In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 15, 2023 Volume 53 Issue 4
This issue features articles by 2023 US Frontiers of Engineering symposium participants. The articles cover pressing global issues including resilience and security in the information ecosystem, engineered quantum systems, complex systems in the context of health care, and mining and mineral resource production.

Invisible Bridges Why Community Engagement (Still) Matters

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Author: Mary Mathias and Guru Madhavan

In the early 1970s, when a group of technocrats took the Green Revolution to Bali, Indonesia, the results were catastrophic. They insisted that the island inhabitants redesign the subak—a centuries-old rice paddy irrigation system deeply rooted in the community’s history and values. In place of the sophisticated system with excellent rice yields and means of pest eradication, officials inserted a system of “technology packets” that combined new rice varieties, fertilizers, and an aggressive harvesting schedule, all in the name of increasing production. What they ended up with were decimated rice paddies full of pests and fungus (Lansing et al. 2014; Madhavan 2015). Had the officials responsibly engaged with the Balinese people and learned about the subak system as well as the community’s values and traditions that supported it, the destructive results of their intervention could have been easily avoided.

Engineers affect society in ways unlike many other professions. They can consciously and unconsciously transform lives and affect generations through their ­creations, and so they spend years training and countless hours designing, testing, and iterating. However, a funda­mental portion of any engineering project, particularly with ­civic objectives, is far too often overlooked or dismissed: community engagement. We argue that it’s impossible to complete any engineering project successfully without community involvement. And as with Bali, not engaging the public can have pernicious consequences.

The term “community engagement” can and does have multiple connotations depending on how one views it. In general, it is an explicit action focused on working with a community for the community’s ­benefit (­Natarajarathinam et al. 2021). This can take many forms for engineers, such as educational programming, town hall meetings, or even focus groups, but at its core, community engagement should ideally deepen the understanding between the engineers and the community and the impacts a project can have over its intended life course.

A key first step in any engineering project should be to listen and reflect. Who is this project for, and whom is it affecting? This necessitates community involvement in every step of a project, from planning and design through execution and evaluation, and all groups within a community, particularly those traditionally marginalized, need to be identified and included (Bell 2022). The hallmark of engineering design is to operate under constraints. While some contractors may see community engagement activities as an unnecessary delay for a pre-laid schedule, engineering design should also operate with the highest level of accountability. It is vital that everyone who will be impacted by the work be heard and considered.

In far too many cases over the history of modern engineering, underrepresented and marginalized communities have been overlooked and adversely affected as a result. Without being a member of a community—be that geographical, racial, cultural, or socioeconomic—a person can’t fully understand what it is to be a part of that community: how that community functions, what their needs are, or how something will affect that community. An engineering firm can design a construction project that seems exceptional on paper, and perhaps appealing to investors and policymakers, but what if it doesn’t lead to where the community needs to go or disrupts an ecosystem the community uses in an altogether different way? Or what if a bridge is helpful but far down the list of priority projects that would benefit a community? These are not novel thoughts. Yet, as engineers, we raise them because assuming to know what the best course of action for a community is will only perpetuate the cycle of marginalized communities being handed technology they cannot or do not want to use, or worse, unintentionally being harmed by projects in which they have no input.

Consider another classic example: People around the world depend on burning wood, coal, or other materials in their homes in order to generate heat and prepare food. These stoves often have detrimental health and environmental consequences, so many, many clean stoves have been created to mitigate these effects. And yet millions of people continue to use the harmful stoves. Why? In many cases, the clean stoves don’t function in the context of the end user’s daily life (Ventrella et al. 2020). Had the engineers who created the un-used stoves engaged with the communities they were trying to help in the development phase of the stoves, they could have learned about how the stoves are actually used, what the community’s needs and concerns are, and what stumbling blocks the engineers’ initial assumptions may confront.

Community engagement isn’t a one-way street. The community too needs to learn from engineers in order to become informed—and constructive—collaborators in a project. With a more nuanced understanding of the background, project, and process, community members would be in a better position to inform the project team of related values and concerns in the planning stages—and even to guide the project team. And they are more likely to accept and integrate the value of a proposed or completed project into their lives. The technology being introduced may be safer, “greener,” and cleaner, but ­common sense suggests that if the intended users don’t see its direct value, they will not accept it (Hanna et al. 2016).

