Engineering, Energy, and Poverty: Dispatches from the U.N. World Energy Forum

Saint George clearly meant business judging by the size of his spear.

From any other angle in the courtyard where I was standing, this gigantic statue appeared to simply represent the classic tale of Saint George slaying the dragon—except that upon closer inspection, where I was expecting scales or a writhing pointy tail, the dragon’s body was instead formed from the colubrine segments of a dismantled nuclear missile, suspended in frozen disintegration.

This is "Good Defeats Evil” by sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, given to the United Nations as a gift from the Soviet Union in 1990. Two decades later, it still stood triumphantly as a symbol of the long and complex road of how, from an engineer’s view, technology can both help and hurt the common and sometimes lofty progress towards peace and human reconciliation.

This past September, I was at the United Nations to take the opportunity to learn more about technology’s interaction with international policies at the UN High Level Conference on Energy, a featured conference of the UN-affiliatedWorld Energy Forum.

The energy policy community’s theme this year was cleaner and sustainable energy with a focus on accessibility. Accessibility, as a working definition, contains the functional elements:

  • Efficiency
  • Infrastructure & Delivery
  • Reliability
  • Scalability

As a forum encouraging the interdisciplinary interaction between industry, academia, and governmental and nonprofit policy groups, emphasis was placed on not just energy technology itself but also on how the accessibility to such technology and its supporting policies could present a life-changing impact to some of the poorest regions of the world. It is difficult to find a more poignant opportunity to live out the statement from theNSPE Code of Ethicsthat “engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people.” Looking at the functional elements, it is not difficult to see engineering’s role in enabling accessibility to serve this common good.

In regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where individuals live off of less than two dollars a day, the design of such technology would take into account the functional elements with the support of local and regional policies and their enforcement. These all fell under the umbrella goal to provide universal access to energy services by 2030 alongside a 40% reduction in energy intensity, that is, efficiency at every single step alongside its deployment.

Step changes in efficiency and reliability can allow improvements beyond basic quality of life, affecting features as commonly overlooked as the ability to prepare food properly and the reliability of health-care services, to the infrastructure needed to generate and deploy electricity to entire communities. It is a rare discipline of engineering that cannot contribute constructively to at least one of the many constituent steps leading toward these ends.

In my view, this creates two perspectives on how engineers can directly impact such accessibility attainment:

Accessibility for the Present
Engineering technologies may be developed such that by design, they are scalable and affordable relative to the economic standards of the world’s poorest communities. Engineers are no strangers to seeking out efficiency, maximizing output with utilized input. Quality and sustainability can be rigorously integrated along with traditional technological developments—that is, designed-in. With many developed countries and organizations signing up to fund such joint efforts, taking such ideas from concept to final realization is a natural development space for the engineering profession.

Accessibility for the Future
Further innovations in engineering education and career development can prepare future engineers in a way that maintains a balance between technological mastery with serving the public good on a global scale. In the context of sustainability, technologies developed and deployed locally have an unavoidable global impact in their use. Beyond the realm in which the control of carbon emissions are implied, technologies that are vetted in wealthier developed countries can also be redeployed to the poorer countries in a manner that promotes best practices, enabling a sharpening of the spear rather than its reinvention.

These thoughts are not new to the modern practicing disciplines of science and technology, but attaining the skill to innovate on such an international scope broadens the impact of such capability and casts a wider influence on “all people” that engineering necessarily serves.

In the march towards accessibility, a balance between engineering practices and broad-based international policies will continue to promote technology as an enabler rather than an inhibitor, fending off the dragon of poverty firmly and with fortitude.

Published October 13, 2010 by Austin Lin

Filed under: sustainability, accessibility, energy,

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