How to Combine Engineering & Design: Creating Solutions for the Base of the Economic Pyramid
Anecdotal evidence from an engineering student, turned-designer on how he got started in the business of solving problems and how you can too.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably asked yourself the question “What in the world am I doing with my life?”. Heck, if you’re a lot like me then you’ve probably asked yourself that question 10 times before breakfast.
Being in the last year of my mechanical engineering degree — with the pressure of graduating and transitioning into the “real world” just months away — I’ve had to think long and hard about what I want to be doing with my life. Just recently, I got some advice on the topic that shined some light on the situation: to find out what I want to be doing with my life, I need to look at what I have been doing with my life. With this advice came a careful and [overly?] critical retrospective which lead me to the conclusion that my future has to fill three key checkboxes.
Any project, team or business that I’m working with must involve the following:
- Engineering & technology
- Helping people and the planet
So, if you’re anything like me [and I’m hoping that you are because you read the title of this article and decided to exchange some of your precious time to read my ramblings] then you’re interested in exploring the intersection of design and engineering to create solutions for others. I put this article together to offer some perspective on how engineering and design can be powerful tools for problem solving and how they’ve enabled me to turn my passions into projects and business models.
Before we jump in to that though, let’s get on the same page about engineering and design.
Engineering & Design
To really get a grasp for the intersection of engineering and design, it serves us well to understand what engineering and design are individually.
The website WhatIsEngineering.com [which, judging from the domain name, must be the authority on this subject] defines engineering as “…the application of scientific knowledge to solving problems in the real world”. While this definition brings some familiar words to the forefront, it’s greatest value is in the assertion that engineering bridges the gap between the sterile, predictable environment of science and the chaotic real world. Remember this, science + real world problems = engineering, simple. Next: what is design?
While science and engineering have been long established — the earliest versions of the scientific method date back to Aristotle a couple hundred years BCE — design is a relatively nascent field with new flavors of design popping up every couple of decades (see UI/UX). This makes defining design a little hard. The definition I tend to lean on comes from José Luis Antúnez; he says, “Design means… beautiful solutions” (you can check out his article here). The reason I like this definition is because it’s simple and it points out two key elements for all aspects of design. Firstly, design is “beautiful” which can refer to aesthetic qualities but more so refers to thoughtfulness, usefulness and care. Secondly, design is a “solution” which implies that there’s a problem to be solved in the first place. Ergo [I love that word for some reason], design meets the needs for a user.
All this stuff brings us to our first topic of interest: the intersection of engineering and design.
Engineering + Design
My mentor Robert Hacker introduced me to the philosophies of someone who I regard as one of the greatest minds of our time and a prime example of people who push the boundaries of collective knowledge, Neri Oxman. Neri [I’ll refer to her by her first name so I can pretend we’re close friends] is a professor at MIT and the founder/director of the Mediated Matter group. She developed the Krebs Creativity Cycle framework for understanding how Art, Science, Design and Engineering come together [she capitalizes the fields in her article so I will too when referring to her work]. Particularly of interest to us, we’ll use this framework to visualize the similarities and differences between engineering and design.
Neri named the Krebs Creativity Cycle (KCC) after the biological process called the Krebs Cycle. In each of our bodies, this process is responsible for creating the basic unit of chemical energy, Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). Without getting too technical, Neri uses this biological model to describe how creative energy (she cleverly calls this “CreATP”) is produced as an individual ventures between the four major intellectual domains; Art, Science, Engineering and Design.
By referring to our handy-dandy graphic, you’ll see a couple things:
- Design and Engineering are both considered domains of production. This means that the outcome of these two dominions is tangible, which contrasts from the goals of Art and Science in which the altering of perception is sought after.
- Design and Engineering are both considered domains of economy. This means that they both focus on the application of knowledge not necessarily the furthering of knowledge.
- Design is concerned with matters of culture while Engineering is concerned with matters of nature. This distinction is important because it identifies the contribution each field is making to society. Design — I should say good design — explores the commonly-held belief systems and thus contributes to culture. Engineering — again, good Engineering — takes a world-view and questions humanity’s role and capacity, thus contributing to our understanding of nature.
