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What “Social Good” Means to Engineers

IEEE TechEthics panelists talk about how engineers can use their skills to contribute to making a better world

3 min read
Image of a hand holding a lightbulb that looks like the Earth on a nature background.
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THE INSTITUTEMany engineers want to apply their skills to help improve their communities and the wider world. But sorting out how best to do that can be challenging.

According to panelists during an April virtual session sponsored by IEEE TechEthics, technologists shouldn’t try to define what’s good for a community. Instead, the beneficiaries of such efforts should make that determination.

On the panel were Neth Daño, Deborah G. Johnson, and IEEE Senior Member Nicholas Kirsch. Daño is a researcher for the Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC) Group on issues related to agriculture, biosafety, and climate change in Southeast Asia. Johnson recently retired as a professor of applied ethics at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. Kirsch is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and is past chair of Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) in IEEE.

The three panelists addressed the role of engineers in helping developing countries and discussed ways to improve communities, both locally and internationally. They also examined something more fundamental: what it means for an effort to be a “social good.”

Community service

There are many societal problems around the world that can be helped by engineering. Kirsch highlighted EPICS in IEEE, which is funded by the IEEE Foundation, and empowers high school and college students to use technical solutions to aid community organizations. EPICS in IEEE has provided US $500,000 in funding to more than 100 projects in the past decade, he pointed out. Because students who have an idea about how to assist their community apply for the grants, he said, the resulting projects are based on practical local need.

Kirsch pointed to one such project in the remote town of Itabocal, Brazil. Traditional telecommunication companies often don’t provide high-quality service to such rural communities because the companies don’t see the value in that, he says. The poor quality of service can make conducting commerce and accessing educational programs challenging. EPICS in IEEE funded a student project led by IEEE Member Brenda Vilas Boas to install a low-cost, 2G telecommunication system using open-source communication protocols.

Kirsch also spoke about Sun in a Bottle, an EPICS in IEEE project in the South African settlement of Kathrada Park. The community had no access to electricity, forcing people to rely on candlelight, a potential fire hazard. IEEE student members from the University of Johannesburg developed low-cost solar-powered light canisters.

ECONOMIC ISSUES

Affordability can have a strong impact on a community’s ability to access helpful technologies. Daño noted that struggling communities might not even know such technologies exist. Additionally, she said, most underserved communities are at the mercy of decisions made by their governments, which might prioritize other constituents’ needs instead.

Daño explained efforts by the ETC Group to improve rice farming in the Philippines. The private nonprofit organization provided farmers with drum-seeder technology, equipment that can help sow germinated rice seeds directly in wetland fields. The farmers in the Philippines got help from retired Dutch engineers, who taught the farmers how to tailor the drum seeders to meet their needs. That increased the farmers’ output.

The farmers could have approached their government for help but, according to Daño, they already knew they couldn’t afford the drum seeder and would require additional assistance to properly deploy it.

“They needed help from others to use technologies that are both accessible and appropriate,” she said.

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Not all outreach programs succeed. Daño’s research has found that community-improvement projects can fail when locals are not consulted.

“That discussion has to include the communities,” she said. “It’s like putting the cart before the horse.

 “Decades of experience shows us that the definition of social good should come from the community that will benefit.”

The role of nonprofit organizations, she added, is to help identify problems and facilitate responses.

YOUNGER GENERATIONS CAN HELP

The panelists agreed that hands-on experience is the best way to learn how technology can improve lives, especially for engineering students. A study published by IEEE shows that when students participate in community-service projects, they have a greater appreciation for the impact technology can have in solving global issues, Kirsch said.

“Students who participate have a much greater sense of satisfaction in solving the problem,” he said, “because they get to see how they are directly improving someone’s life.

“The best way to ensure social good is to get involved,” he added. If you want to help, he suggests, find a community that has a need in your field of interest.

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