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Engineering a better world | How volunteering is evolving

Tonibung julian austin 2015 pipe cropped

Massive projects such as Crossrail, High Speed 2 and Hinkley Point C may grab the headlines, but engineers across the world are solving problems which are arguably more impactful.

From building bridges over impassable rivers to delivering clean water and energy for lighting so children can do their homework, engineers are giving up their time to change lives.

In the developing world, communities are often cut off from healthcare, schools, jobs and food markets for months of the year because rivers swell and become completely impassable during the rainy season.

Even at other times of the year, rivers can be perilous to cross on foot and people take huge risks to carry out their daily activities. Global charity Bridges to Prosperity is changing this by erecting bridges, in partnership with community members, industry partners and university students.

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14736081562 7b99fe0d2b o cropped

Bridges to Prosperity builds crossings to provide vital links between villages in developing countries

Bridges to Prosperity chief executive Avery Bang tells the story of a husband who watched his wife die as she was swept away while crossing a river in Haiti. Crossing the river was the only way to get to work and school, so he and his children had to continue to wade across it at the same place as his wife had when she died.

Working with local authorities, the Bridges to Prosperity team built a bridge to link the communities, create a safe crossing point and prevent further loss of life.

The bridges the charity builds are relatively simple constructions and at present can span up to around 120m. They are based on a repeatable, standard design and are built to be erected in a matter of weeks and to be easily maintained by the local community.

Design standardisation is the key to the charity’s work, says Bang.

“We want to make the design as affordable and standard as possible so we can reach the masses rather than produce one-off feats of glory,” she says. “We aspire to a world where we can scale this. We can reach the 1bn people and the one-seventh of the people who can’t get to where they need to go.”

We aspire to a world where we can scale this. We can reach the 1bn people and the one seventh of people who can’t get to where they need to go

Avery Bang, Bridges to Prosperity

Industry partners including consultants Arup, Cowi, CH2M and Tony Gee & Partners fund the bridges and send teams of their own engineers to participate in their construction. And although this participation may only be short, the charity sees sending engineers to work on these projects as part of a very important skills transfer programme.

Bang says that its local partners could build the bridges themselves, but that engineers visiting the projects from donating companies can play a major role in sharing crucial design feedback with other projects.

“If the life integrity of the bridge is not living up to what we said it would we have an ethical responsibility to not only upgrade the projects we’ve done before – we make sure that the ones moving forward also do not incorporate those details.”

Learning lessons

Each time a bridge is built, the process, materials and design are analysed and appraised and flaws picked up and changed in the design of the next. This constant iterative process which Bang hopes will lead to a “perfect” standard design being produced. This could then be rolled out more effectively and efficiently in many more locations.

“We don’t believe that there is programme success until we have feedback and that feedback is incorporated,” she says.

Bang says that everything the charity does and learns is open source, so anyone could go to its website and download the manual to build their own bridge. But most importantly having that connection to each of the structures allows the teams to refine and weed out problems to get to its goal.

There is also an obvious benefit to the donating companies as well. She says there is a sense of empowerment that can come from watching a structure be built from scratch and physically seeing a difference to the people using it.

“The engineers are the vehicle for the skill exchange and they get the amazing collateral of seeing how engineering is really human centred,” she says.

A huge part of what we do is using social impact stories and showing how engineering does give back

Eve Gyimah, Engineers Without Borders

“With infrastructure which can take decades to build, it’s hard to tell the story. But with us you are able to have, in two weeks, your employees work on something which pretty much just appears in a vacant lot and turns into a fully functioning structure, serving people who see and feel the difference. There’s a real sense of hope that comes out of that.”

Global charity Engineers Without Borders also has the vision that everyone everywhere should have equal access to the benefits of engineering.

Engineers without borders kibera, nairobi, kenya volunteer rodoula gregoriou hardcore and gabions cropped

Engineers without borders kibera, nairobi, kenya volunteer rodoula gregoriou hardcore and gabions cropped

Engineers Without Borders sends experienced engineers on six to 12 month placements

“A huge part of what we do is using social impact stories and showing how engineering does give back, fundamentally unpacking the concept of engineering so that people can understand that it totally underpins everything in our lives,” says Engineers Without Borders UK head of fundraising and communications Eve Gyimah.

The charity’s UK arm was started by a small group of engineers at Cambridge University in 2001 and has since evolved and shaped itself to target the areas where it is most effective. Last year it launched a new strategy called “Engineering Change” in which it breaks down the three areas in which it believes the engineering sector must change and details its role in influencing the shift that is required.

EWB goals and vision

“I think we are known for what people think we do as opposed to what we actually do,” says Gyimah. “Therefore we launched a new strategy last year to say, this is our version. “There are some very big goals: that is what we are working towards and here’s how we are doing it,” says Gyimah.

