Which 'Engineering', Specifically?

Defining what, exactly, we mean by ‘science’, ‘engineering’, ‘design’ both guides and constrains our efforts to practice them.

I would highlight two vastly different definitions of engineering and science that exist in the cultural zeitgeist. First, many scientists I know, including myself, would define ‘science’ as something like:

“Science is a continuous effort to better model and understand the dynamics of the world, driven by continuous inquiry and verification.”

Let’s denote this as “science0”. This definition of science leads us to define engineering as:

“Engineering is the art and practice of putting those models into practice as situated, designed systems in order to restructure, manipulate, and direct our surroundings for the benefit of humanity.”

which can correspondingly be called “engineering0

These definitions are, to my eyes, abstract, sweepingly broad, and uplifting. This understanding is what leads us to the idea that science is self-correcting, it lends itself to notions of ‘objectivity’, and is too nonspecific to be resilient against co-option. In fact, the co-opting of engineering shines through in the differences in language many engineers around me would have used to define engineering, attempting to express the same underlying idea as:

“Engineering is the practice of using those models to control and manipulate the natural, physical world in service of progress.”

which I will denote “engineering0.5”.

The seemingly small differences in language between these descriptions of the same underlying schema of ‘engineering’ steer the latter toward many of the same misguided restrictions on what ‘role’ engineering plays in society. The emphasis on direct application of the models of science and the prioritization of ‘physical, natural’ phenomena both serve to disregard the “social” aspects of our engineering work, providing an associative ‘rationale’ for the decentering of design, communication, and community involvement from our idea of what ‘pure engineering’ looks like. The additional, unquestioning conflation of “progress” with “the benefit of humanity” brings along a capitalist-defined narrative of endlessly increasing growth as somehow integral to our ideas of engineering, rendering countless problems of social justice, conservation, and revolution definitionally prone to exclusion from the domain of engineers.

As such, I will refer to the first two definitions as “science0” and “engineering0”, and the commonplace somewhat problematic second engineering definition as ‘engineering0.5’, as it does attempt to express the same underlying schema as “engineering0”.

De facto, however, our operationalizations of ‘science’ and ‘engineering’ exclude a multitude of skills and problems the 0th definitions include. While we count designing body armor as engineering, clothing design, sewing, developing knitting patterns, etc. are all commonly not included. While anatomy and physiology are generally ‘science’, the knowledge and work of midwives over millennia somehow “doesn’t feel like science”. The analysis of racially aligned impact of pricing of healthcare is definitively ‘not science’, or at least nowhere near as ‘science’ as the ‘pure’ ecological analysis of the impact of climate change. Facebook creates absurd, intricate backends for their server architecture, we optimize for ‘time-on-site’ for most of a decade, yet when I ask recruiters about a hypothetical design & engineering role on their community management team they balk about that team focusing on ‘non-technical problems beyond the domain of an engineer’. In November 2016, I watched friends working on google’s deep learning team, arguably one of the most impactful small groups of people in the world, express frustration and uselessness at his “background’s irrelevance to the political events taking place.”

Clearly, there is a disconnect. This disconnected operationalization of ‘engineering’ and ‘science’ I will identify as ‘science1’ or ‘science™️’ and ‘engineering1’ or ‘engineering™️’. When we look closer at how science0 and science1 or engineering0 and engineering1 have historically differed, we find several trends, as expressed extremely well in the very first sentence of Donna Riley’s 2013 book “Engineering and Social Justice”:

The profession of engineering in the United States has historically served the status quo, feeding an ever-expanding materialistic and militaristic culture, remaining relatively unresponsive to public concerns, and without significant pressure for change from within.

I present the “0, 0.5, 1” framing to demarcate the differences in definitions of science, engineering, and design. In particular, the fixation of engineering0.5 and engineering1 on the ‘physical, natural world’ result in excluding everything that actually situates the implementation within society and human context, thus only actually designing what engineering0 would deem ‘half the sociotechnical system’ simply as a result of not considering it their job. It is in this sense that ‘design’, as described by Bucciarelli, is both integral to engineering0 and not a ‘science1’; it entails actually accounting for the other half of our engineered0 creations, which in our science1 education we’ve been trained not to consider.

-Hani Awni

Hani Awni avatar
About Hani Awni
Interdisciplinary biotechnologist focused on engineering for social justice, developing a sociotechnical infrastructure for community autonomy in the 21st century, and facilitating self-directed radical neurodivergent transhumanism.