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Ethics, Power, and Innovation: Development Engineering and the Market Economy

February 22, 2017

By: Cinnamon Janzer

“People, of course will have to change in order for systems to change, but the most important point is that changing people isn’t enough. The solution also has to include entire systems, such as capitalism, whose paths of least resistance shape how we feel, think, and behave as individuals, how we see ourselves and one another.”


-Allan Johnson, What Can We Do? Becoming Part of the Solution

As Rachel Dzombak and Julia Kramer touched on in their development engineering treatise, there’s an inherent divide in the field between the traditional, technologically-centric approaches that have characterized engineering for decades and the newer, human-centric requirements of its current application in the inherently social, development realm:

“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… 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.”

Fascinated by the techno-centric and human-centric divide and in an exploration to dig deep into just how far it goes, I talked with development engineering students, faculty, and researchers, as well as made my way through recommended publications. Of course the topic wasn’t going to be easy, but at every turn I kept running into problems because the issues at hand couldn’t be reduced or separated from the larger systemic ones—namely, the economic facets of the field and the unequal power structures that shape them—that both cause and perpetuate the divide.

Thus, in order to examine the techno-centric versus human-centric divide in any meaningful way, an examination of the underlying structures and rules of the game that created them is necessary. First, leaving the systems that shape the field unexplored allows them to continue to unquestioningly hold power, forever inherently influencing what we conceive of as possible within the field before we even begin to craft solutions. Second, without also examining them, we can never really change or solve not only the systemic issues themselves, but the symptomatic ones that the field has set out to address.

Of course this isn’t to say that this piece will solve or even begin to point to how to solve the deeply rooted issues that will be discussed—that would be arrogantly incorrect. But, as development engineers and impact designers, not only are these questions that we can’t shy away from, but they’re questions to which we absolutely should be applying ourselves. While they’re systemic and complicated, isn’t the point of design to push the boundaries and limits of what is and what exists into new ways of thinking and being? Shouldn’t we be thinking of new ways to design our world, including the systems that shape it? We’ve tasked ourselves with applying our mode of thinking to solving social problems, and if we want to do so, we have to take our thinking to the hardest and most important issues at the core and begin to innovate and ideate around them. Otherwise, to some degree or another, we’re simply applying bandages to wounds that are caused by a failing organ, one that necessitates a transplant—a removal of the flawed part of the system in order to replace it with a better functioning piece.

Publishing vs. Problem-Solving: The Academic Divide and the Market Economy

Development engineering, like most design-based impact disciplines, morphed out of a more traditional one—in this case, that discipline is engineering, which is firmly rooted in academia and research. Of course there are a slew of benefits that academia affords which other realms can’t. Dzombak and Kramer note that, “at universities, students and faculty… 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… 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 [Millennium Development Goals] focused on.”

Yet, alongside these unique and important benefits, there are academic constraints that can affect the progress of the field. Dr. Sophi Martin, the Innovation Director at UC Berkeley’s Blum Center, explains that, “getting a PhD in engineering usually means that you spend four to seven years taking on something completely new—your dissertation has to be something that the world has never known before that you have to discover and deliver to the world. Eventually you might become an assistant professor and you conduct more research, which entails writing a ton of grants to get funding so you can hire students, get lab equipment, and things like that. In addition, you’re also teaching, which means lecturing, grading, holding office hours, et cetera. At the same time, you also have to be writing a ton of papers and in order to get them into science journals, which have to cover knowledge that’s both interesting to others and is also new and novel. That’s really your output as a professor—publishing is king.” Regarding the kind of work that is ripe for publishing and funding in the engineering world Martin adds: “The most exciting and flashy [work and research] hasn’t been the human impact stuff. It doesn’t rise to the top of these academic journals.”

Funding, and publishing insofar as it leads to funding, are central to the cycle in which development engineering is currently caught up. While this is beginning to change at some universities—the Blum Center at UC Berkeley is partnering working to create a new journal in order to publish the kind of work the field calls for and universities are beginning to integrate impact consideration into tenure reviews, there’s still a long way to go before faculty members and PhD students are more able to do the social impact work that’s less traditionally valued as publishable and, thus, fundable. There’s still an antiquated focus on novel research as fundable work in the field, even though reconfiguring things like water systems to improve access to communities without around the world—the kind of work the development engineering undertakes—doesn’t lend itself to this kind of new research.

