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.
Unfortunately I have to agree with MLED, Engineering a solution to the problems of the world can be and are being done now, the problem is how do you stop corruption, greed, corporate domination, and lack of comprehension of what a better world is.
Engineers do have the power of knowledge, but they do not have control of that power. If you engineered a solution to all of societies problems, you would end up in a (short) lifetime of mental hell from the all the forces that profit from the destruction of a better world.
Why can we not feed the hungry, heal the sick, house the homeless, and not pollute? It is not from a lack of tech.
Welcome to Mr. Toads wild ride
Rich, have you not heard of Engineers Without Borders? Many universities have student chapters and many large metro areas have professional chapters. They (pros & students) often work on projects together.
If you're interested:
Also, although it can be a stretch for some activities---I'm reminded of a guy at TRW whose job was to test the rupture point of monkeys' eardrums, adjunct to determining similar parameters in humans, defense-related work of course---surely a lot of the "for-profit" engineering we all do is indeed benefiting many, including the poor and "down-trodden".
It is a prevalent assumption that determining the motivation of behavior is tantamount to establishing its moral value. But some of the most heinous acts have been done in the name of benevolence and "altruism".
Although my own ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological views have changed much over the years, I remind that Rand's advocacy of "selfishness", so often seized upon by those who did less than a close reading as prima facie evidence of her "fascist" tendencies and general badness, is only the bare suggestion of her ethics. The paramount idea is being guided by Reason. Now, that pregnant word means many things to many people of course.
There is an organization of which a dear couple's son, Dan Ramey, is a member, called Engineers Without Borders. They recently engineered and built a footbridge in Kenya that has helped the local villagers immensely. A google search will turn up the story, as of course I can't post a link here directly.
I would agree with the comments about the difficulty of supporting such efforts however. If you have been laid off these days, what is the likelihood that you can operate off of severance and savings at all, let alone fund the facilities and materials and so forth of some project? In the case of Engineers Without Borders, most of the folks have day jobs.
Look into the open source community. Open source (OS) software has been with us for quite a while and OS hardware is becoming a popular movement as well.
How does that fit into Richard's commentary? Most of the people doing these OS projects are doing so without thought of compensation. They hack and experiment and build and present the results to the broader community. They are keeping their skills sharp and helping to advance the state of the art. State of the art isn't just faster, smaller, bigger. It's also easier, less expensive and more accessible.
I don't know that it would be possible to count the number of volunteer OS software developers. Because of the OS movement, there is a powerful operating system suitable for use by the educated consumer (almost ready to the uneducated, but not quite) and very suitable for server applications. There is a complete office software suite, many image design and manipulation applications and a host of others. That makes computing more accessible for anyone around the world that doesn't have the money to pay for commercial packages.
Open source hardware, while different in that physical parts still have to be purchased, is also contributing. It has created educational tools and has given products that can be the foundation of powerful embedded systems. This makes the benefits of advanced electronics more accessible to anyone without the means or funding to develop it on their own.
Opensource started as an individual engineer movement, but is now also gaining support from the corporate world. Companies like Texas Instruments, Adafruit, Sparkfun and DIY Drones all contribute to the open source movement while running their businesses.
So, Richard, I would say that your idea is very sound. And, I'd also say that it is already well underway.
Before comments on me being too cynical or negative arise, if you really want to volunteer time - Engineers Without Borders (http://www.ewb-international.org/) will probably suit your needs.
Or a soup kitchen.
Or a homeless shelter.
Not all problems in the world are technical ones.
I really find myself against this. So called 'Noble work' at a pro-bono price has absolutely no value to society and ends up being expected.
I would ask that before you sign up for a 'Noble' project, you read 'Atlas Shrugged' to see what could happen in a society where you are 'expected' to use your talents.
Now if you want to work on something because you think it's cool as a hobby - that's a whole other kettle of fish. If others can use it, you have the right to do with it what you see fit.
Last time I checked, communism did not work.
Great ... so who pays for my materials and equipment for design? Who pays for prototypes, testing, etc.? Who arranges for distribution, etc?
It a great idea but perhaps not set in reality.
Maybe those who have made billions off of engineers could hire unemployed engineers to work on altruistic projects?
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.