There has been a recent move by scientists and engineers in the United States to tailor some of their work for developing countries and areas. The idea is that engineering can help to meet some of the basic needs of impoverished people, raise their standard of living, and create more sustainable communities. Past projects have included attempts to provide off-the-grid energy, clean water, and wastewater treatment and/or disposal. The interest in this topic can be seen in the variety of efforts to outline engineering strategies for the Millennium Development Goals and the fact that it is increasingly difficult to find a major university that does not have an active Engineers without Borders program.
Unfortunately the history of the modern world’s attempts to address impoverished areas through technology transfer is riddled with failures. Sometimes the technologies sit unused weeks after they are introduced. Sometimes the technologies disrupt the social fabric of the community. Problems like these arise not because the motives of the engineers were necessarily bad, but because their training is mainly in technical areas and only a small part of the overall problem is technical in nature. There are rare occasions when technologies mesh with the infrastructure, social frameworks, and needs of the community to enable positive lasting change. These successes come only when the designers involved understand the people they are working with. And even then a fair amount of luck is needed.
This presentation will cover the basic lessons developed for a training program designed to help engineers and scientists interested in addressing the problems of t\he developing world. The two day workshop has already been held at Georgia Tech and the University of the Western Cape in South Africa and by the time of the fall MRS meeting it will have been held at Concordia in Montreal as well as Arizona State University. The workshop does not give participants everything they need to know to be able to engage in development work, but helps them to avoid some of the common pitfalls that doom many projects at the earliest stages.
Most significantly the workshop focuses on the importance of working to understand the relationship between technology, people, and the environment and provides tools to begin to learn more about their interactions. It argues that the key to any successful project is successful engagement. Outsiders will never be able to understand the context of the situation well enough to create a successful design. Opening up ways of communicating with the community are crucial even as early as the first step of defining what problem might be useful addressed. The workshop illustrates the dangers of not listening and provides techniques for engineers and scientists to better listen to the people they want to help and observe the environment in which they will work.