Designs on development: Engineering, globalization, and social justice

TitleDesigns on development: Engineering, globalization, and social justice
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsNieusma, D., and D. Riley
Secondary TitleEngineering Studies
ISBN Number1937-8629
Keywordsappropriate technology, engineering for development, service learning, social justice

This article critically appraises ‘engineering for development’ initiatives and seeks to imagine new models of interaction that incorporate social justice goals more effectively. In recent years, interest in engineering for development has surged within engineering communities in the US and around the world. While worthy of recognition and praise for directing engineers’ attention to the problems arising from global economic inequity, many engineering-for-development programs share problematic assumptions about technology’s role in community development and fail to grapple with the economic and cultural structures that direct (implicitly or explicitly) most development interventions. Using a case study approach, this article draws out some of these assumptions and shows how they impede the achievement of social justice goals – both in the context of specific development interventions as well as in the context of engineering as a professional activity. The first of two cases involves an interdisciplinary collaboration between two universities in Nicaragua and two in the US focused on educational capacity building for product design with an eye to local economic empowerment. Social justice considerations discussed here include power relations throughout the collaboration among individuals and institutions – including what constitutes meaningful community involvement – and the economic models assumed when launching products in the marketplace. The second case involves the work of a non-governmental organization in Sri Lanka and its approach to community development through renewable energy technologies. In this case, social justice considerations include questions of control over project decision making as well as power inequities inherent in development assistance. In both cases, concerns of technical functionality tend to occlude social power imbalances and epistemological divergence, leading to projects that inadvertently extend social injustices.