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Development Engineering: A Critical Overview

January 19, 2017

One Minute Summary

One of the main tenets of Impact Design Hub’s content shift in 2017 is going deep on the issues and initiatives we cover. This post is the first step in that direction. We’re kicking off our Development Engineering series with an in-depth account and analysis that covers the field from inception to its current state and touches on almost everything in between. In reading this piece, you’ll come away with a working understanding of development engineering as a practice and academic study, as well as how and why it aims to solve the kinds of problems it does. The essay is authored by two engineering PhD students involved with the Development Engineering program through the Blum Center for Developing Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Like all nascent fields, there’s much to explore, consider, and questions—in reading this, it’s entirely possible that you’ll come away with just as many questions as answers. The vision is that IDH, the authors, and other contributors will join you, our audience, in an exploration of the issues raised here throughout the rest of this series.

You can also download a printer-friendly version of this text. Or listen to the audio version read by coauthor Julia Kramer by navigating to the audio player above.

Development Engineering: A Critical Overview

By: Rachel Dzombak and Julia Kramer

Development engineering is an emerging field that brings together communities, businesses, students, faculty, NGOs, and governments, as well as for- and non-profit organizations, with the intention of working collaboratively to solve global challenges. It is, by design, a multidisciplinary field that bridges engineering with social sciences such as economics, public health, and gender studies alongside business and entrepreneurship for societal benefit. In order to understand where this new field is headed, both independently and within the broader context of impact design, it’s important to understand where it came from as well as its current state of development, which is what this overview sets out to do.

The history that paved the way for the emergence of development engineering, as well as the drivers behind it and the core tensions that currently characterise it, will all be explored here from our perspective: two current PhD students in the Development Engineering program at U.C. Berkeley. The authors have seen the academic side of development engineering within the university setting as well as the entrepreneurial side, a perspective gained through each having run technology-based ventures in the healthcare space.

Because it’s a nascent and rapidly growing field, development engineering has its challenges, as all sectors of impact design do. However, this growth is coupled with an increase in opportunities to both accomplish the social work that the field sets out to do, as well as to begin addressing the internal challenges development engineering faces. Thus, the field has significant potential to make impactful changes to the contemporary social issues faced by society at local and global levels.

What Development Engineering Is and How It’s Different

Development engineering builds upon frameworks from user-centered design, social entrepreneurship, and systems thinking. Also known as “humanitarian engineering,” “engineering for change,” or “engineering for impact,” development engineering is a field of research and practice that combines the principles of engineering with economics, design, business, and policy—among others—to create technology interventions in accordance with the needs and wants of individuals living within complex, low-resource settings. While most may associate these settings with “developing” or “third world” countries, development engineering equips practitioners to work on social problems wherever they exist, whether that is California or Bangladesh. For example, a variety of technologies have been created for diverse contexts such as modular greenhouses for use in Kenya, a device for cervical cancer screening education in Ghana, and a filter to remove arsenic from groundwater in the United States.

Yet, development engineering isn’t entirely new. Engineers have long been engaged in public service. The first canon of the Code of Ethics for Engineers states that “engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” Development engineering aims to build on the profession’s service-oriented roots by designing solutions that sustain these intended benefits over time, and stretches them further to integrate the social and technical within their solutions. In this spirit, development engineering interventions may take the form of solutions that address systemic problems. One systemic problem addressed by development engineers is the lack of contextual consideration. Often donated medical devices fail because the equipment does not match community need, no system for maintenance exists, or the user manual becomes lost. A development engineering project would aim to create medical devices suitable for use in a developing country, taking into account factors such as required durability, power supply, and availability of spare parts [1].

Historically, engineering training is often deeply technical (e.g., fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and advanced calculus) and places less emphasis on communication and contextual understanding. This position is generally reinforced by engineering programs and faculty that call the ability to write or give a presentation a “soft” skill. However, engineers are well-equipped to examine problems holistically—traditionally they learn to simultaneously understand the details of a situation as well as the broader problem context. But in practice, this often manifests as understanding, for example, how the flow rates in a wastewater treatment system relate to total sediment removal, and not how a telemedicine system can change national health policy. Engineering was created as an applied science; development engineering takes it one step further by broadening the potential applications of engineering to address real-world, poverty-driven challenges.

