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How Human-Centered Engineers Can Save Us from Climate Change

Feb 25, 2021   |   by Alexis Abramson   |   Medium

Considering humans and our planet first will lead to more innovative solutions — before we face a crisis of unimaginable proportions.

Greenland’s Qaanaaq
Located within the Arctic Circle, Greenland’s Qaanaaq faces melting sea ice, rising sea levels, and loss of permafrost, all effects of climate change that threatens people’s homes and way of life. (Morten Christensen/Getty Images)

In Greenland’s Qaanaaq, one of the northernmost communities in the world, the need to combat climate change is urgent. The town’s 650 inhabitants (there are more huskies than humans), have thrived for decades in severe Arctic conditions, fishing, hunting, and trapping wildlife for livelihood and survival. Now with rising sea levels, unstable sea ice (a base from which they fish and hunt), and the increasing cost of fossil fuels that power their transportation and heat their homes, the people of Qaanaaq face an imminent existential threat.

Those of us living south of the Arctic Circle may not feel the effects as painfully, but make no mistake, climate change is a looming problem for everyone.

For some, the challenges will emerge sooner. Think of the increasing frequency of California wildfires, intensifying flooding in Miami, and changing weather patterns at the Equator. For others, decades may pass before we experience dramatic changes to our quality of life. Each community will need novel solutions to mitigate the impact, but not every tool or technology will be suitable to address all problems everywhere.

In his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates outlines a plan to address climate change that combines leveraging existing tools, implementing new policies, and accelerating breakthrough technologies to market. Gates is right: we need to get to zero emissions by 2050, and we cannot do so without breakthrough innovation. (In full disclosure, I serve on the scientific advisory board for Breakthrough Energy Ventures, founded by Gates.)

The work is cut out for engineers and scientists, and we accept this challenge. It is our responsibility to use our influence for positive change to ensure that what we design and create improves life on this planet without exacerbating problems. We should employ a human-centered lens to develop innovative solutions that help address climate change before we face a crisis of unimaginable proportions.

Identify the greatest needs

Engineers are trained to identify and solve problems. We innovate. We create. We fix. We launch technical feasibility studies, analyze forces and speeds and power, design prototypes.

But in our eagerness to dive in, we sometimes overlook the people at the center. We must re-frame the problem to consider humans and our planet first.

Dartmouth Engineering Professor Mary Albert had been traveling to Greenland for years to gather climate change data when, during one of her trips, the people of Qaanaaq approached her team and asked for help to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Even if warmer temperatures did not threaten to melt the permafrost on which their homes are built, rising diesel costs alone had put their livelihoods in jeopardy.

But Albert isn’t driving the solutions in Qaanaaq on her own — instead, she and her team are taking a human-centered approach. Collaboratively with the people of Qaanaaq, they are exploring potential tools, sustainable technologies, and policies that not only reduce their carbon footprint, but also support their culture and way of life. And, the solutions they uncover will have enormous potential to benefit people in other regions of the world, too.

Knowing who is most affected — and how — empowers us to find and prioritize solutions that help the most people with the greatest need in ways that will have lasting impact.

Design for actual humans

There’s another way to put humans at the center: start by designing for actual humans.

Take, for example, the lowly thermostat. We know that when we turn the thermostat down at night or when we’re away from home, we save money and energy — as much as 10% per year when used properly. In the 1980s, engineers introduced programmable thermostats to encourage more of this behavior. Problem was, they were confusing and for decades, hardly anyone used them correctly. Enter the Nest thermostat. In 2010, Nest engineers designed a programmable thermostat that was easy to use (not to mention sleek-looking). By observing the habits of the people living in a home, the device actually programmed itself. The solution wasn’t rocket science, but it was revolutionary in that it was highly usable and consumers wanted it. Nest thermostats sold like hotcakes, with Google eventually buying the company for $3.2 billion in 2014. (See my recent interview about innovation in the buildings industry in Fortune Magazine.)

Or, consider United Kingdom’s problem with electric tea kettles. In the UK, a region that consumes some of the most tea per capita, the power grid is strained at the end of each workday when millions of people return home and turn on an electric tea kettle. This energy surge also has been observed during the World Cup, after a penalty kick, when fans get ready for a celebratory cup of tea! The conventional utility response to a demand spike is to import electricity from neighboring areas or to build and operate special fossil-fuel burning peaker plants. Yes, these intermittently operating power plants can address the electricity supply and demand mismatch, but they do so at the expense of a jump in greenhouse gas emissions and the release of other pollutants. Interestingly, a study found that 75% of tea drinkers actually overfill their kettles, wasting water and tremendous amounts of energy and putting that unnecessary strain on the grid. Equipped with this new knowledge, engineers have designed “eco” kettlesthat heat precisely the amount of water necessary — an important and relatively simple step toward mitigating the problem.

