My 2020 Reflections on the Harvard Masters in Design Engineering Journey
As 2020 comes to an end, I wanted to reflect on my graduate school journey over the past year. Despite the woes of online education in the middle of a pandemic, this experience it serving itself to be a most transformational and eye-opening source of joy and personal growth. I began the Harvard Masters in Design Engineering (MDE) journey in August 2019. Each semester and its specific experiences merit a post of their own, which I’ll hopefully get around to writing through the course of this year and / or at the culmination of it all. But for now, I’ll focus on top hits and FAQs :-)
What even is a Masters in Design Engineering (MDE)?
One of my classmates calls it a “Build-Your-Own-Masters.” We are co-housed within the Graduate School of Design (read: architecture school, not UX school) and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The MDE core curriculum introduces key design domains such as informational, physical, urban, and systems design as well as engineering applications including programming, data analysis, and prototyping. The expectation is that we apply this mish-mash of skills to an interdisciplinary domain or societal issue of our choice. I have chosen to focus on the design, development, and deployment of responsible technology. Over the past decade, I’ve had a front row seat to Silicon Valley’s exciting and fast-paced but often problematic growth. It inspired me to leave the Bay, pursue school, and better understand: how can technology companies proactively account for the unintended consequences of their technology on people, cities, and the environment?
In the past 17 months, I’ve made great progress on the question thanks to my amazing professors, research projects, and fellowships. Existing thoughts have been challenged, myths dispelled, and new ideas formed. But most importantly, this question has evolved for me in many ways.
1.“Technology companies”: Cannot be expected to sufficiently self-regulate. While internal reform is a bare minimum, it won’t matter if we don’t have third parties and external regulators to sustain and check this behavior change. This inspired me to learn more about the policy-making and government operations world.
2. “Unintended consequences”: Too vague of a statement. Are we looking at privacy, mental health, race relations, socioeconomic conditions, something else? The list goes on. Also the framework for evaluating these consequences should defer by x-tech or sector. Online news vs. e-commerce vs. on-demand mobile apps each have differing societal implications.
3. “Their technology”: This needs to be dismantled and re-defined. It’s not just product features that cause harm. It is also about how these companies store, collect, process, and share user data, how they financially benefit from certain user patterns, and how their proprietary algorithms influence our interactions and lives. Lastly, we also need to pay attention to the larger organizational design that underpins their corporate decision-making.
What is my favorite part of the MDE program?
- Classmates — Self explanatory. They care so much about the world and are scarily good at context switching. They often tend to have seemingly crazy but always thoughtful ideas and experiments. For example, two of them taught us how we can design environmentally friendly chairs out of mushroom protein, and my mind was blown. It’s like Elon Musk-lites running around.
- Exposure — This program has taught me the importance of learning about other domains. It helps to recognize patterns elsewhere and apply them to your own domain. For example, want to design sustainable and weather-resilient housing? Take a look into biology to see how biomimicry can be applied to your design context. Want to work on social media content moderation? Take a look into legal history to understand precedent contract and competition law cases. Thanks to all this exposure along the way, I have also developed an interest in city / urban planning, sustainable design, data governance, misinformation studies, and more now.
The other great part about Harvard MDE is that it reminds me of a Series A startup.
We’re still figuring out our product-market fit. We know the target market is huge (I truly believe almost any industry or company in the world could benefit from employing one of us) but we need to pinpoint how to reach different markets. Because our community is small, we are very collaborative and tend to self-organize a lot. This has allowed me to get my hands dirty with my informal, situational leadership. Most specially, a handful of us students volunteered to work with the MDE leadership team on improving course content and curriculum.
Through this, I witnessed the intense, behind-the-scenes sausage-making that goes into designing and developing interdisciplinary pedagogy. Most graduate degrees focus on one general discipline so we don’t have lots of examples to pull from.
It’s really not easy to design one, singular curriculum that satisfies the career goals and learning aspirations of 20+ bright-eyed individuals, whose professional backgrounds range from architecture and materials science to investment banking and drug research.
This past summer, I witnessed our professors spend hours debating the extent to which lectures should focus on theory vs. application and the importance of content vs. the mode in which content is delivered. The MDE curriculum is cycling through constant revision and iteration, exemplifying design in its truest form. I have developed a deep appreciation for our feedback-forward culture and the close interactions between leadership, professors and students, which this program enables. I don’t think it would be possible to influence pedagogy of any other graduate program within Harvard this directly and instantaneously.
What memorable classes have I taken?
Solving Tech’s Public Dilemmas — with former Defense Secretary Ash Carter (Obama Administration). We dived into ethical issues around social media content moderation, data privacy, algorithms, gene modification, robotization of work, and beyond. Through this course, I learned the importance of looking back in history or even other industries for problem-solving inspiration.
Product Management and Society — with the wonderful Kathy Pham, founding team members of the United States Digital Service. This is the class that convinced me to consider roles in government.
Data — An undergraduate data-wrangling and R programming crash course where we were advised by wildly intelligent teenagers. I’d like to think I picked up some solid Gen Z knowledge and memes from this one.
HBS Negotiations Intensive — Negotiations frameworks and business transaction strategies taught by the brilliant behavioral insights guru, Professor Max Bazerman.
Digital Government — Our most charismatic and Open Data expert professor David Eaves taught us how to make government policy and service delivery digitally innovative, safe, secure, and user-centric.
Cities by Design — with the erudite architecture king, Professor Rahul Mehrotra. This was a 360 degree historical, cultural, and architectural immersion into six major global metros, all of which I will hopefully have visited one day: Boston, Beijing, Bombay, Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona, and Paris!
What’s upcoming in the next 6 months?
My “Independent Design Engineering Project” (IDEP), which is our version of a masters thesis. We are required to present a proof of concept as part of a larger societal intervention. My IDEP is at the intersection of responsible technology + cultural studies + psychology. I’m excited because the project elegantly merges many of my interest areas at once. After a few pivots, I realized I wanted to address the rampant cultural and political misinformation on WhatsApp in India and its contribution to community tensions and ethnic violence. The problem is particularly close to my heart because since childhood, I have been privy to problematic racial concepts about Hindu-Muslim relations. And this is despite me being born and brought up in a world far away from the Indian subcontinent. With WhatsApp now serving as the central social media platform in my life, I’ve started to notice all the problematic forwards that unintentionally pop-up in various threads.
Unfortunately, many of these messages directly or indirectly lead to innocent deaths throughout India. I am accordingly designing a subversive, satirical, and playful campaign which will hopefully convince older adults to pause and think before forwarding.
More to come on this project later but suffice to say, it’s going to keep me very busy and excited between now and graduation!