The Engineer in appropriate technology

IMC Principal Engineering Consultant and WASH engineering expert Andre Steele discusses the use of appropriate technology following this year’s Henderson Colloquium at Cambridge University.

Monday 17 August 2015, Andre Steele

Since 1975, The Henderson Colloquium has been hosted at Cambridge University by the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering (IABSE).

Around 25 participants are invited to present ideas based on a common theme, this year’s being ‘The Use of Appropriate Technology’.

Initially conceived as a forum for discussing topical issues, some very important conclusions and decision-making processes have emerged from these annual events.

This year was a fascinating mix of cutting-edge advanced technology from the use of drones for bridge inspections to emergency response technologies that can be as basic as wood and nails and tarpaulins.

The primary excitement of the event was seeing all that technology together.

From 3-D printing on the moon to humanitarian response

The event took place over two days, with generally three to four sessions a day of about 90 minutes, and generally three to four thematically related presentations per session, with a chairperson pulling key links throughout and then discussing them at the end to draw lessons.

One presentation, for instance, was based on the premise that the cost of shifting 1 kilogramme of material to outer space can cost around 100,000 pounds, and so building a lunar base would be incredibly expensive. A small 3-D printer on a set of wheels with a shovel gathering lunar dust for printing could cut costs tremendously.

Then, by contrast there was a discussion of emergency shelters after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The traditional shelter approach in the aftermath of a natural disaster is often the quick distribution of tarpaulins.

Citizens in the Philippines were rebuilding their homes immediately, just going for it, and it was recognized by some that the role it could probably play best was helping citizens to build better permanent houses with stronger joints, stronger foundations, and better use of materials so the homes would be more robust the next time a typhoon hits.

This was a bit of a sea change for a humanitarian organisation to recognise, but again, it was a process that was assessing the context and then developing an approach to resolve it.

I argued that actually appropriate technology is not a product, but a process involving stakeholders sitting down asking questions about the problems to overcome, who will be affected by the solutions, and then looking at various potential technical solutions in light of the factors that influence them: culture, finances, politics, geography, etc.

And using that process of assessment, we are then tasked with arriving at the most appropriate solution, when it is appropriate, and where. Is it relevant today, and will it still be relevant decades from now?

Essentially, this shifts backs to the engineering approach.

Bringing in the Engineer early on

I referenced IMC’s support to the NGO GOAL in Syria, providing technical assistance for the development of a cost-recovery system that aims to increase resilience of water supplies by reducing reliance on external funding sources.

I also referenced my own experiences in cyclone Nargis in 2008-09, when I was running an number high-tec reverse osmosis systems in the saline Ayeyarwaddy Delta, but was in a position to observe shelter programmes with clear divergence between the desires of the beneficiaries and those of local government.

Another point I emphasised was the importance of letting engineers be part of decision-making process for large-scale infrastructure projects much earlier in the planning stages.

Very often, by the time the engineer is brought into the process, he or she has very little ability to influence the key concepts.

So if there has been a political decision at high-level government to build a bridge that is supported by an international financing institution, by the time that the engineer is brought on board, he or she is unable to voice a critical analysis of the fundamental justification for that bridge.

Engineers and engineering associations such as the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) can play a major role in advocating for greater involvement of engineers further up the chain of decision making to help national governments and international financing institutions make appropriate decisions, helping improve value-for-money and efficiency in delivery.

The event was highly interesting and discussed some very salient points. The IABSE will look to issue a summary of findings and key points in the near future and it is possible there will be an open discussion event in the near future that I could be involved with. Watch this space. Any readers who are interested in learning more about IABSE events can visit their website here.

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