April 20, 2010

Global Development Experts Validate the Need for Engineering for Change

For a few precious moments, it was possible to believe that engineering could bring peace to the Middle East, that affordable technology will be the savior of Africa, and that poor economies are growing the same way that most things grow, from the bottom up.

Those moments came as two dozen experts from around the world expressed their ideas and idealism in Washington, D.C. last month at the Engineering for the Developing World Summit.

What made them believable was their experience and their humility. Most had worked in under-served communities and many were born there. The speakers often struck the same chord in calling for greater communication with the people that they serve. And they stressed the need to shift away from a perspective of doing work for others and toward one of participation in work toward a common goal.

E4C made one of its few public appearances at the summit. Months before its official debut, Noha El-Ghobashy, E4C’s president, introduced it.

A CNET of solutions

The participants validated the need for such a project. “It was expressed a number of different ways,” she said. For example, Amy Banzaert at MIT’s D-Lab suggested that development workers need a “CNET of solutions,” that would rate and review solutions like the website cnet.com reviews products. That’s a role E4C could take, El-Ghobashy replied. There were other examples of future roles for E4C, too.

How to Make Governments Listen

Access to knowledge leads to progress, El-Ghobashy continued, paraphrasing Iqbal Quadir. In the 1990s, Quadir founded Grameen Phone to bring phone services to Bangladesh’s rural poor. It is now the country’s largest telephone company.

“History shows that people are empowered from below by technology,” Quadir said at the summit. Inventions like eye glasses, mills, and clocks have changed how ordinary people live. With that knowledge, formerly oppressed communities can become decision makers, earn money, and gain the ear of their governments. “Government becomes responsive to citizens when they contribute economically,” Quadir said.

Making Yourself Unnecessary

A development project’s goal should be to give until the giver isn’t needed anymore, several speakers agreed. That meshed with one of E4C’s driving principles.

E4C aims to be an open-source platform where users can share their knowledge, El-Ghobashy explained. Solutions can be posted with photos and videos so that they are accessible even to those who are illiterate or don’t speak English. And, ideally, everything there will be transparent and include test information and lessons learned.

Academics in the field

Emeka Okafor called for more interaction between formal educational institutions and informal job-training organizations in the African countries where he has lived and worked. Okafor is a self-described “venture catalyst” and the curator of Maker Faire Africa. When a member of an African university robotics club sits “cheek by jowl” with a radio builder, they realize that they have something in common, he said. “They see the challenges of Africa as opportunities.”

“It came out again and again, this idea that we need to create a network among academic institutions and those on the ground,” El-Ghobashy said. “E4C is poised to provide that connection”

Participants also asked how to engage students in development work. E4C could help provide them with experience beyond the classroom, El-Ghobashy said.

Technology is a panacea?

[quote author=”Emeka Okafor”]“Technology and the Internet have been the most important things to happen to these countries. Forget politics. It’s technology.”[/quote]

Another speaker added a caveat. Technology may be transformative, but “If all the problems in the world were technical, we would have solved them by now. Believe me,” said Bernard Amadei, professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and founder of Engineers Without Borders USA. Solutions need a cultural dimension, he explained. Then, blending the two in an unusual way, he suggested that leaders in the Middle East hold a meeting to solve water problems. “It’s not a peace meeting, it’s a water meeting, but peace will be an outcome,” he said.

Starting the conversation about E4C Behind the lectern and around the refreshment tables, the summit was a showcase for the dozens of innovative development projects now under way. E4C may be able to round up the information about those and other worthwhile projects and present it in an organized way.

“What I hoped to communicate is that E4C serves as a platform for all the good development work already happening, and a way to engage the engineers working in development here and in the developing world,” El-Ghobashy said. “It’s a way for us to aggregate information that may be anecdotal but is valuable in the development of appropriate solutions.”

If the summit started a broader conversation about innovation for developing communities, then E4C can continue it, El-Ghobashy said. And if anyone would like to contribute, this site runs articles from guest writers and we want to hear new ideas. Just drop us an email at editor@engineeringforchange.info.

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