Saturday, January 14, 2012

Engineers Without Borders Canada

I greatly enjoy talking to students, and I am now in Ottawa, Canada, just having spoken to an incredible group of students, Engineers Without Borders Canada. Now, I had heard of EWB before, but I hadn't grasped how large, sophisticated and ambitious an organization this is!

I'm at the annual Canadian EWB conference (each of the EWB country groups is independent of the other), and there are hundreds and hundreds of students here. Mainly engineering students, but as EWB Canada has grown and matured, they've increased the size of their umbrella and welcome non-engineering students. Oh, and at least half of the engineering students here are women. Hint to the profession: if you link engineering to helping people rather than gadgets, women seem to be more interested!

Dr. Pamela Hartigan, head of the Skoll Centre at Oxford University's Said Business School, noted in her keynote that EWB was the largest single source of Skoll Scholars at Oxford. That made me realize how important this channel of engineers doing social good was to the social entrepreneurship movement. As someone who has both recommended a Skoll Scholar (Jesse Fahnestock of our Bookshare team was in the first class of Skoll Scholars) and hired a fabulous MBA from Jesse's class: Barbara Morrison, who led our business development team for years, I can see how important this is!

I gave two talks here: one on failure, and one on engineering for social good, Benetech style. The first was on our Landmine Detector Project and why we think it failed. Right after my session, EWB released its own report on how it had failed in numerous project. I think it's incredibly important for the social sector to acknowledge and learn from failures. Bravo to EWB for prominently featuring its Failure Reports.

My second session spent a lot of time on the Benetech process for choosing projects, which Aaron Firestone, our current head of business development, spent a lot of time updating last year and had our board approve last month. We'll be putting it up on our website in the next couple of months. What was exciting was that EWB Canada had just put up their version of project development, which they call Intelligent Development. And, it's very similar to our approach. Like Benetech, EWB started with a technology-centric focus and moved to realizing that system change and improving the lives of real people is the true way to do good with technology. I'd say the main difference is that as a software-focused organization, Benetech thinks mostly about products, and then does projects utilizing our products. EWB, as a more hardware focused organization, tends to do projects, and so their focus on exit options by turning over projects to local partners is even more intense than ours.

As an engineer who has been working on social good for over twenty years, and felt pretty lonely the first ten or so, it's exciting to run into an organization that has many engineers in the field (in Africa), and tens of thousands of members around Canada! I'm leaving Ottawa today with optimism for the future, based on the incredible young people I met here!

1 comment:

reidjaninen said...

Hi,
Very glad that you enjoyed your conference experience, we were glad to have you! I always respect someone that can openly admit their failures in a space where they can receive feedback, as you're basically recognizing that you can be fallible, and that improvement is good. So thanks for participating with me in the Failure Forum Shark Tank (helping out Marilyn McHarg), and I hope to see you at a future EWB event!
- Janine Reid