Creating the Societal Engineer

What is the purpose and promise of engineering? Is it to create a disposable “lab on a chip” for quick diagnosis of disease? Is it to invent lightweight automobile materials? Or imagine a system that stores wind-generated power in electric-car batteries? Certainly these are some examples of what engineers do, but not why they do them.

Engineering should be about improving the quality of life in all segments of society, at home and around the world. The person who does this—who uses the quantitatively grounded and highly powerful and creative skills of an engineer to engage, shape and advance organizations and activities that improve the quality of life for one person, for whole organizations, or even for entire populations—is someone we call the Societal Engineer. It is the kind of engineer we are dedicated to create at Boston University.

This is not to be confused with the so-called “T-shaped engineer,” who has the important combination of breadth and depth but may not appreciate how such a shape can advance society. Societal Engineers may indeed be T-shaped—at BU they are—but they are more than that. The Societal Engineer’s objective may be to help create a safer, greener, more sustainable, healthier, better-connected, more energy efficient, more productive world, with enough food, clean water and economic opportunity for all. This engineer is motivated by a desire to move society forward in a wide range of human endeavors and engages in work accordingly. In short, the Societal Engineer is an individual with a sense of purpose and appreciation for how engineering education and experiences are superior foundations for improving society.

Like many of our alumni, Societal Engineers do not have to be working engineers for their entire careers. They can be business people, government policy makers, doctors, lawyers, financiers, or members of any of a wide range of occupations where their undergraduate engineering background provides them with the tools needed to improve the quality of life throughout society. They develop new technologies, of course, but are also empowered to create economic value and jobs, improve health care, use wealth to advance society, formulate public policy, and myriad other possibilities in this country and around the world. Their education has prepared them to work in multi-disciplinary teams, often, but not exclusively, matching technology with the needs of the marketplace to bring innovation into practical use.

How does Boston University go about creating the Societal Engineer? Certainly instilling the requisite excellent engineering education in a known discipline with its powerful quantitative and creative problem solving skills is non-negotiable. But we also advance innovative curricular and extracurricular programs to ensure that all graduates have access to key attributes for orchestrating an impact on society. These include effectiveness in multidisciplinary and cross-functional teams, an array of communication skills, a capacity for systems-level thinking, global awareness, a grasp for public policy as it relates to technology, a passion for and understanding of the innovation ecosystem and an entrepreneurial mindset, and, finally, a social consciousness that appreciates how innovation should create both economic and quality of life value.

One example is our Technology Innovation Scholars Program (TISP), which prepares our students to show grade, middle and high school students how engineering impacts society.

Engineering must be about more than creating or refining technology. It’s a profession, a way to make a living, but it’s not about money. It must be a vocation and an avocation. Societal Engineers are perfectly positioned to make the kind of impact on our society that no other professionals can, and have a passion to do so. They see their product as not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end: The lab on a chip can head off a pandemic in a refugee camp; lighter cars emit less carbon; batteries store clean energy that would otherwise be wasted.

Sustaining and improving our quality of life requires a vision. The Societal Engineer has this vision.

Adapted from an essay that appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of The Engineer.