Development engineering hinges on the understanding that creating sustainable systems around a technology intervention requires more than just engineering prowess—it requires knowledge of aspects like local economics and business to understand financial viability as well as ethnography and interviewing practices to understand the community. While the traditional focus on hard skills is changing as engineering programs evolve, emphasizing the need for students to develop communication and entrepreneurial competencies is core to development engineering.

To be clear, this is not a belief that engineers should be expected to be experts in ethnography, geography, economics, and engineering. Instead, the hope is that engineers become able to translate concepts across disciplines and understand there are many “unknown” unknowns that must be uncovered if a technological intervention is to be successfully implemented over time.

Why Development Engineering is Necessary

Today’s global and complex world is filled with problems that are messy, with no clear solutions. Problems such as securing access to food in an era of climate change, providing universal housing amidst rapid urbanization, and determining ways to provide consumers with low-carbon energy sources all require innovative thinking and action if progress is to be made. As Paul Polak, a leader in the social entrepreneurship movement states, over 90% of the world’s design efforts are aimed at 10% of the population. Yet, the people that need game-changing solutions are not engaged within the innovation process while, at the same time, significant resources are being spent on solving the wrong problems, or more precisely, developing products and processes that make money but only “improve” the world for a small number of people.

Unlike an engineering homework set where all the necessary information can be found in a textbook, “wicked” problems are indeterminate and there aren’t rules for how to generate and implement their solutions. “Wicked” problems require intimate knowledge of the problem context, a point that is too often overlooked and causes initiatives that aim to implement technology within development projects to fail. If we, as a global society, are going to gain traction—real traction—on solving compelling and immediate problems with complex societal and ecological dimensions, we need programs like development engineering to train the next generation of engineers to become critical thinkers and doers. Without sufficient training, students and practitioners with good intentions run the risk of failing to achieve their goals or, worse, doing more harm than good.

Consider, for example, a well-funded and publicly optimistic venture to install “PlayPumps” in Southern Africa to attempt to solve the regional water crisis. The PlayPump connects a merry-go-round contraption to a water pump that allows playing children to power a device to extract and store groundwater. However, after all the hype and tens of millions of dollars fundraised, the PlayPump installations in Mozambique and South Africa were soon inoperable. Yet, in order to meet donor demands and pursue an aggressive marketing campaign, PlayPumps were installed in thousands of locations, replacing the traditional water pumps already there, effectively transforming PlayPumps into a not only a failed venture, but one that became useless and exploitative by forcing children to keep turning the merry-go-round nonstop in order to pump out enough water to meet village demand.

Instead of solving a dire water crisis, PlayPumps actually contributed to water inequities in Southern Africa by replacing the workable traditional water-pumps with an exciting, but ultimately deeply flawed, water pump design. PlayPumps eloquently illustrate that global issues don’t come with quick fixes and that engineers can’t just casually step in to “help” with a community’s “needs” [2]. Instead, global development requires a rigorous approach for which technically-trained engineers need to have a better understanding of problem contexts, either through collaboration or a more rounded education.

In this vein, development engineering can add significant value to global development by providing a space for diverse parties with the same goal to connect, find collaboration opportunities, and share best practices as well as mistakes and failures. Despite many practitioners working on the same types of projects in different settings (or working on different projects in the same setting) they aren’t talking to one another. This communication breakdown results in mistakes frequently being repeated, redundancy of efforts, and a culture of highlighting success narratives without constructively processing failure. Development engineering, however, builds a more cohesive community by bringing faculty from different disciplines (e.g. business and engineering) together to co-teach core development courses and by requiring engineers to learn about public health and economics. Connection among peers happens through dedicated conferences, an open-access journal, and academic centers such as the Blum Center, which serve as hubs for meet-ups, classes, and conversations.

Where Development Engineering Started

The roots of development engineering can be traced back to the time of colonialism and imperialism. The era preceding World War II saw Western powers in the world occupying and exploiting non-Western countries with less economic power. In the 1940s the U.S. instituted the Marshall Plan to provide material aid for Western European nations affected by the destruction wrought in the war, which represented the first instance of the US giving “aid” internationally. President Harry Truman’s inaugural address in 1949 outlined a plan to “embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas,” which Gustavo Esteva regards as the invention of development [3].

