Act Global: Sustainable engineering and the developing world

Today’s Haaretz newspaper (English edition) carried my Op-Ed on the need for more engineers, scientists and students to work on the problems of the developing world. You can read an online version of the article HERE. Due to stringent length restrictions, the article was heavily edited, and therefore I am posting an earlier (and somewhat longer) version of the article:

When travelling in my diplomatic capacity (that is, as an Israeli tourist), I am often posed the same question again and again; how did Israel develop such a strong economy so quickly? Though I am not an economist, I stand behind my perennial response: intellectual capital. Lacking both natural resources and a powerful manufacturing sector, Israel’s economy is fueled primarily by ingenuity, whether in biomedical, electronic, agricultural or other technologies. While the country’s gains in these fields are impressive, we certainly had a running start. Our fledgling state has benefitted from the beginning from massive imports of educated and talented professionals from around the world. Jewish scientists and engineers arrived in Israel fully trained, providing huge intellectual returns without the investment of years of academic and on-the-job training. Unfortunately, we cannot continue to rely on an endless influx of cheap intellectual capital. In a world where Chinese and Indian engineers make stiff competition for Silicon Valley, Israel must stay at the forefront of engineering education to keep its economy growing. Strangely, teaching our young engineers to work in places like China, India and Africa may be precisely the solution.

The world, like Israel, has made progress. Brazil and China are sudden superpowers, development indices have spiked across continents, and yet two-thirds of the world’s population lacks access to clean water. The developing world is indeed developing, both as a competitor and as a market, but due to widening gaps between the rich and poor, the majority of its citizens are not reaping the rewards. For their part, Israeli companies are building water, agricultural and other infrastructural projects in many of the world’s least developed nations, but the vast majority simply copy Israeli designs and paste them into foreign contexts. Is an expensive, Israeli-style automated dairy the best way to provide food security for rural Angolans, when labor is cheap and jobs are scarce? Our firms are paid by governments, development banks and aid programs, but their nearsighted approach does not provide a long-term solution. They perform little or no knowledge sharing, meaning that local professionals are not trained to maintain, repair, upgrade, expand or adjust these systems after the Israelis go home. They provide large-scale, centralized, high-tech solutions where smaller, networked, low-tech solutions would allow for more flexibility and easier repair, and they completely ignore potential consumers in areas where only small-scale solutions are feasible. The old copy-paste mentality is simply not sustainable, and what is unsustainable is quickly becoming uncompetitive. Worldwide, sustainability is becoming a prerequisite of multinational, national and private projects. International development policies such as the UN’s Agenda 21 are defining and legislating sustainability as a pragmatic methodology, and modern consumers (public and private) are learning to demand a sustainable approach. The rules of the game are changing, and Israeli engineers must learn to keep up.

In the US, small but motivated groups of engineers and students are already learning sustainable engineering principles while working to improve the lives of the world’s destitute poor. Chapters of “Engineers Without Borders” (EWB) have sprouted at major universities and Fortune 500 companies, as more and more institutions realize the benefits that EWB provides to students and engineers alike. Even NASA has a chapter. Experience has shown that professionals snap at the opportunity to spend a few hours per week designing technologies for underdeveloped communities; the work provides a unique challenge while satisfying the moral imperative to do good for those with less. While a new processor will become obsolete in a year, providing clean water to a community is an accomplishment with no expiration. Corporate chapters have undertaken dozens of projects, including building solar energy systems for Haitian schools coupled with training for local technicians, and digging wells in Cameroon while providing sanitation education and establishing local water committees for long-term maintenance of water resources. By providing an opportunity to focus employees’ skills toward a higher calling, EWB chapters ultimately make for less burnout and happier workers, and make excellent tools for attracting talent. Moreover, by working within developing countries, EWB members learn to understand the developing markets of tomorrow. To illustrate this point, consider the non-profit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which designed the world’s first $100 laptop for school children. OLPC is providing an invaluable educational opportunity today, but it is also opening up whole new markets for previously “first-world” technologies (computers and internet access) in the future.

EWB chapters provide even greater advantages for university students. Working in developing countries demands the sort of cooperative, creative problem-solving and resourcefulness that standard lecture-based pedagogy struggles to teach. Copy-paste solutions are simply not an option. Volunteering with EWB, students get much-needed hands-on experience, develop their social consciousness, and network with professionals from around the world. In this context, sustainability is studied not as a concept but as a design tool, a modus operandi. As a bonus, chapters are self-funding and provide massive publicity and fundraising opportunities. Here in Israel, chapters have opened at Midreshet Sde Boker and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, where Prof. Mark Talesnick insists that “there is no better way to learn engineering” than to work on the problems of the developing world. The Technion chapter has worked extensively in Nepal, supporting a technology that produces cooking gas from cattle dung, so that rural communities do not need to chop down forests to meet their energy needs. The system also reduces the health problems associated with life-long smoke inhalation. Now the chapter has moved on to technologies that purify drinking water without chemicals and utilize the excess electricity that is wasted in small-scale hydroelectric systems. The toolkit for sustainable global engineering is expanding every day, and includes Israeli innovations such as drip irrigation, fish farming techniques, new solar energy and desalinization systems. Of course, a sustainable approach is required to integrate these technologies into communities alongside social tools such as microfinance, education, professional training, local leadership, community empowerment and the like. This is where the next generation of Israeli engineers can rise above the competition, and some institutions are heeding the call. Deep in the desert, students of the Arava Institute’s graduate program are already hard at work developing a sustainable framework for new agricultural, energy and water technologies. In Haifa, Prof. Talesnick wants the Technion to become a national center for “global engineering education,” where EWB can move out of the extracurricular margin and into the classroom.

What’s missing is professional and administration support. The faculties at Israel’s large universities need to recognize the potential of this type of learning, and to build more courses around these concepts. Professors should have the option of mentoring these projects as part of their teaching responsibilities, and students should be able to earn credit for participating. At the same time, Israel’s leading engineering and technology firms should help employees build corporate chapters to spearhead sustainable, moral, life-changing projects in developing countries. Together, students and professionals can build the skills that will keep Israeli engineering at the forefront of new global markets and sustainability practices. If only a fraction of Israel’s high-tech brainpower can be invested in the developing world using sustainable designs, then young Israeli tourists will never again have to account for their country’s accelerated success. The world will have seen for itself.

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~ by jonlib on February 4, 2011.

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