- Design and Engineering find common ground as methods of delivering utility — ding ding ding! Here we have — in a few words — the answer to our question, “what is the intersection of engineering and design?”. If you look back to our definitions from before, you’ll see that both engineering and design generate solutions (AKA utility) for their target audience.
Who cares? [and why?]
Who cares? Well… I care and I’d like to show you why. Let me set the stage a little bit by sharing some of that retrospective I mentioned earlier.
In January of 2018, I co-founded a social business venture called Project SWEET. For anyone that hasn’t been introduced to the concept of a social business venture (or social enterprise) the main idea is that we combine the profitability of a traditional business with the intent of a charity or non-profit organization [make money by doing good]. In the excel spreadsheets of a traditional business, after all the necessary operations and calculations, you’ll see a single, bolded, bottom line which indicates the most important number to the business — profit. In a social business venture there’s not one but three bottom lines — profit, people, planet. All this means is that a social enterprise is equally concerned with the profitability of the company, the gain in opportunity provided to a target population and the business’s impact on the planet. An example of a social enterprise that you might recognize is TOMS shoes; TOMS doesn’t just sell shoes, they produce sustainably-sourced footwear and contribute a portion of the revenue to solving the issues experienced by impoverished communities around the world. Now back to my social enterprise.
Over 2 billion people (that’s 3 in 10 people around the world) lack access to safe drinking water in their homes and our team at Project SWEET is dedicated to solving this issue because we believe clean water is a human right.
People around the world (specifically women and children) are forced to walk up to 3 miles every single day to collect water and the water they collect isn’t even clean. Our team has developed a prototype solution to solve this problem based on tons of research and our goal is to build up a toolbox of numerous solutions so that we can implement any combination of these solutions to meet the needs of those 2 billion people living on less than $2.50 a day — AKA the base of the economic pyramid. The prototype I’m talking about goes by the name of “The SWEET Roller” and it’s an awesome example [yeah, I’m biased] of why it’s important to combine engineering and design to solve problems for others.
The SWEET Roller
SWEET stands for “Sterilized Water Energy Efficient Transport” and as the name implies the SWEET Roller makes collecting water faster while simultaneously cleaning the water. Physically, it’s a 75-liter barrel [that’s about 20 gallons for all you customary units fanatics] with a purifying unit inside. The whole barrel has a handle that allows the user to push or pull it along the floor and this kinetic motion of rolling is converted into electrical energy to power the purifying unit.
Rather than carrying buckets or jerrycans over their head, someone using the SWEET Roller can transport more water — faster than before — and by the time they get home they have enough clean water for a family’s-worth of cooking, personal hygiene and drinking for the day. This solution is so unique that it led our team to the Hult Prize Finals in San Francisco (an international competition for social enterprises) but the idea didn’t just come out of thin air.
Desirability, Viability, Feasibility
The concept for the SWEET Roller was carefully crafted using tools from business, engineering and design. I’d like to show you exactly how we did it by using a really great framework developed by the world’s leading design consultancy, IDEO. [If you haven’t heard of IDEO then you should definitely check them out. They have some amazing resources to get started on just about any type of project]
While the terms “desirability”, “viability” and “feasibility” should seem pretty familiar, within the context of solution building they take on new definitions. The best way I can describe the three is by associating each with a key question (not the questions shown in the graphic):
- Desirability answers the question “is this a good design for my target audience?”
- Viability answers the question “can this sustain itself as a business?”
- Feasibility answers the question “is this possible to be engineered?”
It’s easy to imagine why this framework is so effective [and I might end up writing an article on each of the three topics] but what’s most relevant to this article is for you to understand that any human problem can be broken down into the aspects of design and engineering… desirability and feasibility.