With the belief that underdeveloped nations needed to be “modernized” [4], the 1960s saw a period of Western nations giving technologies to formerly colonized non-Western nations [5]. After failing to see much materialize in the way of economic or technological “development” in the modernization era, the 1970s saw engineering efforts shift towards “appropriate” technology and alternative approaches to aid: Victor Papanek’s “design for the real world” and E.F. Schumacher’s “intermediate technology” approaches aimed to adapt Western technologies to be appropriate for non-Western markets [6] [7]. The Ahmedabad Declaration at the first Design for Development congress in 1979 formalized a new “design for development” field [8]. The congress itself, hosted by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), represented a crucial moment in claiming design—a close cousin to engineering—as a tool for global development, useful in creating material artifacts to serve social needs.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as design and engineering became increasingly employed in “socially conscious” settings, the tech boom connected the world on an unprecedented scale. However, these connections created a “spiky” world where the urban and wealthy regions rapidly outpaced the rural and poorer areas in economic development, innovation, and general well-being. During the same time, more people became disillusioned by the power of multilaterals like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to affect international development and, consequently, international NGOs exploded because they were perceived as more democratic, on-the-ground entities [9] that allowed engineers and designers to imbue their technical expertise on small-scale and localized projects.

Attempting to gain back the generally lost trust of large multinational organizations, in September 2000, the United Nations suggested eight goals to “to reverse the grinding poverty, hunger and disease affecting billions of people:” the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These served as a catalyst to further encourage the involvement of engineers and designers in addressing global challenges by engaging in smaller, more localized projects. More and more funding opportunities began to arise for development-oriented projects in the wake of the growing international commitment to the MDGs and what emerged was an ecosystem that provided support to ventures, projects, and programs at the intersection of engineering and impact.

development engineering

The Coalescing of a Movement

At universities, students and faculty began to recognize a multi-faceted opportunity. Each semester a new crop of students enter the university with time and energy to work on aspects of important and impactful problems as opposed to, for example, spending time redesigning a gear train. Project-based classes that started as “crazy ideas” by motivated faculty members at various universities were acknowledged as able to provide specific opportunities for students to apply the knowledge they were learning in technical classes towards the causes that the MDGs focused on.

It wasn’t long until the students were hooked. For many engineers in training, the impact of participating in a project-based class focused on problems faced by real people redefined the possibility of what engineering could encompass. For universities, project-based engineering and design classes provided the training students needed to become next generation of engineers that would work to address these important social issues. Support for classes and projects from funding institutions such as VentureWell, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency helped to expand enrollment, transform classes in programs and centers [10], and further catalyze impact.

A major draw of these programs among students is the ability to engage with like-minded peers that they otherwise wouldn’t have worked with, and to connect with people whose experience of the world is vastly different than their own. Perhaps, however, the biggest appeal to students of these programs, particularly Millennials and Gen-Xers, is the belief that one’s efforts are creating real, needed impact. As one student notes, “many times I have wanted to make a difference, but I have never known how. Now I have the ability to change lives in a real part of the world [11].” While this is motivating for many students, it has had a profound influence on female students in particular, who are overrepresented in development engineering programs [12]. The hope for programs like ours is that they will help to transform individuals’ desire to “help out” into an actual ability to make a sustainable difference in the lives of the intended beneficiaries.

Of course universities are not doing this alone. An entire subset of the broader development ecosystem shares the credit for the creation and growth of the development engineering field. There are multiple types of organizations that are fusing technology with other disciplines in order to create products, provide financial services, and accelerate health innovation including for-profit ventures, non-profit organizations, foundations, government agencies, and multilateral organizations. Funding agencies are also playing a key role in providing support for impact-oriented entrepreneurs and ventures at both early and middle stages. A key funder for the development engineering field was the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), whose Higher Education Solutions Network provided significant resources to grow labs at seven university campuses working to evaluate and strengthen real-world innovations for development.



The Future of Development Engineering

Throughout its proliferation, the development engineering field has seen successes like a growing number of academic programs, increased buy-in from funding sources, and a growing base of practitioners. However, there is still much to be done as the field matures and shapes the broader development agenda. Growing pains are common in any new field or movement, but rather than ignoring them, it’s important that they’re called out in order to spur thoughtful conversations and spark action to move the field forward, a key point of exploration in the series that this piece is spearheading. Some of the central challenges that development engineering currently faces are:

  1. Balancing Academic Incentives with Real-World Impact

A lack of alignment often exists between academic incentives and the factors that drive real-world impact. At the faculty level, this is seen through the publication system and tenure committees. As a researcher in human-centered design noted at a recent conference, “though the level of effort and coordination needed for a single country study versus a multi-country study are vastly different, the publication rewards are the same”—the “publish or perish” mantra cliche exists because it’s real.

