Contextual Engineering and the Politics of Project Design

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Students interview residents to establish the political, social, and economic context of the proposed project before beginning the design process.

How do you teach a group of college students to think outside their own experience when creating infrastructure designs for rural, alternatively developed societies? You take them to the community to live, work, eat, and learn from their clients. The first three are no challenge for students enrolled in the International Water Project, a year-long course that teaches multidisciplinary groups how to perform Contextual Engineering while planning infrastructure in communities markedly different from Champaign-Urbana. But the fourth—opening their minds to value insights from community members with no more than a sixth grade education and no reliable access to water, food, or money—is the transformational part of the experience.

Over the 2018/19 winter break, faculty and a small group of undergraduate and graduate students from the UIUC Colleges of Engineering, Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, and Liberal Arts and Studies traveled to Clarinaro, an agricultural community of less than 1,000 people in the mountains of Honduras. This marked the sixth year of the course and the sixth community it has supported. After eight days in the community the students returned with elevation data, water quality samples, and soils information, as well as an understanding of the community’s vision, needs, capabilities, and internal politics. Most importantly, they learned that there is no such thing as a merely “technical” problem when you are planning infrastructure for a community.

“It’s hard to live in a village next door to families whose day-to-day life is so different from our own without developing an appreciation for both the benefits and the challenges of rural life outside the United States,” said course co-creator Ann-Perry Witmer. “A family lost their young daughter to illness just before we arrived, and our students witnessed the mourning that pervaded the town. It was a sad confrontation with the fragility of life in much of the world—a reality that many engineering designers have not had to confront.”

Contextual Engineering, the discipline formulated by Witmer’s research group, reverses the usual politics of the engineer-client relationship in development. It assumes that successful infrastructure interventions must be place-based and rely on the specific characteristics of the recipients rather than the knowledge and objectives of the designer. It’s a simple concept, notes Witmer, but one that directly challenges the global notion that development should bring non-industrialized societies to the technological standard of the industrialized world.

2019 marks the sixth year that course co-creator Ann-Perry Witmer (pictured on left) has taken students to design water infrastructure in Honduran communities. This spring the project will expand to Guatemala.

Much of humanitarian engineering (engineering aimed at directly improving the lives of poor or under-served communities) focuses on large-scale ventures geared to remake local life, but Contextual Engineering emphasizes the need to custom-fit solutions to the needs and beliefs of the user. “Not everyone in the world wants to be just like us,” Witmer stresses in orientation, “either in behavior or belief or technological access, and it’s our job to work with the community to determine the right solution for each unique population’s needs.”

Unfortunately, many humanitarian organizations focus their efforts in urban centers. Urban centers are convenient; in cities they can reach clients easily, supervise projects directly and focus efforts on a concentrated area. They also expect less cultural resistance, as urban populations have had greater exposure to industrialized-world information outlets. But the “optimization trap” that cities create for relief organizations can result in a two-tier economy for many nations: modernized cities and impoverished rural areas. Witmer’s rural focus, which grew out of her PhD research in agricultural engineering, is intended to support agricultural livelihoods, local food production and national food security with the help of community knowledge.

“This isn’t about promoting quaint, rustic practices,” Witmer cautions. “It’s about respecting place-based knowledge to the degree that it’s valued by the client, rather than tossing local expertise out the window.”

Place-based knowledge—or innovative self-sufficiency—can be seen in the capability of societies to create solutions using materials and knowledge at hand. The tiered mountainside farms of Guatemala provide one example, Witmer says, representing millennia of agricultural practice rooted in Mayan society, and extremely effective at retaining and conditioning fertile topsoil on land that industrialized farming would have considered unusable. Leveraging the innovative self-sufficiency of a place and enhancing it using modern engineering knowledge is the ultimate goal of the Contextual Engineer.

Students also need to understand the broader social context of the proposed infrastructure. “Many students are under the impression that the real challenge of engineering is doing the math and science to make something work,” Witmer noted. “But they undervalue the art that goes into identifying what the user wants, why the user wants it, and how the user will adopt and adapt it once it’s in her hands.”

The International Water Project course provides students with a guided introduction to the skills required to practice contextual engineering. The first step requires the engineer to reflect on her own motivations and objectives so that she can recognize when her needs as a stakeholder may conflict with those of the client. Along with this, the engineer needs to identify other stakeholders in a project—from funding sources to organization partners—and recognize that they too may have conflicting objectives and expectation. The next task is to develop an understanding of the community that is not filtered by the engineer’s own preconceptions or assumptions, but based on firsthand observation. The final step before design can begin is to determine the influences that govern the client’s attitudes towards the proposed infrastructure.

The field visit gives students a chance to work with community members in gathering the technical and social data necessary for designing projects best suited to each locale.

Witmer’s research group has created a 41-question checklist to assist practitioners in evaluating the magnitude of cultural, political, and economic influences that need to be considered. Once done, it provides the practitioner with a set of guidelines to govern infrastructure design so that projects meet the client’s needs, not the engineer’s goals. It can also highlight underlying issues, like class or gender inequalities, or tensions over land distribution and access, that can affect the effectiveness of a project.

Completing the checklist requires students to examine many kinds of data while immersed in the community, which is when a second goal of the class becomes apparent.  Students from different academic programs gain an understanding of the ways in which different disciplines, like sociology, political science or crop science, can add their insights to the project. By the end, students realize that understanding the community’s perspective and local dynamics is as important as having the correct calculations.

“The goal of contextual engineering is to create infrastructure that addresses a need, not infrastructure that showcases the designer’s engineering prowess,” Witmer said. “And that’s the ‘aha’ moment we love to see in our students—the moment they realize that this isn’t about them. It’s about their client!”

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