Why is it Okay to reinvent engineering - by Laura Velasquez

It is no secret that our world is in a state of imbalance in regards to wealth, income and access to basic needs. Unfortunately, the imbalance and gap keeps growing since all of our well educated designers and engineers work on solutions for the developed world, while the population in developing countries end up paying higher prices for lower quality services. This issue can be recognized in multiple areas and sectors. Let’s have a look at a few examples.



When it comes to the degrading situations of the poorest, sanitation is probably one of the most-focused on matters. Sanitation systems have been implemented for centuries and decades in advanced societies, where it’s taken for granted. Nevertheless the ugly truth is, that lack of proper sanitation and clean water represent a source of millions of deaths every year. Poverty-stricken communities are more exposed to diseases and get sick more often, which weakens their immune system over time so that low risk diseases in the developed part of the world like diarrhea can increase mortality.



In Asia and its pacific region, fish farming and aquaculture has been established as an important component for food security as well as economic income. On top of that, our worldwide fish consumption is steadily increasing every year. What might seem a surprise regarding fish production and overfishing issues, is that majority of the fish farmers perform their business in rather small-scale settings or even family-run backyard ponds. Unfortunately, these farmers deal with troublesome obstacles. They are short of proper resources and struggle with low water quality. Aquaculture relies on proper aeration (oxygen / air concentration in the water) in order to maintain healthy fish and allow to increase the quantity. While large-scale fish distributors adopt aeration technologies in the market, rural fish farmers do not get access to such technologies due to their high investment costs and high maintenance. The function of those devices is to add oxygen to the pond and to distribute it over several layers. Especially the access to electricity is crucial. Consequently, those farmers have lower production rates, which leads to lower income and lower food security for their community. A trap in a loop.



On one side of the world, fish farmer struggle with low quality water, on the other side, agriculture farmers fear not having enough water for their crops. For this problem, let me introduce you to Juan. Juan is a farmer in Nicaragua, and a pretty smart one as well. He has crafted his own irrigation system with a diesel pump, since he needs to be able to water his crops all year round – even during droughts. Now, the only issue is: he doesn’t know how much water he needs to pump and how often, in order for the plants to grow properly an get maximum produce. Pumping water and maintaining his pump is expensive, which makes an efficient management very crucial.


The list of problems goes on and is long, but the main message is clear: poor people around the world are truly in need for solutions. This imbalance between rich and poor, developed and developing, educated and unschooled keeps growing, if already developed societies don’t recognize their potential to at least to try to diminish the gap. Now don’t get me wrong – aid has been and is being implemented on many levels and by numerous countries. Yet lamentably, a certain approach is being conducted and established which does not seem to fulfill the task at hand. Having good and the right intensions in mind, engineers and designers have attempted to take already available solutions implemented in the developed world and modified them for the settings of the developing societies. Often they miss critical requirements, setting technologies up for failure. Taking the completely different conditions and environment present in those countries into account, solutions need to be invented and innovated with a fresh perspective. A collaborative approach has to start. We need to abandon the idea of ‘’There is this technology and it functions here, how can it be changed and adapted to be cheaper for the poor’’ and embrace a the mindset of ‘’Alright, this is the issue and these are the needs – what can be the solution?’’. The motto: fall in love with the problem, not the solution.


Do not worry, there is a bright side. There are researchers, engineers and designers out there such as Dr. Prof. Amy Bilton. She and her group work at a cross-disciplinary research institute at the University of Toronto with the goal to educate and research with future engineers in practice to benefit the most vulnerable portion of the world’s population. Determined to tackle the issue, teaching important courses and applying projects to real-world settings several new innovations at a time using an adapted engineering design approach. Let’s mention some of their successes:


Sanitation - Solution

Every researcher and every engineer and scientist will tell you the same – data is key. In order to fully understand the problem at hand and, eventually fall in love with it, developers require data and information on the behavior and priorities people have regarding sanitation. While in some fields, data can be extracted easily, it is not the case with sanitation – no one likes to talk too much about how, when and how often they go to the toilet. Let alone to be observed during it. Sure, surveys are a great tool and can provide important conclusions, yet their errors and uncertainties cannot be neglected. Prof. Bilton and her group developed a sensor which is attached to pour-flush toilets in Mexico and collects valuable information. It can register when and how often the toilet is used, as well as if it was urine of feces in there and, if it was flushed or not. Therefore, for implemented solutions it can be established whether it is having the desired impact and if not, how to modify it.


Aquaculture- Solution

Not just one, but two different solutions were created: a wind powered aeration technology as well as a solar-panel powered one. The latter heats layers of the fish pond and creates a circulation. Most importantly is that these solutions don’t rely on external electricity sources – they either work mechanically or produce the electricity through sunlight.


Irrigation- Solution

Juan and his irrigation system was part of the conversation. The mission was to find a solutions in collaboration with the farmers. Firstly, they analyzed the roots (pun intended) of the issue – how does the soil processes function, how does it handle water and what happens when there is too little / too much water in the soil? How does a plant even extract water from it? With the help of in depth research, they were able to come up with a technology that can measure the suction pressure of the soil, and therefore release water into the crops – only when needed. This allows farmers to save an enormous amounts of water, and therefore costs.


(For further detail about these and more inventions from the research faculty I highly recommend visiting their website.)

Overall, this group has just begun to do the work in the right direction – more and more awareness has been spread to change our approaches and to find our inner innovators, in order to create a more valuable life for the ones most in need.


And for all the future and present engineers, designers and developers out there – may your love story with the problem be a great one.