Isha Kulkarni is Senior Associate with think-and-do-tank RMI India, responsible for supporting national-level engagement on electric mobility and net-zero energy buildings, focusing on policy and finance. Prior to joining RMI India, Isha studied civil engineering at University College London (UCL) where she was a Chapter President in her final year. As part of her degree, she worked on projects such as improving energy planning in UK social housing, developing bus rapid transit in China and designing a net-zero energy building for the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. She also completed internships supporting sustainable finance in emerging markets and resource-efficient agriculture in Brazil. A published author, her work has been cited in the media, including CNBC-TV18 and The Economic Times.

What made you want to be an engineer?

I grew up in India, in Mumbai, which is a coastal city. Every year we experience severe flooding. As I grew older, I became frustrated that the engineering systems were not designed to cope. I wanted to understand how to do things better. This ultimately led me to UCL where I studied Civil Engineering, including an International Year at the University of Illinois. I gained my Masters in Engineering in 2020.

Tell us about your work with RMI?

RMI is an independent organisation that works towards accelerating the transition to a clean, prosperous, and inclusive energy future. I work at RMI India, started in 2019. We essentially function as a think-and-do tank, helping stakeholders at every level of society to have the right conversations and work together towards a sustainable future. For example, we do a lot of advisory for the national government and individual states in India – mainly on mobility, electricity, and buildings.

What do you believe are the biggest challenges in delivering a net zero economy?

I think the single biggest challenge is to get the different stakeholders to understand how global policy and finance translates at a regional and local level. For example, the state I’m from, Maharashtra, is coastal but with a strong industrial history. It faces completely different challenges to a hilly northern state where tourism is the primary occupation. There are national-level programs, but it takes a lot of work to contextualise that support. In global terms, finance is needed for the global south – South East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa – to accelerate its energy transition. Investment from the global north has an important role to play in kickstarting local finance. For this to happen, though, we need to private finance and funders to look beyond short-term profits and to assess success in terms of sustainability. Finally, engineers need to understand that all these economic factors exist. You can design a fantastic green building or mobility solution – but who is going to finance it? Are the policies in place to allow for its planning and roll-out?

What inspired you to get involved at Engineers Without Borders?

Prior to my Masters degree, I’d been exposed to a lot of development-related engineering projects in India. I realised that I really enjoyed the complex considerations you have to take into account when designing these projects, and how important it is to cater to the needs of the local community. When I came to UCL and encountered Engineers Without Borders UK, I recognised that socially responsible engineering was exactly what I wanted to work on.

How has your involvement with Engineers Without Borders UK influenced your career?

Engineers Without Borders UK brought me into contact with people from many different disciplines. This exposed me to viewpoints outside the narrow sphere of my engineering degree, which was invaluable. I became Chapter President in my last year – and I honestly think I spent the same amount of time on Engineers Without Borders UK as my degree. It was just so much fun!

I didn’t realise until my first job interview after graduating just how much Engineers Without Borders UK had influenced me. My experience of working with different stakeholders and planning projects like a Designathon showed that I was much more than an engineering graduate. While my degree was important, Engineers Without Borders UK helped me to think about what I’d learned and how I could apply it to make a difference. They also introduced me to a network of people from different disciplines and different backgrounds who are passionate about sustainability and using energy and technology for good. This has been incredibly empowering and has led to enduring friendships.

What advice would you give to young engineers interested in sustainable issues?

There may be lots of things you are passionate about, but it’s important to focus your efforts. Then start having conversations with others – fellow students, work colleagues, friends to plant ideas in their minds. It’s so important for young people to come together and show strength and demonstrate their value. You can have an influence, even on senior stakeholders.

And remember – you can’t just work with other engineers; you have to understand the world and stakeholders beyond your specialism. Engineers Without Borders UK provides the perfect environment to have these important conversations, build your network and hone your skills.

Isha Kulkarni – Senior Associate, RMI India – former UCL Chapter
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