Newsweek: Twenty-First Century Professionals

PARN Global News Article - 6 February 2015

Newsweek: Twenty-First Century Professionals

Engineer Without Borders

In this week's column, PARN CEO Andy Friedman speaks to Chartered civil engineer and member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Joe Mulligan, who has been working on the Kounkuey Design Initiative with Engineers Without Borders. Here, he speaks about the tensions that can arise between what the client wants, and what they need.

‘Why can’t we just concrete over the river to make space for the new building?’ asked the community-based organisation’s chairman. There was some logic to his request in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest informal settlement, where every inch of land is occupied by a riot of makeshift shacks and kiosks selling everything imaginable and more, and where the narrow dirt alleyways double as open sewers.

Joe Mulligan knew the impact on local flooding could be disastrous. ‘People all over the world underestimate flood risk and overestimate the capacity of engineering technology to eliminate it. Kibera is no different. It’s my job to bring the client (the community) round to a viable solution.’

Joe is a chartered member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, working for Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) in partnership with Engineers Without Borders – UK. ‘We have to define the boundary between technical expertise and our underlying principles of being participatory, collaborative and supportive of our local partner’s decisions.’

To resolve the debate, Joe modelled flood scenarios, using what local information was available and checking his assumptions with engineers in the UK. Together with KDI’s design team, he created large-scale illustrations and models of different options, and talked through the implications on cost, risk and buildable space.

‘I took people down to the site and physically pointed out how their proposal would flood adjacent areas, having to say, “Hey guys, this is my profession, it’s what I do, and ultimately we need to do it like this.”’

In the end KDI’s design team and the community came to a consensus on a flood protection scheme that underpins an attractive multi-purpose building, housing a childcare centre, community hall and water kiosk, all run by the community. It continues to perform well after five rainy seasons.

Professor Andy Friedman, CEO of PARN

First appeared in Newsweek, edn. 6 February 2015

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