Blog post written by PhD student and SIID Engineers convener, Hannah Mottram, reflecting on a recent event held at the University of Sheffield which brought together students, researchers and academics from across the University to discuss the role of engineers in international development. 

I arrived in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sheffield after several years working on energy access advocacy, and I felt a bit lost. As someone who has cross-disciplinary interests it was alarming to me how siloed an institution like a university can be. I was lucky to find colleagues at the SIID induction event who, like me, were engineers interested in international development and ethical research. We decided to form a group – SIID Engineers, to bring together people from across the university.

Over the past twelve months we’ve held talks and journal clubs on clean cookstoves, water-free toilets and participatory design. This month, thanks to SIID and the Think Ahead fund, we were able to bring together around 50 students, academics and practitioners to learn from each other, and think about how we can continue in the future.

Across the University of Sheffield, there are many researchers already working on projects in an international development context, and the potential for many more. The recent introduction of the Global Challenges Research Fund means we are likely to see a broader range of people working on international development –  which brings many opportunities, but also challenges. The event revolved around three sessions:

  • What is the role of Engineering in International Development?
  • International Development in the Engineering syllabus
  • Ethics in international development

A key theme that came up in all the session was the importance of interdisciplinarity. We agreed this was deeper than just working with other – it means learning to understand different approaches, your own positionality, and respecting the strengths of other disciplines.

In our first session, we heard from the Royal Academy of Engineering, Practical Action, and the Low Carbon Energy for Development Network. We heard about the importance of working not just within academia, but partnering with other organisations. There are challenges as engineers are not encouraged to be curious about the impact of their projects – viewing them as solutions to problems rather than ongoing activities.

It’s important that engineers have mathematical skills to get the correct answer, but they also need to understand the context so the solution is appropriate and sustainable.

These discussions continued into our second session on international development in the engineering syllabus. Participants actively discussed the gaps in the curriculum and potential approaches with a panel including Professor Rachel Horn and George Smith, from Engineers Without Borders Sheffield. We then got started on designing a potential model, with ideas including community project link ups, students keeping reflective diaries and interdisciplinary communication skills.

Ethics should not just be a checklist – we need to think about what research actually needs to be done to improve people’s lives.

In the afternoon, we heard about academics’ experiences working across disciplines on technical challenges. Professor Dorothea Kleine told us about her work bringing agreed ethics standards to ICT for Development research – something we agreed could be looked at across engineering. Dr Luc de Witte shared his experiences working in urban slums in India. Whilst projects can be successful by technical standards (such as a cookstove being designed that is 25% more efficient), Dr de Witte found that the communities had much wider problems that their project wasn’t looking at.  Dr Sally Cawood talked about working in interdisciplinary teams researching urban sanitation in Bangladesh, and the importance of listening to each other to understand different perspectives.

We finished off the day with discussions about what we’d  got out of the day – including great contacts across different faculties, space for critical and reflective discussion and awareness of unfamiliar topics such as neo-colonialism and participatory research.

Over the next year we will be holding a range of events – including journal clubs, socials and talks. If you’re interested in taking part, join us on Wednesday 20th February for a lunchtime social – contact hfmottram1@sheffield.ac.uk if you’re interested.

This event was made possible thanks to support from the Sheffield Institute for International Development and the Think Ahead Programme.

 

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