Out of the box and around the doughnut
Joe Mulligan discusses exciting shifts in engineering and highlights the role of engineers in tackling the big challenges the world is facing.
We often talk about the realism of engineering and what that can bring to other disciplines. I think that globally responsible engineering is about marrying technical proficiency and expertise with an ability to understand, appreciate and engage with other disciplines and perspectives that are equally critical to achieving sustainable development.
I work for KDI; a non-profit design and community development organisation. On the design and technical side, we have a mixture of architects, planners, landscape architects, and engineers. And on the community development side, we have specialists in conflict resolution, community engagement, and small business development. Our aim is to bring those different disciplines together in a way that isn’t typically done and it’s through my involvement with Engineers Without Borders UK that I ended up where I am today.
Fifteen years ago, sustainability and global responsibility was considered innovative.
Too often engineering is seen as a purely technical challenge – problem solving within a box. We need to reach out beyond our immediate technical proficiency and think about sustainability, about the ecological limitations to development, about climate change, about the social impacts of engineering.
Joe is a director at KDI; a non-profit design and community development organisation.
Joe’s been involved with Engineers Without Borders UK since 2005. He participated in one of our first year long overseas placements in Nigeria, then joined our executive team as a volunteer. When he joined KDI he was instrumental in partnering up with us and overseeing the many projects we have delivered together.
In the last 15 years, I’ve seen more and more engineers asking those bigger societal questions; people taking principled stands in the types of projects they’re involved in, and also in the design solutions that they put forward. And that’s exciting.
Wicked water problems
We’re currently working on a community-driven project in Kibera, a large informal neighbourhood in downtown Nairobi, to develop a productive public space – turning a wasted space into a series of local amenities and a community hub.
There’s lots of engineering that comes with that. Water and sanitation is a priority for residents. On this particular site the community had decided that they wanted a sanitation block.
There was an existing municipal sewer line running close to the site. But we found out that that line was actually draining directly into the river, a few hundred meters downstream.
So we were faced with a classic dilemma: do you connect to the sewer system in the way that you might conventionally, or do you decentralise the sanitation system and manage the waste on site, with all the technical challenges and management risks that come with that?
That’s a typical wicked problem that we’re often faced with in neighbourhoods like Kibera, where basic services aren’t always in place.
The solution that we came up with was connecting to the municipal sewerage, but at the same working with the city utility company to engage them in the process of upgrading and repairing the existing infrastructure.
Globally responsible engineering is asking ourselves: “We have this challenge that the community needs to resolve, what’s the responsible solution?”
Collaborating and building capacity
Engineers Without Borders UK has been formative in my career, in lots of different ways. Being involved has shown me how potent some of the fundamental ideas and ideals behind the movement are.
One of the key things for me is that Engineers Without Borders UK have always sought to build strong partnerships with local organisations that are rooted in the places where they’re working. So when I became involved in KDI, I definitely wanted us to be a partner of Engineers Without Borders UK.
This partnership gave KDI the skills and capacity to deliver complex projects in some of the trickiest working conditions.
We’ve been able to work with Engineers Without Borders UK to find volunteers who fit into our existing team and support our existing Kenya-based employees and volunteers, rather than supplanting or taking over from them. It’s really built the capacity of the team and the momentum of our programmes.
Kate Raworth’s “doughnut” economics analogy speaks a lot to me. On the outside, we’re trying not to push against – and past – the fundamental life-supporting systems of the planet: a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. And then on the inside there are all these basic things that people are in need of: human rights, access to water and sanitation, food security.
Engineers are very well placed in the middle of that conversation about resources, about the built environment, about development. But there aren’t enough of us working on the inside piece; the human rights and services. And there are probably too many of us who are working against the ecological ceiling. We’re enabling an unsustainable trajectory of growth.
Our challenge in the next 15 years is to redress that 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.
That’s a challenge for us all, but engineers have a central role to play.