leads us to more solid decisions. This is part of why I devote a lot of my writing to quantitative modeling and design issues. I try to show how look at things quantitatively (without diving into crazy math). I’m pretty much keeping it to simple algebra and arithmetic. My purpose in writing the more quantitative posts is not to train you to become an engineer, but to help you get a taste of what’s involved, and to understand a little about engineering design so you can see how it is linked to your own life, and to the future of our society. I’m striving to present quantitative posts in a way that is accessible. It’s a real challenge. I want to keep posts from getting too long, but I also want to make sure I explain things in enough detail. If you have ideas on how I can explain things more clearly, I welcome your feedback (you can email me or post a comment). I also aim to give enough context for the quantitative posts so that readers know why these topics are important, in hopes that some readers who might be put off by equations are willing to read and think about them. Let’s become informed about energy and sustainability issues, and do something with this knowledge.

Posted: May 16th, 2009 | Filed under: Energy, Policy, Sustainability, Vision | 2 Comments »

Do You Know About Shai Agassi’s Vision for Electric Vehicles?

renaultev[Image Credit: Autoblog]

Shai Agassi is someone who has taken a vision and is seeing it through to reality on a very large scale. He is working to make electric vehicles (EVs) a reality for many people in many nations. Shai founded Better Place to develop a complete solution to making battery electric vehicles a practical transportation option. Better place ‘aims to reduce global dependency on petroleum through the creation of a market-based transportation infrastructure that supports electric vehicles, providing consumers with a cheaper, cleaner, sustainable, personal transportation alternative’.

There are many obstacles standing in the way of widespread adoption of EVs, and Better Place seems to be addressing all of them head on. One of their solutions is a quick, automated system for switching out depleted batteries with fresh ones, sort of like refueling for EVs. Better Place demonstrated this system in Japan yesterday. Better place has also proposed a new ownership model for batteries to help improve the affordability and practicality of EVs. Better Place has partnered with the Renault-Nissan Alliance; Renault and Nissan are developing the vehicles, and Better Place is addressing infrastructure. Momentum is building, and agreements are being made worldwide to deploy this system. There are even a few agreements in the U.S. You can hear more from Shai by watching his inspiring TED video below, or by checking out his blog.

Posted: May 14th, 2009 | Filed under: Sustainability, Transportation, Vision | No Comments »

Doing More With Less

windturbine2[Source: Flickr]

One of the main ideas behind Design Impact is that we need to change the way we design things so that we can get the same or better performance, while consuming far fewer resources. This will help us develop a sustainable way of living without having resign ourselves to a much lower standard of living (if a transition to sustainability were to require a much lower standard of living, how would we get anyone on board?). This is not to say that life will be the same as it was in the past: it will be different. The way we do things will need to change, but life can still be good, if not even better than it is now. For example, cleaner air and water, preservation of biodiversity, and a reinvigorated economy are all potential improvements over where we are now that all can be realized through a transition to sustainability. 

What is your vision for a sustainable future? How might we be living differently, and how might it be better than our current lifestyle?

Posted: April 30th, 2009 | Filed under: Design, Sustainability, Vision | 1 Comment »