Lina Nilsson is the innovation director of University of California at Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies. Shankar Sastry is dean of Berkeley’s School of Engineering and director of the Blum Center.
With college students now hitting their stride in the new academic year, one fact is glaringly clear: These are good days to get engineering degrees. Eight of the 10 highest paid majors are in the engineering sciences, and jobs are plentiful.
Yet more than a few renowned engineers are criticizing the trajectory of their field. Jeff Hammerbacher, Facebook’s first research scientist and progenitor of precision advertising, complained to Bloomberg Businessweek, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.”
It may be true that engineers are producing sometimes-myopic inventions. But something else is happening that is getting little attention.
In labs around the world, a new generation of engineers is emerging. They are men and women concerned by the gulf between rich and poor and by environmental changes and resource depletion. They are what we call “development engineers” — engineers (and often economics, business and social science majors, as well) who are dedicated to using engineering and technology to improve the lot of the world’s poorest people.
What is development engineering? Its goal is to create technologies that improve health care, education and socioeconomic mobility. Development engineers at the Blum Center for Developing Economies at University of California at Berkeley, for example, have invented an instrument called a CellScope — essentially a toolkit that turns a cellphone into a microscope or other diagnostic tool that can transmit images to hospital labs . The Open Data Kit, designed by engineers at the University of Washington, is allowing hundreds of international development organizations to use mobile devices to collect critical data.
This year, six of the 35 technology innovators recognized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s prestigious 35 under 35 list were development engineers.
Is development engineering new? Not really. Ever since economist E.F. Schumacher made the case for appropriate technologies that empower the poor in his 1973 book “Small Is Beautiful,” people have been practicing a combination of economic development and engineering science. Yet multiple forces are causing the field to expand now. They include the increasing sense of global citizenship among youth, advances in communication technologies and quantitative analysis, the internationalization of information and research, decreasing manufacturing and transportation costs, and the dominance of the capitalist model worldwide. Indeed, development engineering responds to the fact that although there isn’t a world governance system, there is a global marketplace.
The field is also an outgrowth of failures in international and domestic aid, particularly projects that are not sustainable. Many of its practitioners believe that top-down assistance, however well-intentioned, often misses the mark and creates a cycle of dependence. For this reason, there is a pronounced market-driven component to many development engineering projects. Gram Power, a solar rural electrification project started by two Berkeley undergraduates, for example, is now a for-profit company because it wants to prove its technology can succeed with paying customers, not just in grant applications and reports.
The universities, like ours, that are in the process of formalizing this field view development engineering as the next step in a long tradition of solving societal challenges through science and reinventing engineering disciplines in response to real-world opportunities. Aerospace engineering emerged after the Wright brothers, electrical engineering after the invention of electrification and biomedical engineering after the genetic revolution. Development engineering is emerging because, among the 7 billion people alive today, 1.1 billion lack access to clean water, 1.2 billion have no electricity and more than a third of the world’s population — 2.7 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. It is also emerging because 4.5 billion people worldwide have mobile phones, which can connect them to life-improving information and services.
Finally, development engineering is not just for “developing” countries. Its innovations can apply both to poor regions in India and to the United States. As Arun Sarin, former chief executive of Vodafone and a Blum Center board member, explains: “Some of the most interesting new technologies today are ‘boomerang innovations’ that move from the developing to the developed world.” CellScope’s microscopes, for example, were created for malaria and tuberculosis diagnosis in the developing world; today, they are being launched as a smartphone-based first aid kit for the U.S. market.
This is the new world we have entered. It is a world in which development and engineering are coming together to solve world problems.