By Maxime Escande

The multiple impacts caused by products can be hard to anticipate (Photo: Linus Nylund on unsplash)

Beyond the blueprint: why engineers must consider the social impact of their designs and how to measure it?


During his talk at ETH, Prof. Christopher A. Mattson presented the opportunity and challenge of social impact modeling for engineered products. He quoted the philosopher Herbert Marcuse : «The "technological leader" is also a "social leader"», to illustrate the social impact generated by the engineering of a product. Some methods are now used to assess and improve this impact, and interdisciplinary collaboration is essential for addressing the intricate issues facing society.


The responsibility of engineers

The modern world is characterized by global issues caused by technology, both affecting the planet and the people. While the environmental impact has already begun to be considered, the social impact remains less investigated. It is defined as the effect of a new product on the day-to-day life of people. Some examples are respiratory diseases due to fine particles, road deaths, sedentary lifestyle, and job displacements. In the past, product design has overlooked these impacts, and profit-driven engineering caused evils such as programmed obsolescence, rebound effect, and, more generally, consumerism. When designing new products, the engineer is responsible for meeting the real needs of users, while positively impacting society.


Measuring the social impact

Engineering teams can already use tools like the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to evaluate the impact on the environment. Prof. Mattson's work provides new tools to measure the social impact. First, his team found eleven social impact categories such as health and safety, education and gender. Then they determined the perceived correlation between them. Once the relevant impacts and related indicators are found, an agent-based modeling can predict the adoption of a product in order to scale from the individual to the societal impact. It models individual agents with rules and behaviors and simulates their interactions with the environment to gain insight into the behavior of the system as a whole.


The social impact of a product can be forecasted during the engineering design process using "social impact assessment", a method from the social sciences. Additionally, "randomized control trials", a tool borrowed from health science , can be used to validate a product's benefits by comparing populations with and without it.

Modeling social impact with Agent-Based Modeling (Illustration: Maxime Escande)



Engineers are not alone – the importance of interdisciplinarity

The two last examples are methods originally from other disciplines, but now used in the engineering field. However, social impact modeling requires numerous assumptions, and the unique engineering perspective might be incomplete and biased. So far, the notion of development has only been based on technological and monetary value. Yet, systemic changes are required to remain within planetary boundaries while meeting human needs. We need to redefine what is development: with indicators such as the happiness instead of GDP. When it comes to social impact, precedence should be given to fundamental necessities such as healthcare, adequate nutrition, and education. Sustainable development is a complex issue, and all types of expertise are needed to meet the challenges it poses. Among others, we need economists to think of an economy beyond GDP growth,