Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Engineering Altruism: Two Paths

One of the first things my father would often say to me at the end of the day was this: "And what did you do to make the world a better place today?" He'd ask it in a half-joking way, and I generally didn't have a good answer. But it was a good question nonetheless.

Suppose you're a young engineering student about to graduate. You're filled with idealism and a desire to make the world a better place through engineering. Unlike medicine, counseling, and the ministry, engineering is not generally thought of as a helping profession. But it can be, in at least two ways: one pretty obvious, and one not so obvious.

The obvious way is to devote yourself to doing engineering for the billions of people on this planet who lack what the rest of us consider basic necessities: enough food to eat, enough clean water, decent sanitary facilities and medical care, and a way to earn a living that keeps you from starving to death or having to beg. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City has mounted an exhibit on display through September 23 called "Design for the Other 90%" which focuses on low-cost engineered solutions to the problems that 90% of the world's population of 6.5 billion people face. Those of us in advanced industrialized countries live in protected bubbles compared to a person who has to spend hours every day lugging buckets of water from a dirty well a half mile away, gathering firewood to cook government-provided rice, and hoping that you won't come down with the latest plague that is making the rounds of your village. But far more people live like that than like most of those who are reading this blog. A New York Times article describing the exhibit carried a photo of one of the cleverest inventions: a water carrier shaped like a wide tire that even a child can tow with a rope, enabling him or her to carry five times the amount of water that a bucket would hold.

As a sometime inventor myself, I know that the world does not lack for ideas. The reason that more of those 90% don't benefit from many of these inventions is not that nobody has thought of them yet. The real problem is more in the realm of economics and politics. What investor with a few million dollars to spend is going to start a company to make products for people with almost no money? The exhibit's website carries a statement about half the world subsisting on less than two dollars a day. Speaking in terms of market segments, that is not the segment that most investors will think of first.

Hence, the altruism in today's title. If those who need these things are going to get them, many things have to change. Yes, the products that would help them in their existing ways of life need to be invented and reach the intended users. But the users have to change too: harmful and even self-destructive attitudes and habits are not unknown among the poor as well as the rich. The hardest task of all, much harder than simply designing a clever product that looks like it might help somebody poor, is understanding enough about the people and their culture to know what would enable them to benefit from the product, and working with them to make those changes. The old saw about "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime" embodies a profound truth: changing a person's physical circumstance without changing the person for the better can help only for a moment. But if this type of humanitarian engineering is done with full recognition of the cultural roadblocks that so often turn a technical success into a social failure, it can truly change the world.

There are several organizations that help engineers in these endeavors, notably an outfit called Engineers Without Borders. If you are either a student or professional engineer, you can locate a chapter near you and find out how to get involved.

That's one way to be an altruistic engineer. The other way is one I don't recommend unless you've already met the first pre-requisite, which is to get filthy rich in engineering or invention. Turns out that the Cooper-Hewitt exhibit is funded by the Lemelson Foundation, the brainchild (one of many) of the late Jerome Lemelson. Lemelson figured out a way to make tons of money while being an independent inventor. There are two schools of thought concerning the merits of his approach.

One school goes like this: Lemelson just happened to be an extremely clever guy whose patents for toys, industrial robots, and other useful devices brought him millions of dollars, whereupon he founded the Lemelson Foundation to promote the benefits of invention and ingenious design, and died in 1997, end of story. The other school, for which I have some limited evidence, is that at some point in his career Lemelson decided to specialize in what are known as "submarine patents." According to this version, Lemelson filed scads of patents in hot new fields on all kinds of ideas he had never tried in practice, but hoped would some day pan out and become commercialized. When a well-heeled company came out with a product that could be construed to infringe one of his broadly-written patents, he would show up on their doorstep, patent in hand, and threaten to sue. Fearful of extended litigation, many companies simply settled out of court, but even court battles can turn out in an independent inventor's favor.

Probably the truth about Lemelson lies somewhere in between. However he made his money, toward the end of his life he decided to use it to benefit humanity by encouraging invention and design. And to his credit, as far as I can tell the Lemelson Foundation has done exactly that, sponsoring annual invention competitions and exhibits about invention at the Smithsonian Institute and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and funding other worthwhile endeavors.

And this is the second way you as an engineer or inventor can be altruistic. If you go into an engineering-related business, you can make as much money as you can. And once you make your millions, you can devote them to a good cause. The danger in this path is that once you have all that money, it can be really hard to turn loose of it. Of the world's millionaires, only a few emulate the 19th-century steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who once stated publicly his intention to leave the world as poor as he came into it. And even he didn't quite succeed. In his effort to die poor, he built hundreds of libraries throughout the U. S., and if you happen to get to Manhattan to tour the 64-room mansion that houses the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, you can thank Mr. Carnegie for it, because it was once his house.

Sources: The New York Times article on the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is at The exhibit website is at The website for those in the U. S. interested in Engineers Without Borders is at

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