Help me save the world
July 3, 2007 6:43 PM   Subscribe

I am a grad student in a computer engineering program who has recently become interested in sustainability. Please help me figure out how best to use my talents to have a positive impact on society.

My research background is in digital circuits - how to design microprocessors, for example. The sort of problems I'm working on all revolve around making circuits better - faster, lower power, able to do more stuff. The research is challenging and interesting. However, I don't think I have a passion for it. I will probably finish my Master's degree in the next 8-12 months -- what next? I can continue in a PhD, I could probably get a job in any of the big tech companies, or...something else entirely.

I now believe that sustainability - i.e. the long-term survival of our culture - is the only problem that really matters. At best my work on the technical side of things will marginally improve a few electronics products. But I'm starting to think there are enough gadgets out there as it is, most of which last only a few years anyway, and thus I am setting myself up to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. I see limited opportunities to make a big impact on my current path.

I've been volunteering with a local non-profit electronics recycler. I could probably devote a lot more time to working locally. But as a grad student with an engineering background and an insider's view of the electronics industry, and not much to tie me down at the moment, I think I am uniquely positioned to make a much larger positive impact on the world. I'm thinking along the lines of the one laptop per child project, solar power/LED lighting, improving transportation or power grids, reducing desktop PC power consumption, reducing the footprint of chip fabrication plants - things like this.

If I were to do a PhD, I feel like I would want to be in some kind of interdisciplinary program where I am less concerned about incremental contributions to the literature and more about solving the problems faced by a lot of people on a daily basis. What I'm looking for is advice on how to focus all these idealistic thoughts into some kind of a future plan, where I can make the biggest impact, who I should be talking to, and thoughts from anyone who may be, or have been, in a similar situation.
posted by PercussivePaul to Science & Nature (9 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
WE NEED YOU. There are not enough computer/electrical engineers concerned about sustainability. If you want a community of like-minded individuals to discuss this with in-person, I suggest attending the next Engineers for a Sustainable World conference in 2008, or joining a local chapter of the organization. Engineers Without Borders is another organization to consider.

You can do an interdisciplinary Ph.D. with one advisor in EE/CS and another in Environmnetal Engineering or Mech Eng, there are a lot of ways you can contribute there. Along the way, you can take some design project classes and choose the focus of your projects to be sustainability-based. Designers from other engineering fields can only take sustainability ideas so far until they need the help of electrical engineers, otherwise, their prototypes end up looking like this.

Another route to consider is to take your technical background and apply it to a career in politics. Not enough engineers in politics, and politics will be important to mainstreaming sustainability. We also need engineers that can talk to politicians (lobbyists, government org. employees). If you are good at explaining your research to your grandma, this might be a field for you.

You could also become an expert in designing appliances to meet WEEE standards in a way that does not just end up with the appliances "recycled" to some junkyard in China. Design for recyclability in electrical components is an important field.

Good luck, take some small steps, don't feel like designing gadgets and promoting sustainability are necessarily opposing interests, you will find areas of cross-over.
posted by Eringatang at 8:17 PM on July 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Coming from a similar background (bachelor in computer engineering), I hate to say it but digital circuits probably won't do much for sustainability. I'd focus more on the power aspect of EE and work on developing new ways to generate/store electricity. Environmentally friendly and cost effective ways to power the grid and to get from point A to point B (without chemical batteries, yuck!) will be essential after the next few decades. Going interdisciplinary with the physics department would give you the smarts to tackle these challenges, or you could team up with some folks in the physics and ME fields and focus your talents on control systems for this sort of technology. Either way you won't be able to save the world alone; I guess it boils down to whether you'd like to spend the next few years in school or at work. Meanwhile, I'll be busy trying to dodge the 9-5, make a quick buck, and set up a self-reliant abode in the northern latitudes. Sure, I'm a pessimist, but I'd really really REALLY like for people like yourself to prove me wrong. Godspeed!
posted by waxboy at 11:56 PM on July 3, 2007

If you do end up staying in digital electronics, and computing turns into something that interests you, get involved in free software / open source design, and become an advocate / implementer of stuff that runs well on older and/or cheaper hardware; focus your better! faster! stronger! talents on the demand side, rather than the supply side.

A tremendous amount of computer hardware ends up in landfill simply because it won't run the latest incarnation of Windows quickly. If that stuff can be given a satisfactory second go-around, running open-source software that makes it genuinely useful, there's a real opportunity there to narrow the digital divide.

