The Engineering Research Accelerator's and Engineering and Public Policy's Eswaran Subrahmanian, along with University of Virginia’s Toluwalogo Odumosu and Sandia National Laboratories’ Jeffrey Tsao, edited essays and papers from an NSF-funded workshop that was held in April 2016 that focused on how engineering affects society, as well as how to integrate the social sciences into engineering education and practices. The three collected these materials into an open access book, titled "Engineering a Better Future: Interplay Between Engineering, Social Sciences, and Innovation," that was recently published by Springer. The workshop brought together individuals from across the globe and from a variety of disciplines, and the materials in the book reflect this global collaboration.

Cover of the book

Source: Springer

Workshop background

Engineers make up roughly 2% of any country’s population; however, they exert an outsize impact on the lives of citizens and on society in general. Since the Industrial Revolution through the current Information Revolution, engineers, through their work, have played the roles of sociologist, economist, political scientist, and policy analyst, changing the patterns of our lives. Socially embedded innovations such as the cell phone and the Internet are transforming the economic, social, cultural, and physical well-being of people all over the world. The debate is often over how the technology fits into society and not necessarily over how society is reflected in the technology that is developed, such as how the technological system reflects preexisting bias and inequality. As the 1991 NAP report on “Engineering as a social enterprise” states, the dominant view of engineering is one of detached technological quests apart from society. The social implications of engineering and the social influence of engineering is often left out, leading to a paucity of interaction between social sciences and engineering in any meaningful way. Engineers are often unaware of technological history and the role of social forces in the history of the development of technologies. Furthermore, the importance of social understanding of innovation processes is often downplayed both in daily and academic discourse on engineering. The workshop was designed to bring together these two cultures. Our hope is that they are not as divided as C. P. Snow declared, but rather that it is the lack of recognition of the intertwined nature of engineering and social sciences that prevents interactivity.

The goal of the workshop was to bring together engineers and social scientists to examine the role that engineers have in the future of our living environments and our economies, and to begin a discussion on how best to integrate the social sciences into engineering practice and research. The best innovation systems anticipate characteristics of technological use and culture, and these are best informed by the social sciences. The symposium addressed the role of social science research in shaping engineers’ view of their work and its role in the transformation of society.

Engineering is shaped and informed by social sciences in ways that would benefit from open discussion and greater integration. The larger population and engineers themselves are seldom aware of engineers’ contributions to social sciences. From Stevenson to Ford, engineers continually envision and actualize profound changes to social character and behavior. Individuals such as Benjamin Whorf, Vilfredo Pareto, and Fredrick Taylor whom, while engineers in practice, made significant contributions to social sciences, suggest the close interrelationship between engineering and social sciences. Given the range of problems faced by global society from global warming and the automation of work to environment degradation and social inequity, it is clear that only through the collaboration and appreciation of the each other can engineers and social scientists work together to solve these critical problems.

The workshop brought together a variety of scholars (see below) from the social sciences and engineering to Carnegie Mellon University for a period of two days. The workshop was divided into three themes: "Meeting at the Middle" (challenges to educating at the boundaries); "Engineers Shaping Human Affairs"; and "Engineering the Engineers" (thinking about design in designing thinking).

Materials from the workshop were edited and compiled in a book entitled "Engineering a Better Future: Interplay Between Engineering, Social Sciences, and Innovation." This workshop was funded by an NSF grant.


The workshop began with introductions from three faculty: Eswaran Subrahamian, research professor in the Engineering Research Accelerator (formerly the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems) and Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon UniversityTolu Odumosu, assistant professor of engineering and society and electrical engineering at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Jeff Tsao, Distinguished Member of Technical Staff for the Semiconductor and Optical Sciences Group at Sandia National Laboratories.


Workshop discussion

To kick off the faculty discussions in the workshop, invitees were asked to discuss what they are passionate about. 

List of workshop attendees

Douglas Sicker, Department Head and Professor, Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University; Lord Endowed Chair of Engineering and Interim Director, CyLabCarnegie Mellon University; Professor, School of Computer Science and Heinz CollegeCarnegie Mellon University

Georges Amar, Associate Paris Mintech, Ex-chief of Paris Metro Innovation Group and author of Homo Mobilis, Ars Mobilis, and Le Inde' Danse, France

Larry Leifer, Director, Hasso Plattner Design Thinking Research Program at Stanford University

Granger Morgan, Hamerschlag Professor of Engineering, Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University

Venky Narayanamurti, Founding Dean and Benjamin Peirce Research Professor of Technology and Public Policy, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University

Margot Weijnen, Chair Process of Energy Systems Engineering at the Faculty of Technology, Policy, and Management, Technical University of Delft, Netherlands

Dan Siewiorek, Buhl University Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University

Guru Madhavavn, Senior Policy Advisor, National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Washington, DC

Yoram Reich, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, School of Engineering, Tel-Aviv University, Isreal

W. Bernard Carlson, Professor and Chair, Department of Engineering and Society, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia

Langdon Winner, Thomas Phelan Chair of Humanities and Social Sciences, Department of Science and Technology Stufies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Jameson M Wetmore, Associate Professor, Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, School of Human Evloution and Social Change, Arizona State University

Shyam Syndar, James L. Frank Professor of Accounting, Economics, and Finance, Yale University

Ana Viseau, Associate Professor, Universidade Europeia, Centro Interuniversitário de História das Ciências e Technologia, Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal

Jennie C. Stephens, Associate Professor and Bitterdort Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy, The Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, The University of Vermont

Chris Schunn, Department of Psychology, Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh

Ron Eglash, Department of Science and Technology Studies, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute

David Howrath, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge, UK

Jeff Tsao, Distinguished Member of Technical Staff, Semiconductor and Optical Sciences Group, Sandia National Laboratories

Eswaran Subrahmanian, Research Professor, Engineering Research Accelerator and Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University

Read the book

Check out "Engineering a Better Future: Interplay Between Engineering, Social Sciences, and Innovation"