Engineering research for sustainable development

Engineering research for sustainable development
9 April, 2014

Mapping the strengths and weaknesses

UKCDS is mapping engineering research’s contribution to sustainable development and is seeking your views on the strengths and weaknesses of the infrastructure research community.

Infrastructure is recognised as a key driver of economic growth and, especially in Africa,  improved regional integration– so why does it suffer such a disastrous image problem? Can this explain infrastructure’s trillion dollar funding gap?UKCDS is mapping engineering research’s contribution to sustainable development and is seeking your views on the strengths and weaknesses of the infrastructure research community.

Too often interventions in the name of ‘infrastructure’ that lack local ownership and appropriate safeguards have turned out to be environmentally detrimental and/or socially disruptive on a massive scale. And then there are countless examples of infrastructural white elephants, symptomatic for some of the technocratic, neoliberal thinking which works against rather than for sustainable development.

There’s no real consensus around what ’better infrastructure’ means, and for all the nightmarish visions of mega-dams and smoggy cities it may conjure up, there is a more benign reality. All the sectors which come under the infrastructure umbrella – from WASH improvements to energy access to smart city design – are of undeniable importance for development.

The challenge comes in ensuring the sustainability and resilience of infrastructure projects, and in adopting integrated approaches to interconnected fields, such as energy and water, in the face of increasing resource scarcity. Moving beyond a sectoral focus to improving infrastructure holistically in developing countries remains a huge, risky and complex undertaking. And even emphasising the sustainable credentials of infrastructure may not banish the haunting spectre of bridges to nowhere.

So how can research rise to the challenge? Infrastructure is climbing up the agenda but huge uncertainties still exist surrounding how to develop it in an equitable and sustainable (both environmentally and socially) manner. This gives engineering research an ever more crucial role to play in building better roads, rolling out off-grid power and broadband, creating safe water systems or reducing air pollution through clean cookstoves.

This type of research inevitably requires more than just the input of the physical sciences. Social scientists are needed to ensure that infrastructure projects will be more than a top-down techno-fix and will benefit end-users in the long-term. Environmental scientists are essential for mitigating the potentially damaging impacts of infrastructure on ecosystems and their expertise is needed in mainstreaming low-carbon innovations. Scientists everywhere are being encouraged to think outside the disciplinary box, and nowhere is this more necessary than in the field of sustainable infrastructure development.

With these issues in mind, UKCDS is building on a previous mapping of the engineering for development research base to explore the strengths and weaknesses in engineering research for poverty alleviation in the UK and overseas. Given the scale, breadth and complexity of infrastructure and its accompanying research, your contributions are a great place to start. If you’ve read this far, you probably have some ideas on the matter – so please share them with us!

  • Do you have examples of UK or international institutions forging ahead with innovative research into infrastructure for development?
  • And in which specific sector – water, energy, transport, medical engineering, agritech etc?
  • Overall, which do you think are the best engineering research institutions in developing countries?

We’d love to hear your views – please comment below or email if you have any questions or would like to submit a fuller response.

Image credit: Codioful via Unsplash

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