I've often said that the Internet is the closest that computers have ever got to justifying their own existence. At present, Internet access is available, by and large, only to the rich. It seems to me that pushing that bell curve downward, and making cheap worldwide communication and multiple sources of information accessible to more people in more places, can only help.
posted by flabdablet at 3:10 AM on July 4, 2007

As waxboy says, digital design won't have much impact beyond allowing us to scale VLSI to more gates without the power costing too much and/or enclosures melting. Your real opportunities for efficiency come in applied power electronics, e.g. alternative generation and/or efficiency. It likely won't be original research (these are fairly well understood areas) but applied engineering, i.e. designing cheap products that can be made available to those who need them.

Something you might also want to look into is control systems. Lots of stuff needs controlling and there's often some margin in controlling it better so that it uses less power / resources / whatever.

Or maybe you could look at battery research. There's lots of room for improvement there, and it's important for alternate generation and transport uses. Not very digital though.

Actually, you should definitely have a look into asynchronous digital design. Logic without clocks. Currently it's very difficult to do because we don't have the design, simulation & analysis methodologies built up in the same way we do for synchronous, but it has the opportunity for immense power savings in digital circuits. Another google term is reversible computing. It's an area of active fundamental research with any number of PhD theses in there; definitely not for the faint of heart though.
posted by polyglot at 5:03 AM on July 4, 2007

Engineers for a Sustainable World might be useful to check out in your region. They put on some good workshops and the annual conference is a terrific collection of brilliant people and presentations which could help you clarify your excellent goal. Go to the annual conference if you possibly can, for inspiration ,encouragement and ideas.
posted by anadem at 6:32 AM on July 4, 2007

If you're looking for general inspiration, you might also care to check out the Rocky Mountain Institute site, and read Winning the Oil Endgame.
posted by flabdablet at 6:49 AM on July 4, 2007

Thanks guys. I know this is a tough question to answer because it is highly personal, but it was helpful for me to write this down and helpful to read your responses.

flabdablet, the recycler I'm volunteering with is doing pretty much exactly what you describe (refurbishing old computers into linux boxes). It's a great organization and I plan on staying with them. But by itself it's not the sort of thing I can devote my life to.

Polyglot, I am familiar with the fields you mentioned and skeptical that it's what I want to do. At least working from academia, even if I can manage to make a contribution and design some kind of new low-power circuit (which would not be easy - hundreds, maybe thousands of researchers are working on the same problem and making slow but steady advances), still... the push for low power chips in industry and academia came from a technical wall preventing future performance improvements and thus industry growth, not any great concern for the environment, though it is often marketed as the latter after the fact. I would have no control over whether my efforts get used to build ultra-low-poewr sustainable systems, or instead the power savings is used to crank up speed - if my efforts get noticed at all, which is by no means a certainty in this field. I guess I'm getting disillusioned with academia. Maybe I need to work in industry for a while. I don't know where that would be, though. I think I should talk to some people aroudn campus.

Eringatang, thank you for the encouragement. I'd like to talk futher if you like - my e-mail's in my profile.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:25 AM on July 4, 2007

It looks like you're in good company here, I'm really impressed with by the response so far.

I can add a few ideas specific to Vancouver:
-participate in the city's EcoDensity planning meetings (ongoing)
-become involved with APEG (not just for civil engineers!) and bring about change in the organization
-help organize events such as the recent sustainability cafes
-BCSEA is very active in public policy and in developing awareness programs

I'm a materials engineer with an interest in sustainability. I've spent the last year developing a review of talks that outline important issues in sustainability.

Our city is already an icon of sustainability. The way I look at it we have a lot of work to do to actually live up to that image.
posted by FissionChips at 10:53 AM on July 4, 2007

Judging by the number of favourites this thread has struck a chord with some. I might as well share some of my findings.

I have been poking around all day and located a few professional conferences: IEEE International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment, which has been running annually since 1993, and the International Symposium on Environmental Standards for Electronics, which I don't know much about.

The first of those two has been a great find already. Here is an example of some of the titles from the 2007 proceedings:
- Environmental Challenges for 45-nm and 32-nm node CMOS Logic
- Economic Metrics for Eco-Efficient Electronics
- Carbon Emissions Embodied in Importation, Transport and Retail of Electronics in the U.S.: A Growing Global Issue
- Future challenges and trends in electronics recycling

and especially, one of the most amazing articles I have ever read from an IEEE publication:
- Sustainable Engineering Education: Translating Myth to Mechanism

I have been reading this stuff all day instead of running my circuit simulations. Of course, these are mostly civil, mechanical, and enviro people, which means I'm in the wrong field. But I haven't been this excited about reading papers in quite a while, so who cares. I'll work it out!
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:37 PM on July 4, 2007

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