Citizen engineers for good

Today’s blog looks back to a 2013 edition of AgileTODAY, in which the founder of Rally Software, Ryan Martens, shared his thoughts on moving faster to solve the world’s most intractable problems.

Citizen engineers for good

by Ryan Martens

Give me a place on which to stand, and I will move the earth.” -Archimedes

“Archimedes arranged a series of pulleys and cogs that allowed him to pull a ship out of the Syracusan Fleet from the water onto the beach. Today, engineers and business must operate as a cooperative team to ‘move the earth’ toward freedom, justice, opportunity, and sustainable development.” – Al Gore, Vice President of United States (1993-2001)

We can use the power of business to be a positive force for change. With more citizen engineers working closely with — and within — companies, we can move faster to solve the world’s most intractable problems.

Business is the only force on the planet large enough and pervasive enough to change our broken global systems. As Richard Branson says, screw business as usual. Business can be a force for social good. We are better than this.

Social entrepreneurship can save the planet.  Early visionaries are clean sheeting businesses that get to the root causes of many of the systemic failures of the 20th century. These entrepreneurs are paving the way towards truly sustainable and equitable solutions.

Pioneers like Interface Carpet, Nike, and Patagonia have shown that we can innovate and scale sustainable solutions inside of existing businesses, while unreasonable startups have shown clean sheet ways to create wholly sustainable enterprises.

We can get to this critical mass by growing social impact organizations or by affecting existing businesses with triple-bottom-line thinking. However, we are not doing this fast enough nor working with enough businesses on the planet.

The question is: how can we build both new social impact organizations and retrofit existing enterprises — and do it faster?

What is standing in our way?

Two things are acting as obstacles to wholesale change in our business systems preventing us from moving from open loop, single bottom-line to closed-loop, triple bottom-line businesses:

  1. We need a well-defined method for rapid innovation and learning.
  2. We need more engineers who can design and implement effective, sustainable solutions that scale or replicate across the globe.

In terms of a method for rapid innovation and learning – Lean Startup and Agile methods are emerging as disciplined approaches to continuous innovation.  The mobile/social Internet is becoming the means for replication while open source software and creative commons are becoming the platforms for effectively sharing of ideas worldwide.

This leaves us with the biggest bottleneck being the lack of Citizen Engineers. As Dave Douglas says in his book Citizen Engineer, they are:

“…the connection point between science and society—between pure knowledge and how it is used. Citizen engineers are techno-responsible, environmentally responsible, economically responsible, socially responsible participants in the engineering community.”

We simply need more engineers to change course and commit to solving these problems.

We Want You!


Now is the time for our society to make citizen engineers the shining role models and encourage their development.  It is going to take time to educate and mobilize engineers who can apply technology iteratively and incrementally in local settings to effectively solve the systemic problem with triple-bottom line solutions.

My vision is this: bring citizen engineers together with social entrepreneurs to help scale their efforts as well as to entice visionary, large businesses to create sustainable and equitable solutions that span the globe.

Together – citizen engineers and social entrepreneurs – can be the giant lever to fix the global systems that create clean water, clean air, rich soil, biodiversity and happiness as a natural by-product of everyday work.

To mobilize citizen engineers to do this, we need to leverage:

  • Design thinking to produce highly desirable solutions that scale quickly
  • Agile thinking to bring the power of small teams to large problems
  • Lean startup to simultaneously solve for feasibility and effectiveness
  • Open source licenses to disseminate learnings and solutions freely across the plane
  • Sociology and biology to design sustainable solutions that work with nature

How do we create and mobilize citizen engineers?

In wrestling to understand the problems and solutions, I have learned a few things. I do not believe you can make one singular giant leap to become a social impact enterprise, but incremental stair steps are what worked for us.  You need the support of the business to value the work and thus create an environment where citizen engineers are empowered to explore not just feasible and effective solutions, but highly desirable and sustainable solutions. We need to build the right things.

I launched Rally for Impact, a social impact business inside of a traditional venture-backed startup, Rally Software. From a corporate social responsibility standpoint, my slideshare deck and my Tedx-Mile High Talk, chronicle how we brought this to life. It took ten years, but we did it.

Through our strategic partners like the Unreasonable Institute, The Hub, B-Labs, the Entrepreneurs’ Foundation and Engineers Without Borders, we started to develop empathy for corporate social responsibility efforts, social impact enterprises and citizen engineers. It gave us the confidence to keep moving forward because they confirmed for us that it was the right direction.

For established companies that want to leverage corporate social responsibility, it is time to find strategic, non-profit, or social impact partners to help you empathize, explore and execute on a social mission.  In these partnerships, you will quickly find opportunities to empower citizen engineers through ideas such as impact hack-a-thons, sabbaticals, and intrapreneurships which allow your best technical folks to shine.

Business is the only force on the planet large enough and pervasive enough to change our broken global systems. A social impact business can serve as the platform for citizen engineers to stand on and move the earth.

Give me a place on which to stand, and I will move the earth.” – Archimedes

This article was originally published in AgileTODAY Edition Volume #5 (March 2013). Ryan Martens is a founding board member of Pledge 1%

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