The Hoover Dam (formerly Boulder Dam) was constructed between 1931 and 1936 during the Great Depression. When built the dam was the largest in the world and understood to be a major engineering accomplishment.
The dam was built to control water from the Colorado River to produce electricity and reduce flooding, but especially to assist agriculture in the arid southwest. Lake Mead was formed by the dam and is a tourist attraction that supports boaters and sightseers when the lake is full.
As anticipated housing and agriculture increased dramatically along the path of the newly controlled river. The environmental ramifications of Colorado River control were unforeseen however and species dependent on periodic flooding have been damaged. Lake Mead is now at very low levels given years of drought, and an increasingly arid West appears to be the new normal under conditions of climate change. Disputes over the reduced flow of water and electricity between seven boundary states and Mexico are continuous and are not likely to be resolved in the foreseeable future..
Today we understand Hoover Dam to be the technical marvel it was intended to be, but we also understand more about the context - social and environmental - in which it was built.
For example this extraordinary project was very much a collaboration between a national government and the engineering profession. US President Herbert Hoover, an internationally known professional engineer, worked hard to get financial and political support for the project.
Engineers are trained to be technical experts and to solve complex issues using physics, chemistry, mathematics and other scientific approaches to defining problems and solutions. Engineers are taught to have scientifically rational approaches to projects. The Hoover Dam is a monument to engineering capability as it existed in the 1930s.
However, in retrospect we can see that the Dam did not incorporate a more holistic and social approach to the construction. Native populations, human and animal, were given little consideration and there was insufficient anticipation of the impact of future population growth and climate change on the environment and the population as it grew.
Socio-technical approaches to technology development and introduction consider the larger social and environmental context and try to jointly optimize solutions. Rather than maximize solutions on a technical or social or environmental dimension solutions that balance considerations among the three dimensions are more likely to be flexible in the face of changing circumstances.
Nicole Woolsey Biggart, Davis, CA
BijkerWE, HughesT, PinchT (eds). 1987. The Social Construction of Technological Systems. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
Glen M. MacDonald. "Water, climate change, and sustainability in the southwest." PNAS 2010 107 (50) 21256-21262; published ahead of print December 13, 2010, doi:10.1073/pnas.0909651107
Rubin, R., Quintas, B., and Roth, D. (2004). "Changing Role of the Civil Engineer in Society." J. Prof. Issues Eng. Educ. Pract., 10.1061/(ASCE)1052-3928(2004)130:1(5), 5-7.