I meet Patricia Culligan, a professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics, in her sunny sixth floor office in Mudd. Fairly early into our conversation, she describes a real-life situation. She hones in on a particular spot on a Boston road that has grown notorious for its high number of deaths as a result of people attempting to cross the street.
In her example, a team of bright and eager engineers tackle the problem with the perfect solution in mind: a pedestrian bridge. Construction materials, accessibility, environmental impact reports, and all the other factors it takes to design a safe, new bridge flood their drawing boards. But socially responsible engineers would take a different approach, Culligan asserts. She interrupts the scenario and invites me to consider the question, “Well, why are people crossing the road?”
It turns out there were two government buildings on either side of the road, and people needed to access the services in both buildings. Simply consolidating related services to each building would be a safer and more efficient setup. By taking the time to ask questions about the human experience before rushing into the technical solutions, her example reflects the cornerstone of socially responsible engineering. As Columbia’s research initiatives extend beyond domestic borders and into unfamiliar areas, being able to think this way is an invaluable skill.
In the spring of 2017, Dean Mary Boyce announced “Engineering for Humanity” as SEAS’ new mission; at the same time, University President Lee Bollinger announced the beginning of Columbia World Projects. Alongside the preexisting Committee on Global Thought and Columbia Global Centers, these changes reflect Columbia’s renewed mission to embark on global projects at the University level.
Like its parent organization, the Columbia chapter of Engineers Without Borders has embraced a global focus since its inception in 2004. One part of the international work it does means grappling with the image of socially responsible engineering that Culligan presents in a real-world way, but another part is navigating the ethics of humanitarian work and managing issues that touch on deeply complex ideas of race and privilege.
Besides simply gaining technical experience, EWB provides the opportunity for students to apply socially responsible engineering outside of the classroom and to develop social awareness fit for the real world. These conversations are critical as Columbia trends towards emphasizing global outreach both at the University level and in the classroom.
To get a better understanding of how EWB at Columbia works, I meet with the club’s chapter presidents, Nimat Maloney, a senior in SEAS, and Martha Escobedo, a junior in SEAS. They immediately emphasize that their designs are reviewed for safety by accredited REICs, or “responsible engineers in charge.” But with around 80 members to contribute brainpower, “the core of it is student led,” Escobedo says. “And the engineers, or our mentors, really just make sure what we’re doing is legit and is safe, if it’s not then it gets turned back to us, they don’t design stuff to get revised.”
According to Maloney and Escobedo, each project begins when a community abroad first approaches EWB USA’s national chapter with a project proposal. College chapters, like the one at Columbia, apply to take on a project, and the directors at the national level make the last call.
EWB-CU is currently working in three countries: Ghana, Uganda, and Morocco. The club members are broken into three corresponding groups addressing problems ranging from increasing access to clean water to constructing a footbridge. Each group is expected to work with their respective community for at least five years and goes for roughly four-week visits twice a year to assess the problem, gather data on old implementations, or install something new.
“We’re basically consultants, and we design the system, and we help to implement it,” Maloney says. “But at the end of the day we don’t make the decisions for it, we get feedback, and we don’t own the system—we hand it off, and we’re partners.”
The technical role of EWB reflects one side of their work. Alongside the design and implementation of technologies on behalf of communities, student engineers also engage with local community needs and recognize what mindsets they bring with them.
Alice Wu, a senior in SEAS and one of the Morocco project managers, notes that when the Morocco chapter of EWB thinks “about humanity, we think about the fact that one in three people in the world don’t have access to clean water. One in eight people in the world doesn’t have access to electricity. That’s a good chunk of humanity that is still having issues getting access to basic resources that we all take for granted.”
Increasing accessibility to basic needs is inherent in the purpose of the club, but ultimately there are even more social complexities to consider. Sophie Reese-Wirpsa, a sophomore in SEAS and the chapter’s education and training chair, speaks to the club’s connection to socially responsible engineering.
“But obviously a big part of wherever you step into a community, just coming from a position of, coming from a developed nation, I think that we as engineers have to be very mindful of our privilege and our identities,” says Reese-Wirpsa.
Evidently, the steps to running a club like EWB in a socially responsible way are not always clean cut. Implementing new technology is never as simple as applying the STEM and engineering skills that one gains in the classroom to a community.
Culligan attests to this, noting that “the way that you look and try to identify the problem is really important, and you need to think of the humans that are in the loop.”
Jacqueline Klopp, previous co-director of SIPA’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development and current faculty member at the Earth Institute, urges people to consider the idea that creating sustainable, lasting impact in a community means working with local experts or universities right from the start. Klopp, whose work is independent of Engineers Without Borders, says this is a general rule of thumb when it comes to running both ethical and effective humanitarian projects.
Klopp believes many humanitarian projects coming from wealthier or western countries fail to consider preexisting organizations as well the work of local experts and activists because of ingrained notions of superiority. “That’s all obviously coming out of that colonial history and needs to be destabilized,” she says.