Engineers can’t merely stop at surveying a community’s needs and concerns. They must invest time to share their ideas and the reasoning behind them with the intended community, however controversial. For a technology ­project with humanitarian intent to be effective, engineers need to discuss and demonstrate the ideas, and prime a conversation based on their comfort levels, buy-in, or dissent. Again, does in-depth community engagement slow a project down? Yes, but by consciously slowing down in this way, projects are better and project teams are more connected with the actual needs of communities, which allows for faster, more prudent advancement overall.

More directly in our work at the National Academy of Engineering, through the Inclusive, Diverse, and ­Equitable Engineering for All (IDEEA) outreach initiatives focused on K–12 students, we have learned that future engineers want to slow down to better engage with communities. The next generation of engineers, particularly girls and students from other groups under­represented in engineering, are more interested in engineering if they see it as a career where they can meaningfully contribute to social good (Syed et al. 2022). As part of the academy’s EngineerGirl program, established in 2001 to bring national attention to the exciting opportunities that engineering represents for girls and women, high school students have served as ­ambassadors trained in community engagement. The ambassadors have introduced engineering to younger students in their communities, focusing on students with little access to engineering education and role models. Through their efforts, the ambassadors have introduced thousands of students to engineering who otherwise may not have had the opportunity to explore the subject. Not only do the ambassadors better understand the importance of community engagement through direct action as they pursue engineering careers, but all the participants also now have a better understanding of engineering, which will help them be more informed and responsible citizens in the future. Community outreach and engagement can be a tellingly fulfilling cycle.

Involving community members in the process doesn’t need to be limited to discussions, debates, and demonstrations. The growing movement of “citizen science” can bring community members in as active participants. Exchanging knowledge between the community and the project team is incredibly valuable, but taking it to the next level and making community members collaborators in the project can lead to all participants being more invested and better outcomes overall (Bell et al. 2017).

Monitoring a project after it is complete is necessary for evaluation and future work. This is standard practice in engineering. Going back to the clean stoves example, community members using them can report on functionality, gather readings from monitors, and have follow-up conversations with the project team. This was the case in stove-related sensor projects in Uganda and Honduras, in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and led to beneficial design changes (Ventrella et al 2020). By engaging community members in that monitoring and evaluation process, they become more invested in the project, and the project team continues to learn from the community about how their work is being used and they maintain that connection for future projects.

Engineers have an opportunity to delve into the ­successful—and not so successful—case studies of community engagement to present a path for more responsible technology development, especially the ones people least understand or are most affected by. As sociologist James Scott observed in Seeing Like a State, while discussing examples of the push for advancement leading to new systems being imposed on communities, “formal schemes or order are untenable without some elements of the practical knowledge that they tend to dismiss” (Scott 1998). Engineers cannot afford to discount the knowledge and existing systems of the communities they aim to serve. If we fail to focus on the “human” part of ­humanitarian engineering and technology, we’ve lost sight of its purpose.


Bell L, Lowenthal C, Sittenfeld D, Todd K, Pfeifle S, Kollmann EK. 2017. Public engagement with science: a guide to creating conversations among publics and scientists for mutual learning and societal decision-making. Boston: Museum of Science.

Bell S. 2022. 8 things engineers shouldn’t forget when engaging with communities. Institution of Civil Engineers, Civil Engineer Blog.

Hanna R, Duflo E, Greenstone M. 2016. Up in smoke: the influence of household behavior on the long-run impact of improved cooking stoves. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 8(1):80–114.

Lansing JS, Cheong SA, Chew LY, Cox MP, Ringo Ho MH, Arthawiguna WA. 2014. Regime shifts in Balinese subaks. Current Anthropology 55(2):232–239.

Madhavan G. 2015. Applied Minds: How Engineers Think. New York: WW Norton & Company.

Natarajarathinam M, Qiu S, Lu W. 2021. Community engagement in engineering education: A systematic literature review. Journal of Engineering Education 110(4):1049–1077.

Scott JC. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Syed K, Mathias M, Hill C. 2022. Engineering for equity: ­Factors and aspirations. The Bridge 52(2):88–90.

Ventrella J, Zhang S, MacCarty N. 2020. An international, multi-site, longitudinal case study of the design of a sensor-based system for monitoring impacts of clean energy technologies. Design Studies 66:82–113.



Inspired by the name of this quarterly, this column reflects on the practices and uses of engineering and its influences as a cultural enterprise.

* This essay also appears in the October 2023 issue of IEEE HKN’s The Bridge.

About the Author:Mary Mathias is program officer, the Inclusive, Diverse, and Equitable Engineering for All (IDEEA) program, and Guru Madhavan is Norman R. Augustine Senior Scholar and senior director of programs, National Academy of Engineering.