What happens when you take 800 young professional engineers, the majority of them female, and put them together in the Toronto Congress Centre on a foggy Saturday? Well, let’s just say that the conversations were less centred on bridges, roads, and dams, and more on empathic design thinking, collaboration, and social ventures.
On the weekend I attended RETHINK 2014 – a conference hosted by Engineers Without Borders (EWB). TAF was invited to share experiences as an innovative social impact model – meaning that we are an organization that is engaging our community in achieving a social benefit – in our case, clean air and greenhouse gas reductions for Torontonians.
This interesting panel was composed of a social entrepreneur producing honey in Africa, an engineering firm funding facilities for children orphaned by AIDS, a San Francisco foundation supporting innovations targeting the poorest populations in the world, and TAF with our focus on urban emissions reduction.
What struck me as we interacted with the audience was the similarity of our approaches, despite our varied experiences. Here are three key common ideas that emerged from the session:
Fail to succeed. During this session, and the keynote presentation that preceded it delivered by R. Todd Johnson, there was a call for a departure from our “culture of success.” Focusing only on what has succeeded prevents us from sharing some of the most important lessons of all – what didn’t go as planned and how we recovered and learned from it. Open and honest evaluation embraces acknowledgement of failed efforts. This requires courage and an atmosphere that doesn’t expect perfection from the start, and doesn’t deride failure as something to be denied or hidden.
Success has its own challenges. One topic that emerged was that we often focus on the short-term or immediate issues and that our change-making efforts may have unintended or unexpected outcomes. For example, we heard about the success of efforts to support orphans, keeping them safely cared for until they are 18 years of age – but as some of them reach this age, new thinking has to be put in place about the continued needs these young adults may have as they face a world as an adult with little extended family support.
We have to evaluate regularly. We must continually evaluate and re-focus our efforts, learning from what went wrong, consulting with all the players, and absorbing new insights about our problems and their solutions as we gain more experience.
Of course, overall, all these lessons must be taken in the context of “empathic design” – the idea that we create programs in collaboration with those who are going to be affected by them – the idea of designing “with”, not “for” other groups.
Thank you to EWB for an energizing and inspiring conference for a key group of emerging leaders.