In This Issue
Summer Bridge Issue on Engineering for Disaster Resilience
July 1, 2019 Volume 49 Issue 2
The articles in this issue present examples of engineering innovation to develop resilient infrastructure.

EES Perspective: Trust and Humility in an Ethics of Resilience Engineering

Monday, July 1, 2019

Author: Rosalyn Berne

Risk is an inevitability of the modern condition, deeply woven into technological society and the built environment. An ethical approach to engineering requires looking beyond the technological calculation of risks to ask probing questions about impacts on individuals and society in terms of equity, security, personal safety, and the environment.

The vulnerability of complex technological and constructed systems has been all too vividly demonstrated. In August 2003, for example, the great Northeast blackout, triggered when a sagging power line touched some tree limbs in northeastern Ohio, was rapidly “complicated by human error, software issues, and equipment failures, [leading] to the most widespread blackout in North American history. More than 50 million people across eight northeastern US states and parts of Canada were left without power for at least 24 hours, and many of them were in the dark for weeks” (Taylor 2018).

The loss of electricity . . . shut down airports, subways, trains, and tunnels. . . [and] suspended the operation of automatic doors, elevators, and entire drinking water utilities. It forced hospitals to run on limited power produced by back-up generators. Cell phone towers, cash registers, and ATMs went out of commission. In New York City, evening commuters stranded in a blackened city were forced to walk home because the city’s public transportation system had ground to a halt.[1]

More recently, the record flooding in the Midwest that began in March 2019 affected 75 cities, 65 counties, and 4 tribal areas in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. In Iowa at least 30 levee failures flooded towns and highways. The US Army Corps of Engineers reported that “the majority of the levee system along the Missouri River…is compromised. The bulk of the levees remain overtopped or breached” (USACE 2019). The economic impact was projected to “reach $2 billion as farmers struggle with damaged grain, massive cleanup, and impassable roads and bridges to fields and livestock” (Eller 2019).

These two large-scale disasters compromised critical infrastructure and put millions at risk of injury, disease, or death. Too often, vulnerable communities are the hardest hit (Krause and Reeves 2017), as seen in two other disasters. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 displaced thousands of residents in the Lower Ninth Ward, where the average household income was two-thirds that of New Orleans overall. And the contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan—at least partially caused by lack of attention to the resilience of Detroit’s water distribution system—also disproportionately affected poorer citizens.

What are the ethical obligations of engineers to design resilient systems with the capacity to protect all who are at risk from natural disasters? There is a case to be made that social inequality should be considered in engineering design and development (Jasanoff 2007). In particular, a perspective and approach imbued with humility acknowledges both the possibility of unforeseen consequences and the need for plural viewpoints and collective learning (Jasanoff 2003, p. 240). Why humility, rather than the conventional virtues of ethical engineering practice of impartiality, honesty, equity, and fairness, described in the National Society of Professional Engineers code of ethics?[2] Because

[h]umility instructs us to think harder about how to reframe problems so that their ethical dimensions are brought to light, which new facts to seek and when to resist asking science for clarification. Humility directs us to alleviate known causes of people’s vulnerability to harm, to pay attention to the distribution of risks and benefits, and to reflect on the social factors that promote or discourage learning. (Jasanoff 2007)

Another approach is sociotechnical design, which incorporates ethics considerations by giving equal weight to social and technical issues when new systems are being designed and according the rights and needs of humans as much priority as the nonhuman parts of a system (Mumford 2000).

It is true that foresight of risk is not always possible. Disasters have been characterized as morality tales about unforeseen consequences as well as carelessness and overreaching, mistakes in dealings with technology (Jasanoff 2016, p. 60): “Such lessons are particularly important in an age when, partially as a result of increasing wealth and population density and partly because of the mobility of capital and industry, the likely impact of disasters has risen while their causes have become less easy to anticipate and pin down.”

The essence of engineering is to serve people and society (NAE 2017, p. iv), making it inherently an ethical undertaking, and the profession’s ethical practices are largely responsible for the considerable public trust the field generally enjoys. For the engineering profession to uphold the public’s trust and the expectations of engineered systems to keep people safe from harm, resilience engineering must be guided by ethics.


Eller D. 2019. Farm losses drive Iowa’s flood damage to $2 billion, Farm Bureau economists estimate. Des Moines -Register, Apr 3.

Jasanoff S. 2003. Technologies of humility: Citizen participation in governing science. Minerva 41(3):223–244.

Jasanoff S. 2007. Technologies of humility. Nature 450(33).

Jasanoff S. 2016. The Ethics of Innovation: Technology and the Human Future. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Krause K, Reeves RV. 2017. Hurricanes hit the poor the hardest. Brookings Social Mobility Memos, Sep 18. -Washington: Brookings Institution.

Mumford E. 2000. A socio-technical approach to systems design. Requirements Engineering 5(2):125–133.

NAE [National Academy of Engineering]. 2017. The Third Global Grand Challenges Summit: Summary. Washington.

Taylor A. 2018. Photos: 15 years since the 2003 Northeast blackout. The Atlantic, Aug 13.

USACE [US Army Corps of Engineers]. 2019. USACE NWO continues flood fight partnerships. News release, Mar 17.

This column is produced in collaboration with the NAE’s Center for Engineering Ethics and Society to bring attention to and prompt thinking about ethical and social dimensions of engineering practice.

[1]  Blackout: A case study of the 2003 North American power outage. George Mason University Center for Infrastructure Protection and Homeland Security. Retrieved from Learner-Version.pdf.


About the Author:Rosalyn Berne is director of the NAE’s Center for Engineering Ethics and Society.