Desirability in Project SWEET
To answer the question “is this a good design for my target audience?”, Project SWEET had to go beyond the general call of duty. While it’s easy to do research on the water crisis from the comfort of an air-conditioned home, it’s not an effective method for acquiring true insight and understanding into the issue at hand. For this reason, our team spent most of our early days planning and fundraising for a research expedition to the deserts of La Guajira, Colombia and in September of 2018 — with the help of our generous supporters — we made the trip possible. In this remote, northern region of Colombia, the indigenous tribe of the Wayuu people has been struggling with access to clean water for years. To make matters worse, their overall economic situation has exasperated issues related to water and limited the resources they have available to address those issues. As researchers on the topic, this extreme case presented us with an equally immense opportunity to learn how limited access to water impacts every aspect of daily life like primary school enrollment rates, gender equality and health. While we were there we slept in hammocks, shared every meal with the Wayuu and even participated in their cultural events; through this experience we learned some really important things which helped us answer our topic question:
- Key finding #1: Because water is so scarce in a desert, the Wayuu don’t prioritize clean water. One woman told us “we’re just grateful for the water we get”. The Wayuu tribe is aware that their water is not clean and they know that at least boiling the water is one way of cleaning the water but the whole process of collecting, cleaning and cooling the water would take so much time and effort that it’s just not realistic.
- What it means for Project SWEET: Because most people who live in cities would take any measure to avoid drinking contaminated water on a daily basis, it’s logical to assume that people in need of clean water would be even more inclined to take these measures. In fact, it’s often the opposite. Living in poverty is a time-intensive situation where even the most simple things like boiling water require massive inputs of resources, time and energy. For this exact reason, the SWEET Roller doesn’t require any additional input from the user. We made a point of leveraging an existing behavior (walking to collect water) to simultaneously clean the water.
- Key finding #2: As an indigenous tribe, the Wayuu are granted exclusive rights and sovereignty over their land. This means that they don’t have access to the usual utilities given to your average Colombian citizen; no water, sewage or power lines run through the territory so everything they do is “off-grid”.
- What it means for Project SWEET: Being off-grid means that not only do we need to think about how we clean the water, but also what’s going to power that process. By making the SWEET Roller completely self-contained and self-powered, we eliminated the need for any power infrastructure which in turn grants freedom to how the Wayuu (or other communities) use our product.
- Key finding #3: The Wayuu tribe has been the subject of many humanitarian efforts but a vast majority of the solutions (like wind-powered water wells and solar treatment facilities) broke down eventually. The Wayuu explained to us that this happens because non-profit, non-government organizations and international organizations often provide a solution but rarely provide on-going support. When a water well is installed it will solve the problem until it breaks down, at which time the widely uneducated Wayuu tribe is unable to fix it, and is stuck with a 10-meter hunk of metal.
- What is means for Project SWEET: This insight led our team to two things. Firstly, the SWEET Roller is made in the human-scale and simple. No large machinery or tools are needed to fix the SWEET Roller and the repairs are no more complicated than changing a lightbulb. Secondly, our business model incorporates the cost of user education and on-going support so that any issues with the SWEET Roller can be minimized and addressed immediately.
If our team was not driven to answer the important question of whether “this is a good design for my target audience?”, we would have been snagged on the same pitfalls that everyone experiences when tackling the global water crisis.
While we started with answering the desirability question, our ideation process was validated by answering the important question “is this possible to be engineered?”. It’s easy to get technical when talking about the SWEET Roller because while the solution is simple, the underlying physical, mechanical and electrical principles are complex topics that take careful study to understand.
We were able to conceptualize the SWEET Roller because we were introduced to concepts like power generation, the electromagnetic spectrum and mechanical design. Likewise, we were able to prototype the SWEET Roller because we were introduced to technologies like 3D printing, Computer-Aided Design (CAD), soldering and shop tools. Without the engineering know-how we would have to take a different approach to creating something that satisfied all of the key takeaways from our desirability, fact-finding mission in La Guajira.
We take pride in the fact that most organizations would need a design team and an engineering team to accomplish what our team accomplished. We owe that pride to a lot of things, but first and foremost our dedication to combining design and engineering to solving problems for others. Discovering the world born between engineering and design not only led me to identifying my passion and direction for my career, but it also gave me the strength and toolsets required to create a beautiful solution for one of the most pressing issues experienced by the Wayuu tribe and communities facing similar economic challenges around the world.
I hope after reading this article you’re a little more confident in your ability to reach into the design and engineering toolboxes to create solutions for others. Lastly, I want to leave you with some assurance that by embracing the unconventional overlap that occurs between conventional fields you can leverage the ambiguity of that most existential question (“What am I doing with my life?”) to invoke creativity in your approach to the world.