I opened my presentation at the 2011 Engineers Without Borders conference with a handstand. It was spontaneous and yet not without motive – we were in the carbohydrate slump slot forty-five minutes after lunch and shifting the energy was critical if I wanted to keep my audience with me. So I got them moving, I did a handstand and we knew we were going to do things differently. This presentation was about seeing problems through new eyes so as to find creative solutions with a more positive social impact.
Imagineering was the title of the conference, rounding off the Year of Humanitarian Engineering with a celebration of innovative engineering aid in developing countries. There was also space for sharing best practice and reflecting how we can do more.
Each of the various industries I have worked in – as an engineer, as a facilitator in strategy, as a yoga teacher and even as an acrobalance performer – has a unique approach to working. Over the hour, we took key parts of three different professions and viewed our technical engineering problems through their eyes:
- Social entrepreneurs put the social impact first. Business and a good product are still critical, but the social impact is foremost.
- Facilitators ask lots of questions. They merge the subjective with the objective and they inquire into what really needs to be done.
- And circus performers open themselves up to unknowing in order to hear what is being asked of them.
When we viewed our engineering through the eyes of a social entrepreneur our intention was different. (“My client thinks I’m building an accommodation block for 200 miners. What I’m actually creating is a home for people isolated from their friends and family, where they find the rest and time out that lets them work healthily and happily.”) When we asked the questions we’re sure everyone else knows the answers to we found deeper clarification. (“When you say sustainability, what does that mean to you?”) And through clown games we tasted the openness that results when we get out of our heads and more grounded in our body.
In the closing “Yes, AND” game, more than one hundred engineers yelled out vast ideas for having a greater social impact in their every day job. They cheered and they applauded.
When we have space to be, we are more able to ask our clients and our boss about what REALLY needs to be done. We release our assumptions about what’s possible and what isn’t, and we can see the problem through the eyes of the people who will be affected. It is then that we are in a position to find innovation.