— Robert L. Read, PhD, Founder
— Joshua M. Pearce, John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation
Thompson Centre for Engineering Leadership & Innovation, Ivey Business School
Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering,
— Avinash Baskaran, PhD candidate, Robotics,
— Megan Cadena, Biomedical Engineer,
— Sabia Abidi, PhD, Lecturer,Department of Bioengineering
Humanitarian Engineering, [is the] the application of engineering to improving the well-being of marginalized people and disadvantaged communities, usually in the developing world.
Public Invention is the act of invention in the public, for the Public.
This article explains why you would start a Public Invention and Humanitarian Engineering (PIHE) club at your University, and what it should do. (We recommend that PIHE be pronounced “PIE-hee”).
Humanitarian engineering was first offered as a minor by the Colorado School of Mines in 2003. Organizations like Engineers Without Borders (EWB-USA) have made it a nationwide activity with over 300 chapters (see map below, or click here). The blue dots are EWB chapters, many of which are student chapters associated with Universities, and the red dots are community projects within the USA. EWB-USA focuses heavily on civil engineering (e.g. clean drinking water projects) in low and middle income countries. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has made both the need for and abilities of humanitarian engineering clearer. Helpful is one of several volunteer organizations created in response to COVID-19 dedicated to humanitarian engineering. Humanitarian engineering has leveraged advances in digital manufacturing and open source sharing of designs to aid the world by creating personal protective equipment (PPE) and even sophisticated medical devices like ventilators. There is a need for humanitarian engineers in every kind of engineering discipline.
Public Invention Grows out of FOSS
Public Invention is an American idea as old as Benjamin Franklin, but it may now be considered an evolution of the free and open source software (FOSS) movement. It is currently being championed by a public charity, also called Public Invention. Public Invention is the act of trying to invent things that are good for all humanity, and sharing those things without attempting to monopolize them via patents or other legal monopolies, sometimes called “intellectual property”. Generally, public inventions are released with free and open source licenses regardless of if they are software (e.g. an app to help farmers optimize harvest time) or hardware (e.g. a solar powered food processing system). These licenses empower anyone to freely use, copy, study, and change the software in any way, and the source code is openly shared so that people are encouraged to voluntarily improve the design of the software. Open source hardware is defined by the Open Source Hardware Association as hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design. The hardware’s source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format to modify in the future. Open source gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs. Sharing designs on the internet allows your inventions to scale laterally–millions may end up using your ideas and build upon them to improve their lives.
Starting a PIHE Club
Public Invention and Humanitarian Engineering are both movements that seek to use human ingenuity to help society and the planet. There are always highly motivated students interested not only in learning and increasing their earning power, but also by a desire to help their fellow beings and move society towards a sustainable state. These students deserve a place to congregate, socialize, learn and teach together. The project-based nature of Public Invention and Humanitarian Engineering movements are a great way for students to be mentored and gain practical experience to augment their studies. We think every University should have a Public Invention and Humanitarian Engineering club.
At most schools, the students have the power to start a club simply by asking to do so, sometimes by filling out some paperwork to assure the safety of the students and that the club accords with the principles of the school. The university usually lets the club meet in a classroom or other room, and sometimes provides a small amount of money for things like pizza.
A student-formed organization may require a faculty advisor, and sometimes a minimum number of students to serve as the initial officers of the club. Usually, a statement of the purpose of the club will be required. We recommend that you use some variant of this purpose:
The purpose of the [your university name] Public Invention and Helpful Engineering club is to explore and support the use of technology for the betterment of humanity and the planet, particularly how technology can address problems not being addressed by the private sector.
You do not need the permission of anyone outside your school to start a PIHE club, and your club doesn’t have to follow any dictates that it does not itself choose. Every club can be independent. You are encouraged, however, to inform us at Public Invention (email:
Here is the preamble drafted at the University of Texas at Austin club:
The local Austin Public Invention and Helpful Engineering Chapter is intended to support student awareness and participation in humanitarian engineering projects and free, open-source inventions with the public interest in mind.
What a PIHE Club Should Do
Whenever two or three people are gathered together, a spirit arises which is greater than the individuals. A PIHE club doesn’t have to do anything beyond talk about the ideas of Public Invention and Humanitarian Engineering. But a PIHE club could also:
- Invite speakers to talk specifically about PIHE concepts, practices, and projects. Public Invention will be happy to come speak at your club!
- Take on real projects that can really make a difference. The organization Public Invention has published a growing curated list of such projects analyzed for difficulty, joinability, and skills that you can use as a starting point:
- Interact with a local Engineers Without Borders professional or student chapter, or consider starting one!
- If not ready to do a real research project, take on a learning project to improve your PIHE skills, such as building an open-source device useful for humanitarian purposes.
- Brainstorm new public invention ideas, and contribute those ideas back to the public invention list of ideas.
- Invite discussion of the philosophical, religious and ethical aspects of PIHE.
- Seek out ways engineering and technology can help in your local community, such as:
- Mapping invasive species,
- Providing sanitation to the homeless,
- Recycling plastic with recyclebots into 3-D printing filament,
- Measuring and decreasing the local carbon footprint, etc.
Of course, you can probably think of a dozen other useful and fun things! EWB student chapters have a very well-defined way to make a big impact by working with local low-resource communities internationally, but a PIHE club does not have to be structured that way. Your PIHE club will not be a chapter of a larger organization, so you are free to focus wherever you like. Some clubs may wish to focus on real-world project-based learning. Other clubs may want to chat about how an engineering career can be part of PIHE. Some clubs may focus on the environment, others may focus on poverty and inequity. What they all share in common is that they share their inventions and development to the commons!
What the Students Should Get Out of a PIHE Club
Although every club may be different, the students of a PIHE club should obtain certain benefits:
- The joy of sharing a common interest with your fellow students.
- The satisfaction of helping others, even if that help is abstract and potential, existing in the future rather than today.
- Learning how technology can positively affect the real world.
- Understanding the open-source and free culture movements.
- An introduction to modern project management tools such git, GitHub and GitLab, and Appropedia.
If a PIHE club is ambitious enough to undertake its own humanitarian invention project, perhaps with the help of a professor or Public Invention, then students can expect mentors, real-world experience, practical motivation of their studies, and a great project to talk about in a job interview or when applying to graduate school.