Working from the Inside Out

Working from the Inside Out 150 150 IEEE Pulse

Emily Schosid wanted to learn about sustainability, so she joined a small community called Lama in the mountains of rural New Mexico [1]. Lama is a spiritual community, an educational facility, and a retreat known for its ability to thrive despite severe limitations in terms of water, energy, and other resources. Schosid expected to find a good amount of advanced technology there, such as solar panels and composting toilets, to sustain the life of the residents. Instead, she found a community of people who lived simple lives, loved one another, and appreciated in the extreme the things they did have: when they had to conserve water due to a severe drought, they gladly took just two five-minute showers each week; given water to drink, they thanked the water for being there to sustain them.
Schosid expected her technologically inclined friends in the community to have come up with all sorts of gadgetry that would support sustainability while still allowing group members maintain a comfortable lifestyle, to have imposed technologies that would enhance the resources already available and allow more efficient use of those resources for which limitations could not be overcome. Instead, she found a group of people who were happily able to live within the limits of their environment, grateful for everything they did have without dwelling on those things that they did not.
As Schosid writes,

In academia, my classmates and I are trained to create sustainable communities from the outside. We conduct research, create management plans, and implement the technologies and policies necessary to carry out those management plans. We figure out what the major barriers to implementation will be and then work to remove those barriers. In short, the work is about how best to make the technology work, rather than how best to make our communities work.

She continues,

The [residents] are creating a community from the inside out. Life at Lama leads to fulfilling relationships with other people, with the land, and with the divine. These relationships drive the desire for a continued existence there.

What a unique concept for us as bioengineers: working from the inside out, not trying to impose our technological solutions on the world but, instead, focusing on sustaining life in accordance with nature; not fighting natural limitations, even if accepting them means abandoning efforts to reach some of our more utopian goals.
There are many other instances of failures to appreciate a problem from the inside out. Pat Bernstein has written about a philanthropic failure initiated with the best intention, but implemented without a basic understanding of the real needs of the people targeted to benefit [2]. This project, as she wrote, was developed to teach construction skills to young residents of Baltimore’s inner city so that they could qualify for solid employment. A second part of this 14-week program introduced stock market fundamentals so that money eventually earned from working construction jobs could be used to purchase publicly traded stocks. The program’s goals were to instill a sense of pride in accomplishment and offer a means to escape the inner city‘s confines and assimilate into the economic fabric of American culture. Students were given weekly stipends to encourage regular attendance. The program even had its own neat name: Construct a Difference (CAD).
Ten students started the course; that soon dropped to four. The reasons were many: one student showed up high on drugs; another had returned to work on the streets; still another dropped out when she was teased about her haircut. These students were raised in fatherless families, lived in depressed conditions, had few if any good role models, and had never been encouraged to dress and speak in ways that would impress job recruiters. In short, the culture from which they came was foreign to the expectations of middle-class America. They were handicapped by their everyday environment and what they didn’t know. CAD failed because the people who conceived the program worked from the outside in instead of from the inside out.
Dr. Willie Parker, in a Time magazine interview [3], referred to a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., about the Good Samaritan. The biblical New Testament story of the Good Samaritan involves an Israelite set upon by thieves and left bleeding by the side of the road. Many people passed the hurt man but were afraid of what might happen if they helped him, so they went on their way. Then a man from Samaria came by, saw the plight of the Israelite, and gave him aid. The Samaritans and Hebrews were not on good terms, but it was the Good Samaritan and not the Israelite passersby who ended up helping the injured Hebrew.
What made the Samaritan good, said Dr. King, was his ability to reverse the question and ask not what would happen to himself if he stopped to help the poor man alongside the road, but what would happen to the person if he didn’t stop to help. Reversing the question is like working on a problem from the inside out. (It is also sometimes called “thinking outside the box.”)
President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address also reversed the question, declaring, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Some time later, his brother Robert Kennedy used similar syntax: “Some men see things as they are and ask, why. I dream of things that never were and ask, why not.”
Working from the inside out gives us a different way to look at our engineering challenges and even at life itself. When faced with some challenge in our work or in school or in our personal affairs, we, who are probably more likely Type A personalities than any of the more passive alternatives, are inclined to solve the problem head-on. If it is obvious to us that some problem is due to the lack of X, we go about attempting to supply X by one means or another. This is the straightforward solution.
However, sometimes the straightforward approach carries with it unintended consequences. These can often occur when working with biological systems. Living things are not static; they react, and they change. Thus, the biological system that appeared to have certain characteristics perfect for a particular problem may, when reacting to a new environment, change its essential characteristics to something a lot less optimal. And this can, potentially, cause a lot of trouble.
Examples of unintended consequences abound. There are the findings on the first humans to receive mechanical hearts; not only were they tethered to the bulky equipment necessary to power the hearts; their physiological systems, which had naturally become somewhat accustomed to the weak output pressure of their failing natural hearts, often could not deal with the blood pressure increase produced by their artificial hearts. Consequently, multiple organ failures followed.
There is also the environmental example of salmon fishing in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. To protect the species from overfishing and assure the reproductive succession of the salmon, laws were passed to prevent juvenile fish from being kept if caught. This worked until evolution stepped in. Removal of only the largest fish allowed smaller fish to live and reproduce. The result was that the average size of the adult fish population became smaller over time.
There is an illustration that I have used before, but it is a good example of outside-the-box thinking, or working from the inside out. The story is told of problems that arose soon after a new skyscraper opened in New York City. People who worked in the offices on the upper floors were very unhappy because the capacity of the elevators was not sufficient to carry the surge of people to the ground floor at the end of the business day. What could be done? There was no way to make the elevators go faster, and adding elevators at this stage in the building’s development was not an option. The solution was to install mirrors in the corridors close by the elevators so that office workers could check on their appearance before they left for the evening. With the installation of the mirrors, people on the upper floors no longer minded waiting. Problem solved!
Working from the inside out can offer new and different perspectives on problem solving. If we recognize that a problem is only a problem if it is thought to be a problem, another possible problem-solving technique is to change expectations. The problem will no longer be a problem if no one expects something different. This does not sound like engineering, and perhaps it isn’t, but it does sound like a workable problem-solving approach. And sometimes the best solution is doing nothing, just accepting things the way they are. This is not possible in all cases because our collective technological progress depends on working from the outside toward the center, imposing our solution on the situation. But, at times, maximizing existing internal potential may be the best approach; it should, at least, be considered.
A last example of inside-out approaches is this story I used to tell the students in my transport processes design class. A group of engineering students was asked by their instructor to estimate the time it would take to cook a ham. One student was an experimentalist and so went to the store, bought a ham, and cooked it until it was done. He had an answer. Another student liked mathematical modeling, so he modeled the shape of the ham, looked up its appropriate thermal characteristics, set up a finite-element computer program, and ran it. He also had an answer. A third student just went home and asked his mother! He had an answer too.


  1. E. Schosid, “Could mopping save the world? How day-to-day chores can bring big changes,” in Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet, J. Dunlap and S. A. Cohen, Eds. San Antonio, TX: Trinity Univ. Press, 2016, pp. 191–207.
  2. P. Bernstein, “Lessons from a philanthropy failure,” Baltimore Sun, pp. A27, Dec. 11, 2016.
  3. A. Park, “Questions for Dr. Willie Parker,” Time, vol. 189, no. 15, pp. 56, Apr. 24, 2017.