Louis Bickford, an adjunct professor of human rights, emphasizes the importance of international humanitarian projects and identifying where they add value alongside preexisting grassroots organizations. Although not wanting to make claims without knowing the depths of Engineers Without Borders’ particular structure, he can say with confidence that a socially responsible engineering group should “map out the field and understand where they add value” to obtain what is known as social license. The social license is not a physical license or form of documentation—it’s about showing a “demonstration that they have really consulted and engaged in dialogue with partners working on the ground, closest to the problem.”
While the professors—Culligan, Klopp, and Bickford—are not well-versed in the operations of Engineers Without Borders at Columbia, they’ve spent time reflecting on the ever-present concerns that arise when engaging in international humanitarian projects in developing countries.
Two of the three project managers for the Ghana project, Debbie Leung and Patrick Varuzza, both seniors in SEAS, address this idea. They reported hiring local contractors during their implementation visit and working with students attending the Academic City College in Accra who are also working on technical degrees. The partnership allows for EWB members to gain a better understanding of the region and reaffirms a partner relationship. The group reported a partnership with the Community Water and Sanitation Agency, a regional non-governmental agency in Accra, as well.
The Morocco Project, which works in Ait Bayoud on the construction of a footbridge and installment of a water pipeline, sources materials and hires contractors from the community as well as accepting supply donations from two companies in-country. The two project managers did not report having partnerships with other local experts or institutions currently.
They did, however, share hopes of bridging connections to other engineering students from abroad. Raayan Mohtashemi, a junior in SEAS and one of the Morocco project managers, explains that more Moroccan Columbia students joining the project could also potentially “bring us more of those connections to university students in Morocco, because other ideas that we thought that have been cool would be to work with engineering students at universities who are interested in studying this kind of project and working with them.”
In combination with her points on including local partners, Klopp identifies what she believes is another key aspect of socially responsible engineering. She says that humanitarian projects, whether Columbia’s EWB or otherwise, “have to realize [that] if you’re going in, and you’re changing a resource of some kind or creating one, that's a political act.”
When I ask if it has been difficult to politically engage the community in organizing for long-term independent sustainability of the boreholes implemented by the club, project managers of the Ghana project, Leung and Varuzza, exchange a knowing glance.
“More or less,” Varuzza replies.
Internal political conflict within Amanfro combined with technical difficulties with the boreholes has interfered with community members’ general willingness to maintain them, and Varuzza points out that enthusiasm in the community to maintain the implemented technology can waver. He says that willingness to engage in the project and commit to maintaining the boreholes they drill can fluctuate with changes in presiding leaders.
Ultimately, the group makes it clear that they are always checking to see that leaders are still on board with the partnership. As of now, the Ghana project reports that they are still receiving the green light and are optimistic in continuing to work with the Amanfro community members to ease both management and mechanical issues with the boreholes.
Whether they see the influence of “Engineering for Humanity” in their work or not, students in EWB grapple with the very human side of implementing new technology. Varuzza says, “It’s simple to drill a well, but it’s not as easy to build a financial and social structure around the whole system as well, and that’s where I think a lot of these similar organizations falter where ... they aren’t willing to learn from other people and their own experiences.”
Desu Imudia, a sophomore in Columbia College and member of the Ghana project, details how traveling to Amanfro felt very personal to her considering her parents’ West African heritage. She shares that “even the pictures that I took, my parents were like, ‘Are you sure you weren’t in your dad’s community?’" She says that somebody without a personal connection may be more susceptible to adopting a white savior complex.
Reese-Wirpsa openly recognizes the potential for the white savior complex to manifest in EWB. “It’s easily something to say, ‘Oh, yeah we’re socially responsible engineers, we abide by EWB's model’ … which is this model of the ‘the community comes to us and we talk it through,’” she says, “but it’s not still checking our own biases.”
Based on this mindset, Reese-Wirpsa discusses her plans of proposing to instate a workshop within the EWB Columbia chapter that would educate all members on what the white savior complex is and how to be aware of one’s own biases.
Looking forward, the idea of socially responsible engineering is one that can only be kept alive through deliberate conversation. When it comes to these having direct, open discussions on the reality of the savior complex, chapter president Maloney addresses this directly. “It’s important to have that conversation frequently as people come in and we continue shifting boards and membership, just keeping that focus that we are a club that values diversity of consciousness about our role in the community,” she says. Whether it is a new SEAS slogan or the possibility of Reese-Wirpsa’s cultural sensitivity workshop, modern times seem to encourage discussion on the qualifications of what it takes to be an engineer who is skilled not only technically but socially.
While the myriad of ethical considerations makes doing the work of an Engineers Without Borders member more complex than just understanding the blueprints, Klopp shares her optimistic views. “I would never discourage students from engaging globally; I just think it has to be done very thoughtfully and in context, and that the ethics have to be at the forefront along with that understanding of history and knowledge dynamics. They have a really important role to play, especially in avoiding reinforcing [colonial] patterns and creating new patterns on how we collaborate globally.”
Enjoy leafing through our fifth issue!