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From the Inside Out and the Outside In: Engineering Solutions for the Future

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

Remarks, George Washington University
School of Engineering and Applied Science Commencement

May 16, 2003

Thank you, Dean Tong, and good evening to you all—graduates, your families, faculty, and guests.

Let me say at once that I am an engineer, so being part of this commencement celebration is a special privilege and a joy. I admire the energy and spirit that are so much a part of the George Washington University School of Engineering and Applied Science. This is a school that is going places—integrating excellence in education with research, and gracing all with a firm commitment to improving the well being of society.

And to you, graduates of 2003, I offer my warmest congratulations—for your intellectual achievements, for persevering in this journey, and for believing in yourselves and your future as engineers. We gather here to celebrate your success.

I know that your families and friends, as well as your mentors and professors, share your pride in these accomplishments. They also deserve credit for supporting and encouraging you.

I remember very clearly the day I received my first engineering degree. My most cherished mentor took me aside, and said very seriously, "Joe, I look at you today and I think, 'You don't know the meaning of the word "quit." You don't know the meaning of the word "impossible." You don't know the meaning of the word "fail."

And then, smiling, he said, "How can you be graduating when you don't know the meaning of so many simple words?"

It's my job today to say a few simple words that may be useful for the unknown ahead – and to be brief about it!

This important milestone in your lives is a fitting time to pause, and refocus your energies on what lies ahead—to a future in which you will make your distinctive contributions in both serving society and enjoying its embrace.

Equipped as you are with a GW education, you have the sophisticated knowledge and technical know-how to succeed in a world that grows ever more complex and interconnected. But you have something even more precious to offer and enjoy.

Your education as engineers—more than most—prepares you for a larger challenge: to be leaders, and to shape the future you and your fellow humans will inhabit. Put succinctly, you can change the world.

This is heady stuff—at once sobering and exhilarating. I am not speaking of incremental change—a tweak here and a tuck there. I am urging you to adopt a revolutionary perspective that can transform engineering and with it, the world.

You might well ask how engineers can aspire to this capability, or even if they should. After all, being a revolutionary, an innovator, is risky business.

As you graduate, I want to share some thoughts with you about how you can do this and why you should.

First, the "how." As a beacon to guide you, I ask you to embrace the broader context of every issue you address, and the consequences of every design you create. To do this, you will need a new kind of visionary dexterity: at the same time—to use a few simple words—you must work from the inside out and from the outside in.

I've borrowed this turn of phrase from Robert Venturi, who has been a keen observer and practitioner of change in our built environment.

Remarking on Frank Lloyd Wright's dictum that we should design from the inside out, Venturi reaches for a larger vision. He says,

"...We now accept within our more complex view of things, as we acknowledge context as an important determinant of design, that we design from the inside out and the outside in..."

In other words, you may produce an elegant design, but it will be flawed unless you have also taken into account its potential impact. Engineers need to do their work in a way that is mindful of the consequences of their designs.

Engineers are often viewed as quintessential problem solvers. That is purported to be our metier. You know, give us some parameters, a few constraints, and a target at which to aim—I almost forgot the pencils in the plastic pocket protector—and we are off and running. That is designing from the inside out. Designing a specific solution is indeed an engineering responsibility. It was once our bread and butter, but these days it is only half a loaf.

To shape the future, we must take a radically different point of view that leads us outside the immediate nexus of our problem into a vastly larger, richer context. This is how we design solutions from the outside in.

By "design" I mean what the architect and ecologist William McDonough calls the "manifestation of human intent." McDonough reminds us that every design functions in a larger human and social context that informs our immediate purpose.

    The trick in the 'outside in" perspective is to expand our vision, until we have reached the most fundamental and far-reaching ends—the ones that embrace our common human and social objectives.

Good design requires this broader view. This integrative vision gives us a window onto function that we simply cannot achieve by focusing in greater depth on what is close to hand. That will make us better engineers in the long run. At the least, we may avoid the "unintended consequences" that are waiting to snap at our heels. At best, our solutions will embody our deepest human aspirations, and thus change the world.

Both points of view are vital. Every particular engineering endeavor adds to the options we humans have to shape our own destiny. Over the years, engineers have grown accustomed to resolving dilemmas that address a host of contextual variables. We now routinely take safety and environmental factors into consideration, for example.

But designing from the outside in requires a more radical departure. You must challenge the world you are given in order to design the future you desire. That is the very heart of innovation and the way through and beyond our common problems, to seizing opportunities for common solutions.

It also enables us to find solutions in unlikely places. One of the hallmarks of our current age of discovery at the interfaces among disciplines is the ability it gives us to shift from one context to another with agility, borrowing concepts and models along the way. This panoramic vision across nature's frontier allows for a multitude of possibilities for authentic transformation.

Having suggested how you might do this, I now come to the question of why you should work from the inside out and the outside in.

Simply put, society demands nothing less. To paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, every engineer sent out from a university should be an engineer of the nation as well as an engineer of the times. I would add: an engineer of our global society.

We live in extraordinary times. Science and engineering have opened so many new frontiers that the opportunities for progress are staggering. Technological change is a force in nearly every aspect of our lives, transforming and enabling the economy and our social institutions, and offering the promise of improving well being worldwide.

That makes our own times—your times—singular in at least three ways.

In today's interdependent world of networks and webs, the consequences of your innovative solutions may affect the entire globe. Moreover, they may do so in the blink of an eye. Not only do new technologies replace the old at a more rapid pace, the speed with which new technology is adopted has also increased enormously. Most significant of all, these consequences may persist decades into the future—shaping the lives and well being of generations yet to come.

The pervasive impact of our choices is the distinctive characteristic of our times. We are genuinely a "global village". Computer-communications advances enable us to tap into what Doug Englebart, the creator of our computer mouse, calls "the collective wisdom of the world."

Now, the concept of "inside out and outside in" is not new. In earlier times and in other circumstances, different challenges demanded an equal measure of innovative leadership of this kind. Take, as an example, Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin, one of our nation's most distinguished founders, was schooled in the science and technology of his day. He discovered the universal nature of electricity and used this new knowledge to fashion a good number of innovations. When he turned his talents to a different objective, he did not leave this flair for discovery and innovation on the workbench. He used it to help craft a new nation!

As you move forward into your own future, you will be designing artifacts and systems for a new world in which change and complexity are the rule, a world continually transformed by new knowledge and technology, a world linked globally, where differences and divisions can have immediate and large scale consequences.

More and more you will need to anticipate and guide change in order to design a future of our choice. You can be sure that if you don’t take the reins in your own hands, someone else will do it for you.

You may be thinking, "Hey, this is a weighty responsibility!" Think of it instead as liberating rather than encumbering, as adventurous rather than perilous. As you approach each task, every new issue you tackle, see it as your opportunity to transform our world, from the outside in, and the inside out.

This is your challenge, and I know each of you is fully capable of meeting it.

Let me celebrate the graduates of 2003 once again with these final words. I congratulate you on a job well done. I wish you a future that is challenging and rewarding, a future that provides you every opportunity to create the life—and the world—you imagine, a future that lets your spirits soar. Best wishes to you all.

Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.


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