However, a somewhat myopic focus on new science and research isn’t the only place where development engineering encounters funding challenges. Diego Ponce de Leon Barido, a PhD student in an interdisciplinary program at Berkeley whose background is in civil engineering and economics, experienced institutional limits firsthand through his fieldwork in Nicaragua. “When you’re doing this kind of [human-centric, social impact] work, you can have ideas but you know you’re going to have to iterate like ten times once [you do your fieldwork], so you can’t promise anything for real—you can’t say exactly what it is you’re studying until you’ve talked a lot with the people you’re working with,” placing the nature of the work itself at odds with traditional funding mechanisms. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get the type of funding that engineering work fits into without being able to say with certainty what you’ll be researching.

In Barido’s case, his original plan was to make Nicaraguan energy grids more efficient by designing sensor networks that would allow users to interact more knowledgeably with their energy grid and vice versa. But once on the ground in Nicaragua, it became clear that the real space for a successful implementation of an intervention that would have the largest impact on energy use was in the behavioral realm, not in engineering. “In Nicaragua, only 70% of people understand their electricity bills. People don’t understand what they’re paying. We began doing simple things like developing energy reports and sending text messages, and the users began to modify their usage and reduce their consumption on their own. In fact, the understandable information was so useful that users preferred to continue receiving messages and reports rather than the micro-payments we were providing through a demand / response implementation. The long term benefits of learning and behavior change were obvious to the users, and in some cases, even more valuable than money.”

So, not only do students struggle with defining their research in order to get the necessary funding for their work, but also with a disconnect between a stated research purpose and the discovery of a space for real impact. What are students like Barido to do when it becomes clear that the biggest opportunity for impact isn’t strictly connected to engineering, or perhaps has nothing to do with engineering at all? Should students change programs? Drop funding for their projects, or the project themselves, altogether? Or should they forge forward with an engineering-based intervention that they know won’t be nearly as useful as something else? The disconnect between the kind of work development engineering and fields like it seek to do and the traditional funding systems of the institutions in which they exist is a chief concern for Martin. “One of the biggest hurdles I see from where I sit,” she explains, “is the need for institutional support for this kind of work. We need people to teach interdisciplinary problem-solving classes, and we need funding for research. We need smart people to be able to travel and do this kind of transformative work. These aren’t easy problems—they need to be researched” and researched in their entirety, as whole problems and beyond their technical boundaries. But in order for them to be researched, they must first be funded, lest all social problems be solved by those with a trust fund to support them.

This leaves us in a somewhat uncomfortable space. The conclusion is that those with the privilege of the purse strings, those with power in the funding economy, have the ability to dictate what gets funded, which ultimately means what gets emphasized, researched, innovated, and eventually improved. Development engineers are then left in a precarious spot, often forced to choose between work that can be funded and published or work that “matters,” the kind of social work they set out to do. Beyond thrusting this difficult, if not impossible, choice on students and researchers as well as reinforcing an antiquated system that doesn’t quite fit the needs of development engineering as it moves into a new realm, there is yet another way that economic power controls this budding field.

The Limits of a System: The Ethics and Power of the Market Economy

While it’s easy to see how the economic factors dictate funding (and indirect funding disguised as publishing), there are other, less obvious, ways that the market economy shapes development engineering. Of course, market viability is undeniably essential for current projects to get off the ground—it’s an inescapable reality of our time. Therefore, the most innovative and successful design impact organizations today have incorporated business viability into their design strategies.

Lauren Weinstein, the Senior Social Innovator at The Australian Center for Social Innovation, explains that “one of the core considerations of all of our designs has come to be the business model. Of course, the theory of change and impact are essential, but we have to also ask if [what we’re designing] is financially sustainable, and if it’s sustainable at scale and with fidelity. Not for profit’s sake, but rather for viability—to ensure that good projects which people depend on don’t disappear at the whims of changing political priorities.”

While financial sustainability is critically important as Weinstein points out, it’s also inherently constrained. As Staton et al deconstructed in a paper for Contested Cities 2016 in Madrid, “modern mainstream [design thinking] methodologies demonstrate… a reliance on private enterprise as they emphasize market-friendliness (often coded as “sustainability”) as a prerequisite for successful solutions.” Staton et al go on to quote Philip Mirowski to say, “‘whereby the market stands as the ultimate arbiter of truth, and where freedom is recoded to mean anything the market allows’… the underlying market mechanisms by which these design projects are supported” go unexamined, and thus, un-innovated.

