A Conversation with David Douglas

David Douglas is the former Chief Sustainability Officer of Sun Microsystems and author of Citizen Engineer, a book documenting how fellow engineers can integrate sustainability into their work and thus become citizen engineers.

Becoming a citizen engineer doesn't have to involve a life-altering career move. As he told me in our conversation, "Everything an engineer designs impacts society, and every engineer should be more aware of those potential impacts. You can become a better citizen engineer without changing the job you're in."

In his blog, NearWalden, which addresses contemporary issues in the sustainability space, he lists his own current citizen engineering roles as being Vice President at Applied Minds, an interim CEO at TouchTable, and serving on the board of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and SkySQL. He is also a Technology Advisor to Boston Rising and a Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute.

How did you get your start in citizen engineering?

I left Sun in 2001 and helped launch a startup that we sold in 2006. I was becoming more interested in sustainability and in problems with a direct societal impact. I wanted to do more than just build computers, so I started looking around -- I looked into government stuff, a few corporate opportunities, and I happened to have coffee with Sun's CEO, Jonathan Schwartz. He said they were getting asked by a lot by customers about energy usage and that they'd love to have me come back to Sun and lead a new project on that.

That was a great opportunity and I felt like it was a place where I could make a difference, because I understood the potential impact of the work and Sun was a company where I knew how to get things done. So I went back to Sun and spent a lot of time, especially at the beginning, just shaping what the job was about. There was really no precedent; it was a time when there were not yet many sustainability officers. 

Did the book grow out of that work?

Greg Papadopoulos, the CTO of Sun and a long-time friend, had written a blog post talking about citizen engineers and the role of engineers in society. It was an important time to be talking about that stuff and it was along the lines of things I had been thinking about. We were getting a lot of questions inside the company about what an engineer could be doing either in sustainability or helping society in general.

Greg's blog post became the catalyst for writing the book. It was initially more of a handbook for people already working at Sun, but it expanded to target engineers everywhere, and to help them think about how to make a difference.

Now the book is out there and I'd like to do an update on it in concert with a university project of some kind. There is a really big opportunity in educating people who are already in the engineering field, but an even bigger one in people who are just starting their engineering career or are still in college. It's an ideal time to understand all this material and apply it right from the beginning of their first job.

So you're involved with universities as well?

Since the book was published in 2010, we've had ongoing discussions with various universities. Greg and I have both been pretty busy, so unfortunately It's been a side project for the last couple of years. 

For me, this is all different expressions of the same personal interest. I've come to view it all as a portfolio of stuff I'm doing at any given moment. Part of it is my formal job, but all of it is an expression of my interest in sustainability. 

For instance, I'm doing some side work with energy projects that are more on the innovative policy side, and I'm also involved with some work in education. I'm also involved with Ceres, an organization I started working with at Sun and then stayed involved with in an advisory role. It's a sustainability organization near Boston that's looking at the intersection of business and sustainability in a very constructive way. I've also been doing some think-tank work through The Breakthrough Institute ,  where I'm very involved as a senior fellow.

Tell me more about these side projects.

A couple of years ago, I started a project called the Energy Innovation Tracker. We're trying to understand federal spending on energy innovation. The project is doing well, is funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and operates as an independent project within the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). We're building a database of how the government actually funds energy projects, in order to understand how the funding could best be used and also where the gaps in the current plan are. It's an example of the kind of accounting the government should be doing. I hope that someday they'll take over this part of the work so we can focus on the analysis part. 

That's a big theme in citizen engineering: getting data available and driving better discussions. Engineers are good at quantitative analysis, and too much of the discussions around sustainability are based on sound-bytes or small pieces of the overall puzzle. Engineers have ideal skills to step in and do a more complete analysis. It will yield better insights about driving policy and investments.

For one, I'm really encouraged by what the Department of Defense is doing on energy right now. Their investments are increasing dramatically and they are really focused on some important problems for their long-term mission. With the Department of Energy, it's a little harder to see the big picture of what they're trying to do.

So progress with the government is mixed?

I think all of this is part of a bigger discussion on the policy side about what kind of things the government is good at and how they should express themselves. The U.S. Government funds more research than anyone else in the world, and they're also a huge consumer of technology. They can have a big influence on markets. They were a big part of the early days of computer development and the work behind the internet. They interact with engineers and R&D in a lot of ways, and an important part of being a citizen engineer is to understand what those interactions are.

There are some good opportunities to get aligned with the government, and in general it's important to at least become aware of what they're thinking about, so you can either take advantage of it or avoid being impacted by it. 

Any concluding thoughts on how one becomes a citizen engineer?

There are two more important things that occurred to me early on in my sustainability work. The first thing was a realization that you didn't have to design a water pump for a third world country to impact society. Everything an engineer designs impacts society, and every engineer should be more aware of those potential impacts. You can become a better citizen engineer without changing the job you're in. That was very important for me and for how we communicated with the engineers at Sun.

The second thing was a lesson I learned from my dad early on in my career. It came at a time when I received a promotion that was going to take me away from some development stuff I wanted to do. He told me that you can't count on the formal part of your career for everything you want to accomplish in life. Sometimes you need to have side projects outside of work. That's been very important for me. Even when I was the Chief Sustainability Officer at Sun, there were some problems I cared about that were not part of my Sun job, so I stayed involved with other activities in public policy and on the government level. I also stayed very involved with blogging.

I have a lot of respect for those who can take a great leap of faith in something they really believe in, and commit their career for the good of others. Sometimes those things work out and are wildly successful for society and the person who takes the leap. But important things can still happen without taking radical career moves. If you have a skill set and a passion, there may be ways to put those to use in your job, or there may be an outside organization who could make great use of your assets. I've found that many organizations are willing to be creative when you approach them as an engineer. You're good with numbers, analysis, and programming, and those kinds of things are universal tools in the sustainability space these days.

To learn more about David and his work, visit his blog, NearWalden

You can find the website for his book at citizenengineer.org.


You can also follow him on Twitter @NearWalden.