When designing for actual humans, we arrive at alternative and better solutions.

Engineer for the basic human right to energy

For over a century, access to energy has raised our standard of living, promoted health and well-being, and kept us safer.

But climate change will worsen as the demand for energy grows with the population. This dissonance must be considered as we engineer new solutions.

For example, as the world’s temperatures rise, the demand for cooling is also projected to grow three-fold by 2050, leading to increased emissions, particularly in countries with burgeoning economies. Given the numerous benefits of air conditioning — reduced risk of heat stroke, dehydration, and asthma, as well as improved work performance — denying such technology to anyone in the name of climate change would be unethical. As human-centered engineers, our only real option is to create cost-effective, low emissions cooling solutions that address communities’ needs and scale for global adoption. While more efficient conventional cooling systems can be deployed, we really need bold innovation in this space (for example, see finalists for the Global Cooling Prize). And, one size will not fit all. We will need multiple solutions for differing applications, electricity infrastructures, and world regions.

Consider unintended consequences

Human-centeredness also requires engineers to ask whether our proposed solution might potentially lead to harm, and pushes us to consider and account for unintended consequences.

For example, airtight homes gained popularity in the 1970s. At the time, minimizing infiltration of outdoor air seemed like a great way to save considerable energy, but the buildings literally began to make people sick. Reducing fresh air exchange led to air quality and mold issues — a consequence engineers and builders failed to consider. Several lawsuits later, energy-efficient airtight homes (such as the one I recently moved into) now incorporate energy/heat recovery ventilation to ensure sufficient outdoor air exchange while maintaining high efficiency. A more thorough consideration of unintended consequences in this case could have saved people from significant harm.

An even more alarming example of unintended consequences concerns the impact of coal-fired power plants, which currently provide approximately one-quarter of the world’s energy supply. In addition to releasing enormous quantities of greenhouse gases, they spew pollutants and fine particles that cause or worsen health problems. The engineers that designed early coal-fired plants may not have been able to foresee these unintended consequences, but today’s governments around the world are aware and can (and should) do more to consider alternatives. In some places, regulations have aimed to capture sulfur dioxide emissions, and some plants have been converted to burn natural gas, leading to fewer asthma-related hospitalizations. Nonetheless, large scale coal-fired power plants continue to be built in select parts of the world. While these regions deserve access to electricity, alternative human-centered approaches must be more fully considered.

Biofuels are another illustration of a climate change solution that could lead to unforeseen consequences if not fully considered. Hailed as a renewable energy resource, plants (i.e. biomass) are converted into liquid biofuel and used to reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector. Biofuels such as ethanol, derived from corn and blended with gasoline, are expected to increase in use over the coming decades. Some have argued that clearing carbon-eating plants and trees to grow biomass could lead to a so-called, unwanted “carbon debt.” Additionally, select biofuels might compete with food for land, posing a different ethical conundrum. A recent, comprehensive study by Dartmouth Engineering Professor Lee Lynd and collaborators determine that conversion of former agricultural land for biofuel production rather than for alternate land uses can lead to reduced greenhouse gas emissions overall. In contrast, they also find that conversion of second-growth forests for the purpose of biofuel production can result in undesirable carbon debts. So, it’s complicated.

The moral of the story… there is no silver bullet, and potential solutions must be fully analyzed from multiple angles prior to implementation.

Develop human-centered leaders

With a crisis so dire and staggering in scope like climate change, we need human-centered innovators whose understanding of and appreciation for the human condition is as ingrained as their scientific and engineering expertise.

This doesn’t happen overnight. This requires higher education leaders to fundamentally reimagine the future of engineering education. This requires companies and governments to embrace a human-centered approach to problem solving.

At universities, we cannot teach engineering students how to be human-centered in a single ethics module (which is often the minimum requirement for an engineering accreditation review). Students must be deeply immersed in the understanding of the human experience throughout their college careers. Of course engineering majors must be well-versed in math, science, and the engineering disciplines, but they also need to learn to create solutions that fully account for human need, that work for everyone, and that consider unintended consequences. This takes empathy. This requires exposure to a diversity of liberal arts courses. This means learning how to ask good questions. This necessitates the use of hands-on, project-based, real-world problems and multi-disciplinary teams sprinkled throughout the engineering curriculum.

The good news for our planet is that more companies are taking on sustainability pledges, changing the way they’re designing products, and investing in technologies to tackle climate change and environmental issues. Government leaders from across the world are taking meaningful action, although much work lies ahead.

Leadership and human-centeredness are becoming more closely entwined.

What is abundantly clear is that there is no time to waste. We need human-centered engineering solutions now and leaders who embrace the urgency of the problem. The future of our planet depends on it.

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