on December 16th, 2009

Dear Colleagues

As the festive end of the year approaches – the season for giving, it is a great time to examine how we can use our engineering skills to do something for our fellow world citizens living in poverty. A billion people do not have safe drinking water, for example, and two billion do not have adequate sanitation. Outbreaks of avoidable disease and a high death rate result. An inspirational engineer in this regard is Amy Smith of MIT. She and her hundreds of mechanical engineering students work on real projects applying simple technology to help the rural poor. She is driven by the need to help the billions of people struggling without the basic requirements for survival; safe water, sanitation, enough food and a place to live – things we take for granted. Some of her recent projects have included a high pressure, hand-press for making charcoal briquettes from sugarcane waste, a vibrating compactor to make bricks from soil, a bicycle-powered, chlorine generator to purify water and batteries made from aluminium cans, charcoal and salt water (the last one sounds rather suspect, but there you go). She avoids foisting high flying advanced technology on the locals, but tries to give them an achievable skill base to enable them to create their own solutions.

As you well know, western-style technology is reaching out and touching all corners of the globe: In the poorest villages you will find an internet café somewhere. Afghanistan had 15,000 mobile phones in 2002, now that figure has grown 40-fold. And solar panels are stuck haphazardly onto the thatched roofs of huts in some Kenyan villages.

However, much of western technology and engineering is simply not appropriate for poor countries. Large western-style projects (infrastructure such as power stations and gigantic dams) have often not delivered to the poor, but instead caused further hardship including displacement. In fact many western technologies are simply bad news for the poor - highly sophisticated manufacturing plants, for example, can’t run without a sophisticated supporting infrastructure and skills base. And chemical pesticides on farms require strict health and safety rules which are ignored due to language and conceptual difficulties. I don’t think our focus should be on blame, however, or finding these failures convenient reasons to give up. We need to look aggressively for workable alternatives. Another consideration and challenge in developing countries is cheap and abundant labour - so western style, capital-intensive, automated manufacturing requiring minimal labour just doesn’t stack up.

I have listed some successful micro-projects in engineering to give you an idea:

• A machine to turn industrial waste into roof tiles

• Solar powered ovens

• Micro-hydroelectric plants on small rivers

• Solar water heating

• Machinery to turn weeds into paper

• An elephant pump – drawing water up from a deep well using plastic washers knotted to a loop of rope running through a pipe

• Eco-san toilet which doesn’t require conventional sewer systems

• Solar powered lanterns for lighting homes and villages

A few suggestions:

• Look for ways to apply your engineering skills appropriately in poorer countries

• Encourage your colleagues to do the same

• Transfer your engineering know-how freely to others

• Mentor students and people from less advantaged backgrounds - especially from poorer countries

• Encourage your universities and colleges to embark on projects in countries where people are disadvantaged

• Actively look at how you can simplify your high tech products and services to make them applicable in more rural, low-tech environments

• Support your local engineering association’s efforts in this regard (e.g. RedR)

And so, my fellow engineers, to modify John Kennedy’s famous request: Ask not what your engineering skills can do for you—ask how you can apply them in the service of your fellow citizens throughout the world.

Yours in engineering learning


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