Social Engineering: Tackling Everyday Issues with Innovative Technology

A bearded man wears a VR headset in front of a black background.


17 July 2018

Author: Annelies Tjebbes


After last month’s focus on diversity in engineering, Annelies Tjebbes, a Social Innovator and Biomedical Engineer, introduces us to a research project that pairs innovative technology with a poignant social issue. Through it, she shows us the extraordinary impact of engineering when interacting with a true diversity of experience and voices.

For example, how often do you get the chance to sit around the room with an artist, a tech wizard, a visionary senior, a rehabilitation coordinator, and a former inmate? For Annelies, it actually happened quite recently.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have this opportunity while working on a project called Rob’s Place. Through a combination of experiences and expertise, we are building a pioneering VR experience together.

The Project: Rob’s Place

Rob’s Place is a virtual reality (VR) environment designed to support individuals who have formerly been incarcerated as they aim to reintegrate into society. The project is led by Circle of Eagles, a rehabilitation centre for Indigenous men (Brothers) who have been incarcerated in Canadian prisons. Reintegration for these Brothers is a tall order. Many of these people have faced intergenerational trauma from Canada’s residential schools. They have been alienated from society, told they have no future, and face both a consistent lack of support and heavy criticism as they emerge from prison.

The aim of this project is to gradually desensitise these men to anxiety-inducing experiences in society. By doing this, Rob's Place can thereby lower the rate of recidivism. Practising these anxiety-inducing activities in VR, and then debriefing with a therapist, gives the men a better chance of successfully completing these activities face-to-face. They come from all walks of life and know what support they need. This is why they were made central to the project’s design team.

In engineering & design, we often contain our user engagement to either the beginning or the end of a project. We typically receive input and then rush away to put ideas into action. However, for the types of problems I work on, the big social and systemic challenges of our time, there is no right answer. How do you navigate a debate and create a dialogue with this kind of group on how to tackle issues such as, say, the stigma and alienation faced by individuals post-incarceration? Furthermore, how often do you even get the opportunity to have this kind of diversity on your design team? There isn’t a textbook you can refer to for this, nor a teacher.

The Team: A ‘Motley Crew’?

A while ago we went to a brainstorming session for Rob’s Place. While there, a group of Brothers joined us and offered to share their experiences. They discussed the challenges they faced while reintegrating into society, their ideas for working through these challenges, and the strategies that they’ve personally adopted. They also shared visions of engaging with parole officers and society more broadly, in order to build empathy for former inmates.

One man suggests creating a VR-based experience of his train ride to his parole officer, another suggests a situation where they try to get a bank account and face doubts and questioning by the teller. The diversity of our team will give us the best chance of success for this technology and project. The keen knowledge of the Brothers, the support provided by the tech team, and the visionary crew who are mapping out the future opportunities for Rob’s Place and beyond all coalesce to make this project work. Integrating diversity as a core mechanic in our practice is imperative to successful operations, and we need this kind of diversity in the engineering profession more broadly. However, until this happens, we make do by building a team around the concept.

The Message: We Can’t Afford to Squash Diversity

Engineering and design teams are often far more homogenous than our broader society, and within our hard-pressed deadlines and project deliverables we stamp out dissenting voices that might slow us down. In that tucked-away state, teaching engineering in black and white, we squash diversity. We often speak of diversity in terms of gender or race, but the truth is that diversity is far more stratified than this. We may still have built an engineering marvel without the lived experience of the inmates. However, it would have been without use or purpose if it did not meet real needs.

With great challenges like the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we need all hands and minds on deck, we need an equal playing field to embrace diverse backgrounds and schools of thought, and we need open collaboration. We need more women in engineering and design, more people of colour, and more individuals from different socioeconomic classes. But, more than anything, we need to embrace a diversity of schools of thought around problem-solving, and we need to include diverse brains around the design table.

For more information about Rob’s place, or to support the project, please reach out to [email protected]. Currently, the team is building out a prototype in collaboration with the Brothers and is seeking funding to further advance their work.

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QEPrize Ambassador Annelies Tjebbes is a biomedical engineer and social innovator

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