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 ON THE SHELF

REVIEWED BY ROBIN TATU

ON THE SHELFKnowledge Isn't Enough

Engineers must grasp the issues of the day, then get involved.


Citizen Engineer: A Handbook for Socially Responsible Engineering
by David Douglas and Greg Papadopoulos with John Boutelle
Prentice Hall, 2010
245 pages.


Engineers have always had considerable impact upon their environments. It's a concept depicted in the cover illustration of this book, showing the Greek inventor Archimedes using a lever to heft an enormous sphere. "Give me a place to stand," the third-century B.C. engineer is reputed to have said, "and I will move the Earth." The potential to wield such power is accompanied by equally weighty social responsibility, however; and today, that obligation is becoming ever more pressing and complex. Gizmos on the drawing board today can show up in a matter of months on tens of thousands of store shelves throughout the world. If they contain design flaws, harm the environment, or abuse intellectual property rights, the repercussions will be widely felt.

A successful 21st-century engineer must become "part environmentalist, part intellectual property (IP) attorney, part M.B.A., and part diplomat - not to mention an expert in an engineering discipline, a great teammate, and a skilled communicator." So write authors Douglas and Papadopoulos, who, as senior officers for Sun Microsystems Inc. (recently purchased by software giant Oracle Corp.) have some sense of these matters. Yet they believe that such challenges provide new opportunities and that more than ever before, engineers are in a position to tackle important social issues. Citizen Engineer is both a rallying cry and a specific guide for engineers to embrace such responsibility.

The dual focus in this book - environmental responsibility and intellectual responsibility - may seem an odd pairing. But Douglas and Papadopoulos explain that these are the most urgent concerns for engineers today, redefining how many approach their work. Design specifications for almost every new product will soon have to take the environment into account. And with increasing Internet use and global collaboration, all engineers should understand data security and digital rights management. Thus, the core of Citizen Engineer is devoted to informing readers about issues of lifecycle assessments, greenhouse gas calculations, and "greenwashing," on the one hand; and the employment of patents, copyrights, and open-source software, on the other.

For readers familiar with these fields, this material may be too basic, presented in a largely prescriptive, and sometimes summary, fashion. The authors rely heavily on bulleted listings - of design considerations in disassembly, for example, or common sources of energy, from coal to petroleum to wind and solar power. But the book is targeted at engineers who don't specialize in these areas and need to be brought up to speed. It may also prove helpful for professors seeking accessible introductory material for their students. Others will be engaged by the chapters that debate real complexities - of protecting IP while encouraging creativity and experimentation, for example - yet these are fairly brief, and one wishes the authors had allowed greater range for discussion.

Throughout Citizen Engineer, Douglas and Papadopoulos's advocacy for action is clear. "We didn't write this book simply to provide food for thought," they state. In the concluding section, "Bringing It to Life," they examine how engineering schools, businesses, and individuals can do, and are doing, more, both in approaching their work with a sense of responsibility and in contributing to public debate. Echoing the concerns of many academics, the authors urge a revamping of the engineering curriculum to support more interdisciplinary and team-based learning. Engineering can make profound contributions in the areas of sustainability, health, education, economic opportunity, and human rights, they write, "but our schools have to be more deliberate in making these connections, or else the best students will be attracted to other avenues."

To be a citizen engineer, one doesn't have to "know" more, Douglas and Papadopoulos assert; rather, one has to "be" more, "ready to assume multiple roles, possess broad knowledge in a variety of disciplines, and know when to seek professional assistance."




Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.

 

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