Evolving engineering for a better world
Above: (From left to right) Darshan Karwat, assistant professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society; Madison Macias, urban and environmental planning master’s student in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning; Eddie Schmitt, post-doctoral fellow in SFIS; Jorge Morales Guerrero and Mokshda Kaul, sustainable energy doctoral students in ASU’s School of Sustainability; and Eric Stribling, innovation in global development doctoral student in SFIS. Not pictured: David Oonk, post-doctoral fellow in SFIS. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU
Investigating how engineers can define a new engineering paradigm that values social and environmental justice is what motivates Darshan Karwat.
As an assistant professor at both The Polytechnic School, one of the seven Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, and ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Karwat is dedicated to shifting the focus of engineering design and practice through research, policy impact and advocacy.
Karwat’s path started in Mumbai, India, where he grew up and frequently confronted a range of environmental and social issues. Breathing the city’s polluted air and witnessing poverty shaped his outlook into adulthood and led him to become an environmental activist as an undergraduate studying aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan.
After earning his doctoral degree in aerospace engineering and environmental ethics, Karwat designed programs for low-cost air pollution sensors and climate resilience as an American Association for the Advancement of Science fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. He also helped design and run the Wave Energy Prize, a design-build-test competition, and advanced desalination research efforts at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Merging his educational background with his concerns for social justice, peace and environmental protection has given Karwat a platform to develop his own unique research and impact niche dedicated to these interests.
In Karwat’s interdisciplinary lab, re-Engineered, students and researchers have experience in anthropology, urban planning, science and technology policy, mechanical and chemical engineering, and community development.
Some of the questions at the heart of re-Engineered are: Why are we engineers? For whose benefit do we work? What is the full measure of our moral and social responsibility?
“Without clear answers to these questions, many engineering solutions end up doing just as much harm as they do good because we are engrossed with making something efficient and affordable rather than making something equitable or sustainable,” says re-Engineered lab student Madison Macias, an ASU mechanical engineering alumna earning her master’s degree in urban and environmental planning in ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.
Prior to joining re-Engineered, Macias says she likely would’ve gone through her entire academic career feeling like her work wasn’t true to her initial intent — “to better the world through engineering.”
Exploring the engineering mindset
Karwat believes “the mindsets of engineers and the political economy of the engineering industry can unknowingly hinder progress in helping build a more peaceful world, further contributing to a lack of resources available in communities that are underserved.”
re-Engineered recently surveyed engineers to gain a better understanding of why this is the case. They found that along with less time and money, many engineers don’t feel equipped to take on work that directly addresses issues of environmental or social concern and “the ‘undone’ technical work in sectors that are not currently economically valued,” Karwat says.
Engineers may also not be connected to the communities they serve, making it difficult to fully understand the challenges they face and to collaborate to address those challenges.
“Many engineering students choose to study engineering because they feel like engineering can help make a positive contribution in the world, but when they join the workforce and job opportunities are limited or their income becomes a priority, they might lose their passion, become distracted and stray from their original goals and intentions,” Karwat says. “This is in line with growing research that shows current modes of engineering education and professionalization strip concerns for public welfare from engineers.”
His research team recently completed a pilot project funded by the Engineering Change Lab-USA to understand environmental protections, social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion values among practicing engineers.
The project uncovers a generational divide — that younger engineers are coming into the workforce with stronger environmental and social values and there are political factors at play that affect the kind of engineering people want to pursue.
“While we need to continue to study and affect change among engineering students, most engineers are not in school. They are out in the working world, living their lives, earning money to pay bills and supporting their families,” Karwat says. “To see the change we want in the world, we need to focus on understanding practicing engineers and changing their practice. Unfortunately, there is very little to no research on them, and this project is an attempt to begin to address that gap.”
Fusing engineering with social science
Karwat’s latest research project funded by the National Science Foundation explores collaborations between academic and community groups that are addressing engineering and scientific questions at the heart of environmental, climate and energy challenges — a project he describes as “an expression of the ASU charter.”
Four teams of nonprofit leaders and ASU-affiliated faculty and staff are combining their skills to develop engineering and scientific roadmaps to address issues like water resiliency, urban heat, tree health monitoring and injustices on the lands of indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada.
“Along with developing plans and strategies to tackle these important issues, we are studying the dynamics of the collaboration process and trying to understand how that changes perceptions of what constitutes meaningful engineering and science,” Karwat says. “One of the goals is to better understand the currencies of collaboration such that we might create a new field of collaboration for engineers that is economically, socially, culturally and symbolically valued.”
Influencing existing policies
Along with research, Karwat is committed to bringing change to the institutions that shape engineering. He was recently elected from a group of nearly 300 applicants to the New Voices program, an initiative launched in 2018 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
The cohort of early career leaders from academia, industry, government and nonprofit organizations will engage in relevant dialogue about how science, engineering and medicine are shaping the global future.
“The New Voices cohort will help inform the efforts of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine as they consider the role of engineering and science in addressing major global challenges,” Karwat says.
Karwat and his lab team are also working with program managers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy to offer insights and practical recommendations on processes, metrics and outcomes that can shape their technology research and development portfolios to promote environmental and energy justice.
“With questions of environmental and energy justice becoming more salient, it behooves the research and development enterprise to think about the ways in which technological design is informed by values of justice,” Karwat says. “Are we sure the technologies being researched are of public value and address injustices in society? And if not, in what ways might we change what is researched and what is developed?”
A constellation of changemakers
In 2019, Karwat came up with an idea to recognize people and collaborative efforts that are redesigning engineering to elevate the values of environmental protection, social justice, human rights and peace — The Constellation Prize. A committee of educators, students and peace-builders who feel that there is important and boundary-pushing engineering work that should be highlighted, celebrated and recognized to inspire others are moving the prize forward.
Last year’s inaugural cohort of Constellation Prize winners were awarded for their achievements in advancing indigenous rights, biodiversity, engineering education, community collaboration and policy impact.
Many other winners are doing equally impactful work, and Karwat hopes to expand the reach of The Constellation Prize as the endeavor grows and becomes more widely recognized.
The final frontier
Along with several projects in the works, Karwat also wants to merge his background in aerospace engineering, space systems and environmental protection to craft new kinds of engineering questions and explore projects aimed at better protecting the sanctity and beauty of space as we continue to explore it.
“The momentum to envision the idea of humans as an interplanetary species continues to build,” Karwat says. “I wonder if we can create this future through engineered systems in a way that not only avoids the environmental and justice challenges we’ve been left to deal with on Earth but also inspires engineering design that reflects a new ethos of care for the places we go.”