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Three Ways the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge Made Me a Better Engineer

Katie Drinkwater is a sophomore majoring in Mechanical Engineering with the I&E Certificate. Born and raised in Reno, Nevada, she loves all things Lake Tahoe.

Katie was introduced to social innovation while working on her Engineering 101 Design Project, a makerspace inside a shipping container for engineering students in East Africa. 

Know What You’re Getting Into

When my team and I entered the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge (FSGIC), I didn’t know what social innovation was. I definitely never would have called myself a social innovator or entrepreneur. Nevertheless, I was finalist in the 2020 FGSIC. As I attended the workshops and networking events, I started to wonder why I was there. Was I doing social innovation? I was designing a solution to a social problem. Was I qualified to do what I was doing? My team was designing our solution for East Africa, a place I have never been. How well did I truly understand the problem I was trying to solve? The FGSIC opened my eyes to the world of social innovation and entrepreneurship and left me with many questions about my role as an engineer. I started working on my project because it sounded interesting. I did not initially acknowledge the impact my project could have for real people in communities far from my own. In other words, I was working on a social innovation without knowing it. This is obviously dangerous from many practical and ethical angles. Studying social innovation helps me understand my role as an engineer in the greater social sector. I now try to know what kind of project I’m getting into at the beginning and recognize my blind spots.

Engineers Have Feelings, Too

One of my first exposures to social innovation was a workshop during FGSIC Innovation Week. During the presentation, the speaker showed a slide of the design process. As an engineer, I’d seen the design process many times, but this version stuck out. In between the ‘Define the Problem’ and ‘Research the Problem’ was a new step: ‘Empathize.’ It struck me that I had never thought about empathy in design. It seemed like a natural and essential step, so why had I never considered it? One must learn about the community impacted by a problem to understand all aspects of the problem, and empathy is the way to learn about communities, right? The idea of adding emotion and human connection to the design process is simple but often overlooked. My engineering education has focused on my ability to take a set of specifications and use my knowledge of the physical world to build something to meet those specifications, no emotion required. But engineers do have feelings, and we should use them. Learning about social innovation and social innovators taught (and continues to teach) me how to empathize with stakeholders and how to design for people, not specifications.

Get Out, Meet People, Learn Stuff

I was initially amazed by the diversity of innovators at the FGSIC, and I only became more impressed as I learned about their innovations. Every team I met took on social problems with their whole hearts, from early childhood development in the US Latinx community to electronic financial transactions in India. Their incredible creativity, resilience, and empathy moved me to examine my definition of innovation. When I thought of innovation, I thought of devices, software, and infrastructure. When these social innovators thought of innovation, they thought of devices, software, infrastructure, business models, policy, paradigm shifts, delivery methods, and more. There are so many ways to innovate. There are so many ways to tackle the world’s challenges. I now take my skills as an engineer as a piece of the greater design puzzle. I seek to diversify my knowledge of problem solving by getting into new situations and arenas, meeting the people in those arenas, and learning how they solve problems.

My biggest lesson from the FGSIC is that I want to do more things like the FGSIC.

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