Engineers Without Borders UK is proud to be celebrating 15 years of impact. That impact is woven into the lives and careers of many, including over 34,500 students who have been educated to consider the social and environmental impacts of their work. Student involvement has been fundamental in our journey, from our origins at the University of Cambridge to the involvement of Katie Cresswell-Maynard, our chief executive, who began her engagement with the organisation as a student at Durham University. Today she reflects on Engineers Without Borders UK’s achievements, future and the challenges we face.
“We’ve achieved a lot. We’ve inspired a large number of people to reconsider what it means to be an engineer. That’s something we’re really proud of. There have been real improvements but there hasn’t yet been the wholesale shift that’s required to address the challenges we’re facing – there is no planet B and time is running out. The engineering community has an enormous role to play in addressing this but it currently isn’t moving fast enough, and, in many cases, it isn’t ready to tackle this challenge at all. Our role is galvanising that community to lead the change to serve all people and our planet.”
As we look back over the last 15 years, we have spoken to just a few of the thousands who have been a part of our journey and who will be fundamental in galvanising the sector to make the changes Katie hopes to see.
Like Katie, Brittany Harris was introduced to Engineers Without Borders UK at university,
“On my first day at the University of Bristol I met the president of the Engineers Without Borders Bristol Chapter. I knew instantly that I had to be a part of it. I went from being vice-president, to head of projects, to doing a placement in Peru. My involvement with Engineers Without Borders UK has given me perspective on what engineers are for and how we should operate. It’s shaped my entire engineering career.”
Today she is the CEO and co-founder of Qualis Flow, a company improving the environmental footprint of the construction sector. She believes “globally responsible engineering is making sure that you deliver projects without negatively affecting the local area or the global ecosystem.”
Similar to Brittany, Nav Sawhney undertook an overseas project with Engineers Without Borders UK in Southern India and in the years that followed became a trustee, and credits Engineers Without Borders UK; “they got me thinking laterally and globally. The idea of engineering for the bottom of the pyramid – for people who really need it – has really changed the way I go about my life.”
It was with this new mindset that Nav has gone on to begin his own social enterprise, The Washing Machine Project which aims to alleviate the burden of hand-washing by developing affordable off-grid washing machines. Human-centred engineering has also been a priority for is Laura Leyland, a senior lecturer at Birmingham City University where she redesigned the engineering curriculum to embed the Engineering for People Design Challenge, and has been delivering it for the past six years. She believes that in the past,
“…students looked purely at how strong something needed to be, how light something needed to be. [But] globally responsible engineering is introducing our students to the wider world, so that they put people first: investigating context, understanding exactly what the problem is, defining the problem in a human way. We’re helping students investigate global supply chains, sustainability, ethics and politics.”
Not only has Engineers Without Borders UK opened the eyes of engineering students but it has also provided new prospects for Laura herself; “…a world has opened up to me. Engineers Without Borders UK shaped my understanding of how important it is that we make the world a better place and I’ve started research projects on that basis.”
Mike Cook, a leading structural engineer and a partner at BuroHappold, also believes that students are fundamental in the change across the industry;
“More and more of us need to get together – in our individual disciplines, in our collective businesses – and be generous with sharing so that we can all get better. We need to be sure that this is a total movement. I think that’s what’s exciting about it: the grassroots, the people on the street, the students recognising that the time’s come to get vocal…It’s quite a transition that people are going to have to make. It’s certainly hard. It’s not all about big engineering nor only about engineers doing it all, but engineers need to be in every piece of the conversation, helping clarify the way to go.”
Also looking ahead, Joe Mulligan, who has been involved with Engineers Without Borders UK since 2005, suggests that the challenge for the next 15 years will be to “redress the balance and transform the way we live.”
“Engineers are uniquely placed to be able to solve some of those problems and I’m excited to see Engineers Without Borders UK getting involved in this. We need to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, and figure out ways to live in a more resource-efficient, socially responsible, ecologically sensitive, resilient way.”
Joe provides an important reminder to us all as we look at the challenges that lie ahead – “it’s not all about big engineering nor only about engineers doing it all, but engineers need to be in every piece of the conversation, helping clarify the way to go.”
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