Engineering event tackles international development

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the Engineering a Better World conference organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) and CAETS.

The day was a celebration of engineering and everything is has to offer to international development – in particular, a focus on how engineering can help to achieve all 17 of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).

We began the day with an address from RAEng president, Professor Dame Ann Dowling, who provided the audience with an overview of the work of the organisation and some impressive statistics around the decrease in poverty since the early nineties. The morning continued with two thought-provoking presentations from the president of Mauritius, Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, and the president and CEO of the UN Global Partnerships Forum, Amir Dossal. Comments from the audience followed, with questions ranging from how we monitor the implementation of the SDGs, to the need for gender equality in the field of engineering, to the need for science and engineering experts in government.

After a swift break the morning continued with sessions focusing on working to scale. Dr Mo Ibrahim, the founder and director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, gave a compelling account of the development of the telecommunications industry throughout Africa and the difficulties that arose when establishing infrastructure in countries as large as Europe. China’s former minister of railways Professor He Huawu followed with a presentation on the China Association of Science and Technology, and, finally for that session, there was a talk from Dr Jo da Silva, the director of ARUP International Development, on the work they are doing around engineering. Silva presented an interesting concept that it is not only the quality of education that matters but also the quality of the classrooms themselves. ARUP is currently designing cost-effective classrooms in sub-Saharan Africa that will encourage effective learning and stand against the increasing frequency of climate change challenges.

The final session of the morning focused on innovation and entrepreneurship when transforming lives. Jamila Abass of M-Farm talked about the invention of an app within Kenya that connects farmers with potential buyers, and Dr Shashi Buluswar, the CEO of the Institute for Transformative Technologies gave a brilliant presentation on technological solutions for addressing poverty and social ills. He demonstrated their importance through highlighting an invention to use worms to deal with human waste – innovation at its best. However a personal highlight was the presentation on an outstanding creation – Aid-Tech. This is a new app that will allow donors (both agencies and individuals) to track their donations in realtime – a way to see where funds are going, who is receiving the money and a transparent way of giving aid.

The afternoon kicked off with Dr Allyson Lawless, managing director of the South African Institute of Civil Engineering, focusing on the importance of training graduates. Too often graduates find themselves in a position where they are unable to get a job due to lack of experience, but running parallel to that are companies who are unable to find experienced staff – it is clear that a connection between the two is needed. Professor Lee, president of Adama University, Ethiopia, followed with a presentation on the emphasis that that country is placing on engineering, with the government viewing engineering as a method to boost the economy and increase the nations GDP. The final speaker of the session, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the founder of Youth Without Borders, spoke of her experiences as a mechanical engineer and her current position as a driller on an oil rig. Her talk centred on the unconscious bias that can develop in the world of engineering, and several studies that demonstrate inherent unconscious bias.

The afternoon finished with a talk from Malaysian minister without portfolio Dato’ Sri Idris Jala, a video address from Bill Gates, and a final panel discussion with some of the day’s speakers. Overall the day was an array of fascinating sessions, thought-provoking topics and lively discussion that highlighted the importance of engineering and STEM in a variety of contexts and countries.

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