It is always worth remembering that our engineering skills can dramatically help many of our fellow world citizens living in poverty and horrendous conditions. For example, a billion people don’t have safe drinking water and two billion do not have sanitation, resulting in enormous disease and a high death rate – particularly for kids.

Dear Colleagues

It is always worth remembering that our engineering skills can dramatically help many of our fellow world citizens living in poverty and horrendous conditions. For example, a billion people don’t have safe drinking water and two billion do not have sanitation, resulting in enormous disease and a high death rate – particularly for kids.

Inspirational Engineering
An inspirational engineer in this regard is Amy Smith of MIT. For someone who hasn’t driven a car, Amy Smith, is doing remarkable things with her hundreds of mechanical engineering students, working on real projects to apply simple technology to help the rural poor. She feels there is an urgent need to help the billions of people who don’t have safe water, sanitation and enough food.

Recent projects included a high pressure hand-press for making charcoal briquettes from sugarcane waste and 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 the know-how to create their own solutions.

Western Technology is Everywhere
As you well know, Western style technology is reaching out throughout the world. Even in the poorest villages, you will see an internet café somewhere. Afghanistan had 15,000 mobile phones in 2002; now that figure has grown 40-fold. Solar panels are stuck haphazardly on the thatched roofs of the huts of a Kenyan village.

However a lot of western technology and engineering is simply not appropriate for a poor country. Massive western-style infrastructure projects (such as power stations and gigantic dams) have not necessarily delivered to the poor. And many western technologies are simply bad news for poor. Highly sophisticated manufacturing plants can’t run without a sophisticated supporting infrastructure and skills base. Chemical pesticides on farms require strict health and safety rules which are ignored due to language and conceptual difficulties.

However, I don’t think we should focus on blaming someone for these issues, but look aggressively for workable alternatives. The other challenge is that labour is cheap in developing countries so western style capital-intensive automated manufacturing requiring minimal labour just doesn’t stack up.

Successful Micro Projects
To give you some flavour of what I am talking about in engineering, some successful micro-projects are:

  • 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 local colleagues to do the same
  • Transfer your engineering know-how freely to others
  • Mentor students and people from less advantaged backgrounds esp. from poorer countries
  • Encourage your universities and colleges to embark on projects in other poorer countries
  • Actively look at how you can simplify your high tech products and services to be applicable in less fortunate countries
  • Support your local engineering association’s efforts in this regard (e.g. RedR)

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

Yours in engineering learning

Steve

Mackay’s Musings – 14th June’16 #604
780, 293 readers – www.idc-online.com/blogs/stevemackay