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Understanding Impact beyond Intended Benefit

The brief history of the automobile, invented a little over one hundred years ago, shows that some technologies have far-reaching effects beyond their intended benefits. The development of the internal-combustion engine gave rise to a transport system that completely revolutionized our way of life. To accommodate the needs of the motorist (and to provide for movement of goods by trucks and tankers), a large network of roads and motorways have developed. The use of motor vehicles on this transport network contributes significantly to pollution of the atmosphere and global warming. Learning to drive and acquiring an automobile have become a rite of passage for most young adults, male and female, in many countries. The opportunity to move from your place of birth to new and different places, to gain employment, to meet new people, and to form friendships and relationships are facilitated by the automobile.

This physical and social mobility can have a deleterious effect on small, localized communities. In the United States in 2002, there were an estimated 6,316,000 automobile accidents, resulting in approximately 2.9 million injuries and 43,000 people killed. Since the first crash fatality in 1896, motor vehicles have claimed an estimated 30 million lives globally. On average, someone dies in a motor vehicle crash each minute in the world.

When the automobile was invented and the automobile industry was born, no one envisaged that subsequent design iterations would be responsible for environmental damage, social upheaval, and a colossal death toll. What would the Victorian designers and engineers responsible for developing the automobile have done if it had been suggested to them that their work would harm the planet, erode family values, and kill millions of people? They would probably have been incredulous. They might have argued that society would step in and stop all those dreadful consequences by managing the way this new technology would be used. But they would have been wrong. We know this because these events have come to pass. And of course those Victorian engineers and designers did not have a malignant intent. They saw what they were doing as providing considerable benefits to many people. And in that respect, they were correct. The automobile has been highly beneficial to many individuals, communities, and societies, but at a cost: the cost of impact beyond the intended benefit.

A challenge for the technology curriculum is to engage young people with a product’s impact beyond the intended benefit, and a curriculum that limits pupils to designing and making simple products that can be manufactured in school workshops will fail to achieve this. This challenge was addressed by a relatively recent project commissioned by Foresight, a department within the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills. Entitled “Change of place” (Barlex 2006), it required young people to consider the future of cities with a particular emphasis on intelligent infrastructure. A subtext to the activities in the project was impact beyond intended benefit. In this case, the pupils’ task was to ameliorate the negative impacts beyond intended benefit caused by many features of transportation in cities. The project adopted the resource task/capability task pedagogy of the Nuffield Design and Technology Project and set the main tasks shown in Table 8.1.

Clearly the tasks require significant reflection about both the problems facing existing cities and how these might be addressed through either modifying existing cities or devising new ones. The presentation of findings can be seen as taking action (albeit intended action as opposed to actual action). It is important that these intended actions have significance for the pupils and that their presentations of findings are taken seriously by those whose opinions the pupils value. These include their peers, family members, senior leadership in their schools, and members of the wider community outside school, such as local business leaders and local government officials. Inviting individuals from these various stakeholder groups to consider and constructively criticize pupils’ presentations is a powerful way of ensuring pupils’ learning engages with both reflection and action.

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