By not questioning the market system in which all of our designs and implementations exist, we are inescapably participating in its reinforcement, despite the fact that the market itself might be at the center of what’s causing the issue(s) we’re aiming to solve in the first place. As we all know, it’s not that the users of the systems we engineer or the products we design are incapable of crafting solutions for themselves—most, if not all, social issues are the result of oppression, not the result of a lack of ability, innovation, or worthiness on the part of those who experience them. Robert Reich, Senior Fellow at the Blum Center and former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, notes in his recent book Saving Capitalism that “power and influence are hidden inside the process through which market rules are made, and the resulting economic gains and losses are disguised as the ‘natural’ outcomes of ‘impersonal market forces.’” In this vein, it’s that the market economy and the power holders that shape it have created a system that traps and denies large swaths of the population the opportunity and resources to craft and implement their own solutions.

To this end, it almost becomes morally questionable to continue doing impact work without questioning and challenging the powerful economic forces that inherently control and shape it. As long as we unquestioningly accept the market as a given for the work that we do, we’re ultimately doing our work and those we intend to serve an injustice by not considering whether or not the system in which our solutions are operating is the best for our solutions rather than the other way around. As Weinstein continued, “if you only fix one part of a system, that just keeps pushing the larger broken system forward. You can’t just break off one piece, work on it in isolation, and expect the rest of the system to follow suit. Discovering and fixing one tiny phenomenon becomes your limit for impact because all smaller issues are symptoms of larger ones.” Weinstein goes on to offer a pragmatic approach to social innovation work in the face of massive systemic issues that, of course, can’t simply be changed at the drop of a hat: “When you can’t rebuild a system from scratch, the opportunity becomes designing how lots of small initiatives work in concert with one another to catalyze a larger systemic shift.”

What we have on our hands, then, when we consider both the funding trap and the perils of the market economy together, is a power imbalance on several levels. As noted earlier, those who control the funding, to a great extent, control the issues on which we work. However, our academic systems also have a role to play, both to the extent that they reinforce and funnel the funding system, but, also through their hiring of professors and the admission of students. It’s in this way that they oftentimes decide who can even be a designer or an engineer in the first place, placing power in the hands of institutions and the priorities and capabilities they define.

A third area of power imbalance is at the level of the engineer or designer. There is a certain degree of freedom, and thus privilege, that innovators enjoy, regardless of how inclusive their processes and intentions are. As Staton et al explain, even methods that are lauded for their inclusion and participation are inherently limited: “Methodologically, [participatory design] hinges on an outside designer initiating and likely leading the design process. Even in the best case where designers and users establish deep partnership, the process was still likely initiated by the designer.”

Lastly, the market economy itself, and, therefore, those who control it, create and perpetuate another power inequity. As Reich continues in his book, “many of [the decisions that dictate the ‘free market’] are far from obvious and some of them change over time, either because social values change (think of slavery), technologies change (patents on novel arrangements of molecules), or the people with power to influence these decisions change (not just public officials, but the people who got them into their positions).” Reich extrapolates by asking “what guides these decisions? What do the people who make the rules seek to achieve? The rules can be designed to maximize efficiency (given the current distribution of income and wealth in society), or growth (depending on who benefits from that growth and what a society is willing to sacrifice to achieve it, such as fouling the environment), or fairness (depending on prevailing norms about what constitutes a fair and decent society); or they can be designed to maximize the profits of large corporations and big banks, and the wealth of those already wealthy.”

Reich focuses heavily on corporations, banks, and the wealthy in Saving Capitalism and, because design and engineering are, of course, under the same capitalism umbrella as everything and everyone else, the same argument applies to our fields as well. However, if we take Reich’s argument and think about it slightly differently, perhaps it’s the wealthy foundations and granting mechanisms within our field that we should be turning a slightly more skeptical, less accepting eye toward. Perhaps they control and shape the work that we do the same way that Reich argues that corporations and big banks do in capitalism, writ large. That’s not to say that they aren’t doing some good in the world—of course they are—but perhaps it’s a power structure that we should closely examine with a mind toward innovation and improvement so we can consciously choose and approve of the system in which we’re operating rather than accept it as is.

