Technology — Social Consequences of Product Design

If the product does no harm then the engineer has done no harm.

If only it were that simple. In modern society, where what we do as engineers and consumers is so interconnected with so many other people around the globe, it is almost never that simple.

Do you own a smartphone? Do you know where it came from? Where it was made? How it was made? Who made it? The answers to these questions make for a complex story of the global supply chain from the moment raw materials are extracted from the earth to make your phone to the end of its useful life. The iPhone is a solid example of how incredibly vast and complicated this supply chain can be:

At every stop along the supply chain, individuals, communities, and societies are influenced. Social consequences along the supply chain are many and mixed. But, these impacts are not the only social consequences of making and selling a product such as a smartphone. The smartphone also influences the person using it. It has enabled access to information and interconnection among individuals at a level never before experienced in civilized society. We can talk to almost anyone in the world at a moment's notice and access information about the world while things are happening.

But the smartphone. Does it also do harm?

Is it rendering you infertile the longer it remains in your pocket? Damaging DNA in your brain and increasing the risk of brain cancer? Radiating you with blue light at night, disabling your melatonin, and damaging your body's timing?

Do you think the engineers on the smartphone design teams had any idea of the many social consequences of introducing their products to society? If they had an idea, did they feel powerless to reduce those consequences? While that may once have been the case, as times change and these social consequences become more and more transparent, the engineer has increasing opportunity to integrate social responsibility into their own designs at every step of product development.

Join us as we take a look at the complex web of social consequences that emerge from the production of smartphones and other products, with special attention to how an engineer in any situation (whether corporate, government, or academic) can make differences every day to reduce and alleviate these impacts.

Know more:
Social Consequences in Product Design


This work has been conducted in collaboration with the University of Washington and is funded in part by the National Science Foundation (DUE-1245464).