Firstly, the team wants to reach out to the wider community and promote engineering and diversity within engineering.

To do this it has embarked on a series of youth outreach programmes, working in schools to promote engineering and using its work to inspire the next generation to consider engineering as a career.

For those already ensconced in engineering, the charity has partnered with 28 universities around the country to launch its Engineering for People design challenge. This competition forms part of engineering courses and the challenges posed are based on real problems the team is facing in developing countries. Over the last six years, 18,000 students have taken part in the programme and in the last year alone, 4,500 students – approximately 16% of first year engineering undergraduates – have been engaged in it.

It’s not just a jolly year abroad, it is hard work in every way

Eve Gyimah, Engineers Without Borders

Secondly, the charity works in developing countries sending experienced engineers on six to 12 month placements, focusing on three water and sanitation, renewable energy and the built environment.

“On the one hand we provide our partners around the world with engineering support and underpin the work they’re doing,” says Gyimah. “On the other we’re giving the opportunity to young engineers who are career professionals but will benefit from having a global perspective.

“They come back able to apply their knowledge to their jobs and inspire the people around them, which is a huge part of what we want to do.

“It’s not just a jolly year abroad, it is hard work in every way.”

Fellowship and aid work mentoring

Finally, the Engineering Without Borders team has set up a fellowship programme, sending teams of students to countries where it has a senior engineer who can mentor and guide younger engineers through the problems the area is facing.

“The students increase the capacity, but they are also able to learn in a well-managed, mentored way,” says Gyimah. “I think that’s a really positive way of driving students’ desire forward and acknowledging that we are not sending unqualified engineers into situations and creating bad development.”

The charity has been involved in an ongoing effort to build flood resilience in Kenya. It is also working on projects to remove arsenic and fluoride from drinking water using a locally available biomaterial called bonechar. It is also designing clean cooking stoves which reduces the risk of harmful smoke inhalation; and it is accelerating the off-grid renewable energy market in Africa.

“You can’t deny what that bit does for you seeing things first hand it’s totally different to just reading or seeing it on the television – you begin to understand the complexities,” says Gyimah.

“I walk away from our institution everyday inspired by what we do inspired by the role of engineers in a development context and it really does underpin the change the world so desperately needs. I think engineering in the charity sector has a habit of being seen as only solving humanitarian problems, but it is development in its truest sense.” 

Case study

New Civil Engineer’s 2016 Graduate of the Year Brittany Harris spent three months working with Engineers Without Borders in Lobitos in Peru working on providing toilets for what seemed like an already developed town. This is her story.

“Lobitos is a thoroughly unique town. As an ex-BP oil post it was highly developed in the mid-20th century, with the first cinema in all of South America and a fully functioning desalination plant. Sadly, after the military coup in the 1970s all of this was abandoned, and has now disappeared amongst the sand and the salt.

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Ewb cropped

Harris consulted widely with the community

“I was tasked with assessing the sanitation situation in Lobitos; the first step was to assess the existing situation. Just 40 years ago it had a reliable water supply and so the local community still has western, flushing toilets. However there is no water treatment plant and the pipes are cracked and unmaintained. This means the raw waste seeps onto the beach causing pools of sewage very close to the booming surf tourism that now supports the town’s economy. The water is now supplied by the local municipality, and is only available for one to two hours a day, two to three days a week. The locals fill oil drums with water, and hope it sees them through the coming days, however the supply is unreliable, and we often experienced periods of no water for weeks at a time.

“I had spent my university research project looking at alternatives to western sanitation, and at what point they become viable to implement. This town, with next to no water, technically seemed like the perfect home for composting toilets. But my research suggested that culturally, it was a no go… so the second step was to understand what the community really wanted, and how they felt about different technical solutions. Somewhat sceptical myself, I proffered a composting design, and it was met with such positivity I wasn’t sure if, with my limited Spanish, I had explained it wrong. But it appears that the need to conserve what little water they have was a strong enough driver to overcome the perceived stigma of a dry toilet system.

“So I set out designing a system that played to Lobito’s strengths. By combining existing designs and case studies we developed a solution that could be constructed using local materials and labour, and safely maintained, reducing the risk of exposure to harmful bacteria.

“A trial system for this design is under construction at the moment, and I am still supporting the charity remotely. They have gone on to partner with WindAid, another local charity that is much larger. It also wants to use composting toilets in its communities, and so through collaboration it is developing a system that can meet local needs, preserve the environment, and inspire other communities.

“For two out of the three months, I was a social scientist as much as an engineer, and only in the last month did I really design anything. This placement taught me the power of engaging communities in design, as they may accept things you thought taboo, or offer solutions you had not considered. It inspired me to keep pushing for alternative technologies and potentially off the wall solutions in my current work as a consultant. And it gave me lifelong friends halfway around the world in a second home.”




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