Finally, perhaps, in the vein of Staton and company, do we, as designers and engineers, with our relative wealth and privilege in comparison to large portions of the beneficiaries of our work, fill the role that the already wealthy (to some extent) play in Reich’s analysis? This is a question that we have to ask—and keep asking—ourselves, as we move through this work. Without at least asking (if not confronting and changing) it, we certainly run the risk of perpetuating oppression though ignorance. While slightly harder to blame than selfish, malicious intentions, ignorance is hardly an excuse—as Paulo Freire explained in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the negative consequences of our work are real and serious problems, “good intentions notwithstanding.”

The Possibility and Potential for Change

While all change is never easy, and that which hints at re-visioning an entire system of power and commerce is perhaps the least easy of all, it’s been done before. Further, these systems might seem big and unchangeable, but they certainly aren’t. As Rebecca Solnit quotes Ursula Le Guin on the French Revolution in her book Hope in the Dark, “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Because development engineering and impact design are young fields, we’ll have to look elsewhere until we begin to generate the kind of deep recalibration that’s discussed here within our own boundaries. In the meantime, we can learn and borrow from sectors that have come before us for the inspiration to forge forward. Surprising as it may seem, even the financial world has examples to which we can look, as the Bank of North Dakota illustrates. While we don’t tend to think of banks as designed entities in the same way we do other things, everything is the product of one type of decision or another, so, to some extent, everything is designed—even banks.

The Bank of North Dakota began as an alternative economic solution to politically charged economic unrest in the state in the early 1900s. According to Eric Hardmeyer, the bank’s president in 2009, “it [started because of] a very angry movement by a large group of the agrarian sector that was upset by decisions that were being made in the eastern markets, the money markets, maybe in Minneapolis, New York, deciding who got credit and how to market their goods.” The North Dakota economy was, and still is to a great extent, based on agriculture, and the already difficult farming situation (think harsh winters) was exacerbated by outside lenders who kept prices surpassed. The angry movement eventually grew into the Non-Partisan League (NPL). In 1918, with a mission to create “a farm organization that protected the social and economic position of the farmer,” the NPL eventually gained political control of the Governor’s office, a majority control of the House, and roughly one-third of the Senate. Once in power, the NPL established “state ownership and control of marketing and credit agencies.” So, on July 28, 1919, with $2 million dollars in capital, the Bank of North Dakota was born.

Today, the bank is a booming success, one that has been “[responding] to the state’s needs since its inception.” The bank has played a pivotal and central role in socially beneficial activities like paying teachers in full during the Great Depression while they were supposed to be paid with warrants, facilitating the sale of farmland that was previously foreclosed, and partnering with financial institutions to do things like offer the first federally-insured loan in the US in 1967. Through activities like these, in addition to “helping to sustain a large number of local banks and credit unions, [the Bank of North Dakota] has strengthened North Dakota’s economy, enabled small businesses and farms to grow, and spurred job creation in the state,” explains the ILSR. “Over the last 21 years, [the bank] has generated almost $1 billion in profit. Nearly $400 million of that, or about $3,300 per household, has been transferred into the state’s general fund, providing support for education and other public services, while reducing the tax burden on residents and businesses.”

The Bank of North Dakota is just one example of what can come from refusing to accept a system as given. Like the economic hardships that North Dakota farmers once faced, the immediate challenges that development engineering faces are, of course, very real and difficult to solve. However, it’s in beginning to explore these deep, systemic issues below the obvious symptoms on the surface with a willingness to stick it out through the messy parts—including the places where we bump up against our own privilege—that real change can happen. This is where the real potential for impact lies, and designers and engineers of all stripes are the minds poised to re-envision how we exist in the world, not only because they can, but because they should — because they’re inherently privileged in a world of limited opportunity.

If we actually intend to solve social problems in a real way, we have to begin with the systems that cause them (and will continue to cause them) regardless of how many brilliant, elegant, and useful interventions we design and deploy. There’s a long road ahead, but we’re the ones that have tasked ourselves with not only imagining, but actually creating, a society that’s more just, equitable, and fair in the future than it is now.

Cinnamon Janzer is the assistant editor at Impact Design Hub and a writer whose work has been featured in FastCo.Exist,, and more and has been cited in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Cinnamon holds a MA in Social Design, specializing in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She splits her time between Minneapolis and Latin America with her pup, Gus, by her side. You can learn more about Cinnamon at

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