6 books about intentional systems engineering

6 books about intentional systems engineering

I’m in the middle of packing for a move. Boxing up possessions and transporting them (or bribing some friends to help), makes you really question if they’re worth hanging on to.

There are a lot of articles out there about living intentionally. Paring down to the essentials to focus on your values. Really questioning the decisions you’re making as you design your life and choose the things, people, and activities that will be a part of it. So as I was sorting through my books I came across a few that connect deeply to my values as an engineer and citizen and thought they might be inspiring for others.

This list includes six of the books in my library that have changed how I think about engineering products, systems, and businesses. They speak to the far reaching impacts of design decisions. They hold reminders of cautionary tales and inspiration for new ways to approach problems.

Engineering harnesses science to create something that’s hopefully of value. However, many companies get stuck in a cycle of keeping up with the corporate Jones’s. They follow trends without asking why. They install technology without considering its impact on how they operate or relate to the rest of the world.

These six books are great reminders of the factors and forces to consider beyond the technology itself:


Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

by William McDonough & Michael Braungart

One of the first things you notice about this book is how heavy it is for only being 200 pages. That’s because the pages are made from a special type of durable, waterproof, and recyclable “paper.” The title “Cradle to Cradle” is in contrast to the “Cradle to Grave” paradigm we’ve been used to. When something no longer serves its purpose, we typically dispose of it. This book encourages us to look beyond the use phase of the item, to the materials it’s made out of, how those materials were transported and assembled, the energy and natural resources required, and what will happen to all of it once the use phase is over. This book has profoundly impacted how I see my role as an engineer, especially considering the entire lifecycle of anything new I put into the world.


Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

by Elizabeth L. Cline

This book describes how the clothing industry has changed over time, chronicling the rise and consequences of “fast fashion.” She covers the environmental impact of having 52 seasons per year instead of two, but also the profound economic shifts. How cities, countries, and industries evolved and the role that our actions played. This book is a great case study of how changing the construction and business model of one type of item that we all own (clothing), can have profound systemic impacts on other areas of our society. Swap in any other product and you’ll probably find a similar story. This book eloquently articulates via a case study a sobering truth: product design isn’t just about designing products. You’re impacting a business, economy, and broader system with every choice.


The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future

by Chris Guillebeau

While preparing to take the leap into small business ownership I picked up this book. For many people exposed to “business” they probably have experience in the context of a corporate job or maybe in the venture-backed startup world. What’s interesting about independent small business is that it strips business back to the basics, back to what humans have done for centuries. Offering value in exchange for value. Reading about the intentional choices that people have made to design their business and life can help you get out of a rut of “this is how other people do things therefore the only way it can be done.” All businesses don’t have to look alike to be sustainable.


Mission, Inc.: The Practitioner’s Guide to Social Enterprise

by Kevin Lynch and Julius Walls, Jr.

When designing a business, there are a lot of choices. One of which is looking at what kind of impact you want to leave behind. We’ve talked about the environmental and economic impact in the earlier books. “The $100 Startup” questions if the barrier to entry to creating an influential business is as large as we make it out to be. “Mission, Inc.” describes some tactics for amplifying the societal impact of your work, in a way that’s still financially sustainable.


Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making

by Deborah Stone

This book was assigned reading for the Technology & Policy Program at MIT. For any analytical person looking at a policy debate and wondering why they don’t “get it”, why we can’t just look at the facts and find an optimal solution, this book can be an eye opener. Most of these principles are as applicable to the conference room as they are to Congress.


Future Crimes: Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Our Connected World

by Marc Goodman

Some companies struggle just trying to figure out internal issues. Others spend more time paying attention to their customers and tracking industry trends. But there’s a whole other world to consider, the criminal world, with its own startups and enterprises that are honestly probably a lot more efficient and motivated than many of the law abiding organizations out there. This book talks about the expanding role technology is playing in our lives, how criminals have been able to exploit these tools for their own benefit, and what we can do about it.


These six books will definitely make the journey to my new home, as reminders of what’s important to focus on when designing sociotechnical systems.

Which books have profoundly changed how you approach your work?

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