ASU launches 'The Difference Engine: An ASU Center for the Future of Equality'

The Difference Engine

Arizona State University announced Feb. 11 the new name and website of a universitywide center that will create tools to end the nation’s rising social, political and economic inequality.

The Difference Engine: An ASU Center for the Future of Equality” pairs interdisciplinary entrepreneurship with the enthusiasm of ASU students and thought leadership of ASU faculty and staff to help communities overcome social, political and economic inequality. It is led by Ehsan Zaffar, a civil rights lawyer and educator who previously served as a senior adviser on civil rights during the Obama administration.

Zaffar, who was appointed founding executive director of the center and professor of practice when ASU President Michael Crow announced the initiative last fall, is bringing together an interdisciplinary group of ASU units, including The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, W. P. Carey School of Business and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, to jointly launch the new center.

“We chose to name the center ‘The Difference Engine’ to reflect the ingenuity and thought leadership of a woman named Ada Lovelace who worked with Charles Babbage during the late 1800s — a time of stratified gender inequality — to build the first modern automatic computer,” Zaffar said. “They called it the ‘Difference Engine,’ and they used it to solve the most pressing problems of their time — from wage inequality to the labor rights of minorities. I love what this story represents — that people can work past discriminatory barriers to find breathtakingly innovative solutions that shatter those barriers.”

Crow, in his opening remarks at the center’s launch event on Feb. 11, said the center is one of several actions ASU is initiating to transform social justice.

“We’re doing this because at the end of the day, the reason we haven’t achieved ... equality is that, while we have the aspiration, our designs are inadequate. Our systems are inadequate. Our laws are inadequate. Our tools are inadequate,” Crow said. “So what we need is to set the goal at a higher level and then start peeling back everything that limits us from being able to get there. We need new designs. New systems. New perspectives.”

Open to all ASU students, faculty and alumni, as well as anyone else interested in the center’s work, The Difference Engine will serve as “a community of doers, thinkers and storytellers that creates innovative products to help people defeat injustice,” according to Zaffar. The center’s products will range from educational tools for use inside and outside the classroom, to indexes and maps for nonprofit and government organizations, and smartphone apps that can be shared widely throughout impacted communities.

“Law is essential to effect true and beneficial societal change,” said ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester. “Welcoming Ehsan to ASU will be crucial to preparing the next generation of ASU graduates to seek social justice and reform. Studying inequality is one thing. Ehsan, through The Difference Engine, will be making a substantial real-world impact, and we are excited to get started.”

Pardis Mahdavi, dean of social sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says the interdisciplinary nature of work across ASU pushes innovation and allows us to see things differently.

“The Difference Engine amplifies these efforts,” Mahdavi said. “It strengthens our commitment to work toward a more just society that values and prioritizes social, political and economic equality.”

Amy Ostrom, interim dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business, says The Difference Engine is already making a difference with its focus on finding innovative solutions to overlapping systems of inequality.

“We understand economic equity, from wages to loan approval to generational wealth, as a primary driver for social and individual well-being,” Ostrom said. “Expanding access to economic opportunity has the potential to enfranchise entire communities and significantly impact their future. We are proud to partner with our colleagues across ASU and at The Difference Engine to find innovative solutions to overlapping systems of inequality.”

Kyle Squires, dean for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, said, “As creators, builders and technologists, we are accustomed to tackling complex societal problems and improving systems. Making substantive strides to improve social, political and economic inequality means embracing diversity in all its forms and we are committed to applying our solutions-oriented perspectives to innovating change here at ASU and the many communities we reach.”

Learn more about the Difference Engine on the website and sign up for the newsletter to join the community of difference engineers and find ways you can get involved with their work. You can also make a contribution here.