For students, the disconnects between academia and real-world impacts manifest when examining what qualifies as “worthy” research. Often development work is perceived as less rigorous when compared to other forms of technical work. This can translate to students treating development engineering as an “extra” thing they’re doing rather than the main objective of their studies. Further, the traditional notion of graduate research is to become an expert in a narrow field, while development practice, on the other hand, requires a working knowledge of a broad range of fields including politics, economics, and psychology in addition to deeply technical engineering topics.

  1. Fitting Community-Driven Work into Institution-Driven Programs

Similar to the “publish or perish” crisis, many academic stakeholders are encouraged to engage with others internally, with little incentive to form meaningful partnerships with organizations unaffiliated with a university. The path-of-least resistance in academia is often to turn inward, to engage with others of a similarly academic mind, and to avoid bringing the highly abstract and theoretical conversations down to a level of actionable progress.

The other side of this challenge is the amount of time it takes to develop meaningful partnerships, understand the full extent of a situation, test ideas, revise, and implement solutions. The long gestation period of community-driven development projects can be at odds with the intensely concentrated university setting in which these programs exist. Students traditionally spend only four years in their undergraduate education and less than six years in their graduate education and, with the ever-present demands of rigorous higher education, students are not encouraged to prioritize the needs of the communities they work with above their own needs to build a resume, graduate, and find a job.

  1. Blending Techno-Centric and Human-Centric Approaches

Development engineering aims to leverage technical resources and rigor to solve global problems, yet lacks a formal process for understanding the scope of important global problems. Students and faculty benefit from world-class education and resources, but lack direct experience with the problems they are solving. In order for the privileged and often insulated development engineering practitioners to work on addressing problems affecting the world’s impoverished and disenfranchised, they have to look beyond their own lived experience.

Anthropology, ethnography, and, most recently, human-centered design provide rigorous frameworks to understand and empathize with people who have completely different or unique experiences and perspectives. In order for development engineers to effectively solve social problems, they first must understand the complicated facets and human faces that characterize them. The focus cannot solely be on creating resource-efficient, cost-effective technologies; it must be, first and foremost, on understanding the people, systems of power, and political environments surrounding global issues [13]. Without considering the political and historical contexts in which they are working, development engineers run the risk of repeating the damage done to impoverished communities by colonial, imperial, and neoliberal policies and approaches.


Development engineering is far from the only way to approach addressing the many challenges of our world, but it can certainly support communities striving for social change now and in the future. There’s still much to explore and uncover, and many professionals and academics are questioning what the next stages of development engineering look like. Krista Donaldson [14], for example, wonders what the goal of development engineering is, how impact can be better sustained, and whether or not remote design is appropriate.

David Levine, Alice Agogino, and Martha Lesniewski [15] state the need for development engineers to understand how to work within the “obvious constraint” of poverty; manage “institutional voids;” acquire necessary knowledge, regarding both the lack of information in markets and credible ways to certify quality or trustworthy “aggregators and market-makers that facilitate transactions” (i.e., those who work to regulate and oversee work done in development); and understand and work within the pervasive presence of gender inequality and ethnic discrimination.

Cinnamon Janzer and Lauren Weinstein [16] stress that development engineers must figure out how to embrace complexity and resist the urge to over-simplify; test whether or not solutions are actually appropriate and contextualized before they are implemented; and prioritize the end-user’s empowerment or worldview instead of the development engineer’s freedom of creativity.

In addition to these important questions, the authors of this essay have come to question and consider things in their own work, such as like the role technical actors should play in development; how the social sciences can be better integrated with the physical sciences in universities to best educate development engineers; and how the people most affected by poverty and “underdevelopment” can best be engaged to work together to create lasting change.

Benevolence isn’t enough. Our world faces massive and complicated challenges that cannot simply be solved by deploying well-meaning engineers abroad. Historical forces have yielded the need for multidisciplinary approaches and supportive partnerships across geography and economic status. The ultimate goal of development engineering is to provide a rigorous framework to mobilize technical thinkers towards social change while recognizing the limitations of technology and the need for multifaceted solutions.

