Over 30 years ago, I read a book by Victor Papanek. It was called Design for the Real World. In it, the author made the case for responsible engineering. That is, he advocated the kind of engineering that exists to benefit all stakeholders, not just shareholders.
One example of this kind of engineering is the clever use of inexpensive materials to create nonelectric refrigeration for underdeveloped regions (Papanek described a unit powered by a bicycle pump). An example of electronics engineering for the public good would be the creation of ecologically benign communications and computing devices, rather than the toxic, throw-away devices we have now. Another example would be the creation of reliable, low-cost, medical testing equipment.
These are the kind of applications that make engineering the Noble Profession. In other words, they enrich humanity in general, rather than enrich only one portion of the population at the expense of another, or waste resources on throw-away gimmicks.
Right now, the Noble Profession of engineering is being humiliated and bastardized, through the use of throw-away employees, who all too often are working on throw-away products. The waste is accumulating at too high a rate, on every level, in terms of personnel, materials and energy.
What I wish we could see is a resurgence of public spiritedness. How wonderful it would be if the masses and masses of thrown-away, older engineers could volunteer to use their enormous skills to produce the kinds of designs and products that they wanted to produce all along. Devices to help the poor and the sick. Products that can lift humanity to heights it has never seen before.
I propose that laid-off and unemployed engineers work pro bono, for the good of the public, on at least one project that they think could benefit humanity, and not just the bottom line. It would have to be achievable, low-cost and useful, with little or no toxic footprint.
How about a way to extract electricity for laptop computers from the excess heat from stoves or furnaces? Or maybe a way to adapt image recognition devices for use by the blind? Might there be a way to put Amber Alert electronics into children's apparel?
Some of you might have learned, in your engineering economics class, that profits are the best measure of utility and usefulness. I had that class, too. That class was wrong. Profits are a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is human fulfillment. If there are other means to that same end, then they are just as valid as the profit motive. And, whenever the profit motive stands in the way of human achievement, then it needs to be put aside.
Naturally, I am not saying that working to benefit oneself is wrong. We have to eat. I'm just saying that there is more to life than that. Maybe showing it, during a time when we have the time, can make the point to others, and spotlight the terrible waste that is now ravaging the Noble Profession.
So, what kind of engineering are you doing? What kind of engineer are you? How noble is your profession?
Rich Krajewski is an electronics engineer, editor, and amateur-radio operator WB2CRD.