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Critical Review Two: Another Perspective on Development Engineering

March 9, 2017

By: Thomas Fisher

In their overview, Rachel Dzombak and Julia Kramer provide an insightful and thorough discussion of the emerging field of development engineering. Most interestingly to me, they correctly identify the strong interest in doing this work among today’s students, a generation that seems eager to integrate and apply knowledge in real-world situations rather than do academic exercises in the classroom.

I co-teach a development engineering course at the University of Minnesota with two colleagues, one an engineer and former Honeywell executive and the other a lawyer and former Minnesota legislator. With a background in architecture and service design, I bring design-thinking experience to the class. The context and content of our course, and other similar courses taught at Minnesota, differ in some ways from what Dzombak and Kramer describe—which is not to say that there is a right or wrong way to teach development engineering, but instead that there are many ways to do this work and grow this new field. There are a few places where our course differs from what Dzombak and Kramer describe, which I’ve set out to highlight here.

First the name: here we avoid calling this “development engineering,” which makes the work sound more technical and specialized than what it is. Fairly or not, the word engineering suggests that the outcome will be some sort of technology or product, which from our experience is rarely the case. Instead, we call our course “global venture design.” The class comprises students not just from engineering and design, but also from business and public affairs as well as the social sciences, humanities, and the arts. Working with colleagues in India, Uganda, and Nicaragua, the students develop services using mostly existing and appropriate technology, with business plans capable of attracting start-up funding. The engineering students play an invaluable role in helping the teams understand technological capabilities and resource limits, but this work is not engineering.

Second, this course exists within a “grand challenges curriculum” intended to refocus the work of the university on the major problems facing the world rather than on producing disciplinary specialists. While disciplinary knowledge matters, which is why our course, like all the others in this curriculum, attracts mainly upper-class undergraduates and a few graduate students, what matters more is the mix of disciplinary perspectives on each team. The greater the diversity of perspectives, the better the results, we find. Our goal is not to turn out Ph.D. development engineers, but to prepare the broader student body to deal with the wicked problems of the world in more collaborative, creative, and constructive ways.

Finally, we teach our students not to rush to solutions too quickly. Many of the teams in our class will often start by looking for a technological fix to a problem, but as they work with people in a country, students quickly realize that the solution must use what a community can afford, maintain, and support. This typically leads them to inventive ways of leveraging, coordinating, or deploying products and systems already widely used and understood. As students have attracted start-up funding and launched businesses based on their work in this class, we have heard back from them that the greatest success arises from the simplest ideas, often using what people already have at hand.

Development engineering, from this perspective, is more about developing the capacity of people to solve their own problems and less about engineering a solution for them. The world needs both, but we need more to do the former than the latter.

Thomas Fisher is a Professor and Director of the Metropolitan Design Center and the Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Previously the Editorial Director of Progressive Architecture magazine, Thomas has written nine books, over 50 book chapters or introductions, and over 400 articles in professional journals and major publications. He was named a top-25 design educator four times by Design Intelligence and has lectured at 36 universities and over 150 professional and public meetings. His newest book, Designing our Way to a Better World (Minnesota) came out in Spring 2016. Thomas is currently working on a book about “On-Demand Cities.”

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