Rachel Dzombak is a designer, strategist, and researcher, currently pursuing a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the role that product design can play in enabling the circular economy. She also holds a B.S. from Penn State University in Biomedical Engineering. Rachel previously co-founded Mashavu, a social enterprise that enables community health workers to expand preventative health services in rural communities. More about Rachel can be found at

Julia Kramer, a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering, works to understand the role of creativity and innovation in understanding and addressing major global issues. She seeks to describe and critically examine the practices of design for social justice in order to understand how varying social contexts affect design work.


Works cited and footnotes:

  1. Patel, S., Maley, S., & Mehta, K. (2014). Appropriate Technologies in the Globalized World: FAQs [Commentary]. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 33(1), 19-26.
  2. Schneider, J., Lucena, J., & Leydens, J. A. (2009). Engineering to help. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 28(4), 42-48.
  3. Esteva, G. (1992). Development. In W. Sachs (Ed.), The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power. (pp. 6-25). London and New York: Zed Books.
  4. Rostow, W.W. (2002). (1960). “The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non–Communist Manifesto”.
  5. Ali, S. I. (2015). Engineering in Solidarity: Hybridizing Knowledge Systems in Humanitarian and International Development Work. Procedia Engineering, 107, 11-17.
  6. Papanek, V., & Fuller, R. B. (1972). Design for the real world (p. 22). London: Thames and Hudson.
  7. Schumacher, E. F. (1970). Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered. Blond & Briggs.
  8. Clarke, A. J. (2015). Design for Development, ICSID and UNIDO: The Anthropological Turn in 1970s Design. Journal of Design History, epv029.
  9. Makoba, J. W. (2002). Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and third world development: An alternative approach to development. Journal of Third World Studies, 19(1), 53.
  10. Mehta, K., Zappe, S., Brannon, M. L., & Zhao, Y. (2016). An Educational and Entrepreneurial Ecosystem to Actualize Technology-Based Social Ventures. Advances in Engineering Education, 5(1), n1.
  11. Dzombak, R., Mouakkad, S., & Mehta, K. (2016). Motivations of Women Participating in a Technology-Based Social Entrepreneurship Program. Advances in Engineering Education, 5(1), n1.
  12. We’ll add a caveat here that as two women engineers, we don’t necessarily think “third-world” problems should be used as a lever to address “first-world” engineering patriarchy problems, but we are happy to open that dialogue for further exploration.
  13. Staton, B., Kramer, J., Gordon, P., & Valdez, L. From the Technical to the Political: Democratizing Design Thinking.” Proceedings of 2016 International Conference: From Contested Cities to Global Urban Justice, Madrid, Spain, July 2016.
  14. Donaldson, K. (2009). The future of design for development: three questions. Information Technologies & International Development, 5(4), pp-97.
  15. Levine, D. I., Agogino, A. M., & Lesniewski, M. A. (2015). Design Thinking in Development Engineering. Proceedings of the 2015 Harvey Mudd Design Workshop IX.
  16. Janzer, C. L., & Weinstein, L. S. (2014). Social design and neocolonialism. Design and Culture, 6(3), 327-343.

Resources for a more detailed account of the historical forces underpinning development engineering:

  1. Ali, S. I. (2015). Engineering in Solidarity: Hybridizing Knowledge Systems in Humanitarian and International Development Work. Procedia Engineering, 107, 11-17.
  2. Clarke, A. (2015). Design for Development, ICSID and UNIDO: The Anthropological Turn in 1970s Design Journal of Design History, epv029.
  3. Ramirez, M. (2011). Designing with a social conscience: An emerging area in industrial design education and practice. In DS 68-5: Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Engineering Design (ICED 11), Impacting Society through Engineering Design, Vol. 5: Design for X/Design to X, Lyngby/Copenhagen, Denmark, 15.-19.08. 2011.

Further information on the formation of the Millennium Development Goals:

  1. McArthur, J. W. (2014). The origins of the millennium development goals. SAIS Review of International Affairs, 34(2), 5-24. Available from:

Further resources for understanding the benefit of multidisciplinary teams:

Lau, K., Beckman, S. L., & Agogino, A. M. (2012). Diversity in design teams: An investigation of learning styles and their impact on team performance and innovation. International Journal of Engineering Education, 28(2), 293.

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