Si-Joe’s experience covers humanitarian and private sector programme management, innovation research and implementation, human-centred design, circular economy, energy systems and construction. An experienced facilitator focused on building collaborations across sectors, actors and disciplines, Si-Joe has worked in France, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, UK, Zimbabwe.

What made you want to become an engineer? 

Understanding and contributing to the lives of people outside of my European bubble has always been important to me; the world is a big place full of wonders and I’ve always been excited by stepping outside of what I know. After school I spent 2 years being hosted and spending time in East and Southern Africa. Some of the conversations I had there opened my eyes to engineering being a tangible set of skills that would be useful both at a very human level as well as at a more systemic level. This combination convinced me.

How has your work in the humanitarian sector shaped your approach to your role as Head of Engineering & Sustainability? 

Good question, with many answers. Most directly, my work in the humanitarian (and development) sectors has taught me that engineering is more about the context and people that it serves than the technology is uses. The context, people and place are also much less well understood and more difficult to design for than pure technical functionality.

The sector is full of brilliant engineering solutions that end up being most useful on marketing brochures and not for people; focussing on the people that engineering serves gives different answers.

I think I’m also more used to working across very different cultures than most – which is of course immensely useful given our projects are global, but also means that the cultural differences that so many teams find a real strain become a source of diversity and fun with our international clients in the UK and globally.

Lastly (for this short response), on a personal level I believe that the breadth of my perspective is the biggest asset I bring to our team, both as a leader as well as in finding creative solutions to achieve positive impact through the buildings we work on.

What inspired you to get involved with Engineers Without Borders?

Engineers Without Borders UK was an obvious overlap of my interest in international development and engineering. That said, when I first started university I was cautious of a technology-focussed mindset in international work, which I worried the organisation might embody. It took one meeting to discover Engineers Without Borders UK to be a group of people with a shared interest in context, an open mind to figuring out how we could be useful, and more humbly what we could learn in the process. It felt like a community stimulated by action and ideas that challenged what we were being taught at school every day, and an open invitation to try and experiment.

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

Engineers Without Borders UK was (and remains) a source of inspiration and a springboard for questioning what an engineer is and does. It’s also a network of talented people doing some of the most interesting work I know of. Alongside this, Engineers Without Borders UK’s influence has been really valuable – as has the framework it gave me for interrogating my own impact as an engineer. I think we lose our way when we accept our answers as perfect – the Engineers Without Borders UK network is not one that’s shy in providing loyal opposition or calling out flaws; this is always invaluable.

What opportunities and ideas do you see emerging across the sector that could support us in delivering a safe and just future for all? 

This is another big and difficult question. I would say that the concept of regenerative design is the key ‘idea’ that gives me hope, although it’s also more of an approach and a practice than an idea. It acknowledges that the most impactful and effective solutions come when we think in terms of systems rather than objects, and that any solution (my frame of reference is the built environment…) needs to consider the place and people it is serving as unique. It also sees our role as being to provide positive impact, not less negative. This is all really key to a safe and just future.

Participatory approaches to planning, brief development and design are a part of this, but I would highlight them in their own right as well. This focus on bottom-up design, for example through user experience or design thinking frameworks, gives me a lot of hope – even if they haven’t become anywhere near the norm yet. It’s interesting that these approaches are gaining traction in both private and humanitarian sectors.

What does global responsibility mean to you? 

I guess it means being conscious that we don’t live in a bubble but that everything we do is part of a much wider, global context. Context – history, power structures, geography, culture for example, as much as environmental factors, is at the root of our perspective and how we approach a problem and the solutions we find. Acknowledging and internalising this is at the heart of being globally responsible. It is also at the heart of good engineering, which I would argue go hand in hand.

Simon Joe Portal: Head of Engineering and Sustainability, Drees & Sommer UK

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