The Empathetic Engineer

When I tell people that I study philosophy alongside engineering, I’m usually faced with remarks about what an odd combination it is and then questions as to why I chose to do it. I usually have to decide if I’m going to give them the short explanation or the real one.  My short explanation is usually along the lines of…philosophy is a subject that educates me about the world, and the people in it, while teaching me how to reason and examine things in a logical way. This explanation isn’t wrong, but it’s kind of boring and it doesn’t go the whole way to explain the importance of philosophy, and the influence it has had on me as an engineering student.

This post is going to act as my full explanation! I intend to carry around pieces of paper with a link to this page for all those times I’m asked why I do philosophy. I think it’ll save me a lot of time.

To begin with, what is philosophy?

Like in all philosophy, there isn’t a certain or correct answer to this question. I apologise to all those engineers who like to know the answers to everything, philosophy is definitely not for you! In saying that, you might gain something by thinking about it.

I like to define it using one word: reasoning. You can expand on this and say it’s the active questioning of ideas and things, the attempt to understand the world around us, or the art of asking why over and over again. I think these all mean similar things. You take an idea and reason with it. You pull it apart, examine it from all angles, question the fundamental assumptions or ideas surrounding it, try to explain it with logic, defend or attack it, view it from a different perspective, all these things and more.

Eventually you might have a clearer idea about it, a realisation about the way it should be, or a new and unexpected outlook.

I think these sorts of outcomes make philosophy an important subject because it gets you thinking about something that is essential to any project (or at least any project I want to be a part of): empathy.

When asked what the biggest challenge facing contemporary society is, CNN reporter and philosopher Nahlah Ayed replied “the erosion of empathy” (reference).

There is a growing disconnect between groups of human beings as global political issues change, technology becomes more influential, and the disparity in wealth increases. It is easy to ignore many of the terrible things that are happening to other people in the world (our own country included), but it is important that we don’t. 

Most of us are good at sympathising when we see images or hear stories of terrible political situations, environmental crises or poverty in the world, but we’re really bad at empathising. Empathy requires more understanding than sympathy does.

Obviously, Philosophy doesn’t give you a super power that allows you to understand every person on the planet, but it does provide you with better tools to start the process of understanding, and also more appreciation of that process. It makes you want to learn more about people and their perspectives by thinking about topics like ethics, human rights, happiness, utility and responsibility.

This empathy, or understanding, is something that should be actively involved in every design process. I came across it in a humanitarian engineering design process from the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Australia Design Summit in Cambodia this year. Empathising was actually included as a step in the design process. During the summit, we stayed in a remote village for 5 days with a family who had never had westerners there before. We asked questions, got to know the locals, and did the work they do while we were there.

The understanding we got from that was invaluable. It allowed us to think of design ideas that were appropriate for them, and also made us care about their wellbeing that bit more. A lot of design work in developing countries has failed due to a lack of understanding. A great example is the play pump in Africa (watch this: link). To see empathy included in EWB’s design process is awesome!

Outside of the humanitarian engineering context, this can apply in any situation. It’s all about connecting with people and using your skills in a way that empowers them, and gives them something that they actually want.

For me, exploring the importance of empathy has changed two main things. First, my approach to design problems. I now ask more questions, I question the fundamental assumptions provided to me, and I try to make a connection with the user so I can better understand them. Second, it has changed the sorts of projects I want to be involved with. I want to be involved in projects where I can make those special connections with a cause or with a group of people. I want to be able to satisfy that part of me that is thinking about the ethics of everything.   

The final thought I want to leave you with is about mindfulness. In a way, I think that philosophy is mindfulness. It’s about being conscious of everything, all ideas and all people, and trying to make sense of it all. I think if everyone was a little more mindful, the world would have half as many problems as it does now.




For those interested in exploring a little more, here is some recommended reading!



Originally published at All Things E

Updated:  8 September 2015/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing