"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Posts tagged “engineering

Crowdsourcing and Prototypes

This post carries on my summary of Clear Village’s Walled Kitchen Garden Project running in partnership with Imogen Heap’s composition of #heapsong3. Saturday morning we cleared the field; Saturday afternoon we started the collaborative design process.

Sunday morning brought the largest team to the site. The team hailed from many diverse locations. I travelled from Southern England, while others travelled from the other areas in England, United States, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Cyprus to join in the fun. Everyone worked around their own obligations with some people making a holiday of the workshop while others bounced around as they needed to. Martin greeted us on Sunday by mucking around on the guitar while other facilitators explained the project to the people joining in. With all the new faces, we hit “Rewind” on the design workshop, choosing to prototype an element of all of the designs.

Creativity gets unleashed with an incubation period. After the feedback session from Saturday, we could identify the strengths of each design to see if it was feasible. Saturday morning found us trying to prototype a reciprocating roof made of bamboo, a repetitive tripod structure, a free-standing triangular structure (affectionately dubbed “The Cheesecake”), and a central pole people’s pavilion that could serve as the entrance. My group was working on the central pole design.

I wanted the design to have some echoes of the local environment. Too many “new” structures stick out like a sore thumb because they lack continuance with other things around. On Saturday, we experimented with tripods made of fallen sycamore trees so we had two reasonably straight sycamore trunks with a fork. We brought one fork down from to the field for our prototyping. Continuance came from using the sycamore as the central part of the design. Our design called for putting the sycamore in the ground to anchor it. The trunk went straight up and down so I wanted it stable. No trees crashing down on my head, please.

Incidentally, the first thing we wound up prototyping was digging the hole. Our field was mostly a heavy clay soil. It had compacted considerably. Digging the holes proved rather fitfully difficult. We started working with the spades, but the soil was hard, the spades didn’t move the soil easily, and it was easier for us to go out rather than down. Then someone brought us the hole borer. The hole borer was sized almost ideally to our task. But the soil proved incredibly resilient. We would get the borer down 2 to 5 inches, it would get stuck, we’d pull it out, and then clean out the loose soil with hand spades or by hand. If nothing else, my team had the technical knowledge of working in the space.

When we got the central pole in, we placed the four bamboo rods that would be supporting the netting overhead. Our design called for four more holes to be dug to support bamboo poles that would give height to our pyramid (enabling people to walk around the structure). Since we purchased pre-cut bamboo, the bamboo itself served as a natural measuring stick. One 4-metre length of bamboo determined the side. We also had to figure out how to support the various angles coming together with lashing.

And other prototypes started to fill the field….

We learn so much about design when we actually try to build and install them. The “Cheesecake” team found some stability issues when they wanted to keep their structure free standing. The “Reciprocating Roof” team found that there’s actually a lot of knowledge required to make a roof self-support so they wound up pulling the plug on that feature. The “Tripod” team realised that they could get adequate support on two legs. And my “Centre Pole” team learned that digging holes is fitfully difficult.

When the gardeners could walk around the structures, they had a distinct preference for the openness of our centre pole structure. And as the stones were cast, the centre pole formed the base concept.

Tune into the blog tomorrow for our recording session with Imogen Heap.

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Designing a New Life for the Garden… Together

In this post I discuss Saturday afternoon at the Walled Village project run in collaboration with Imogen Heap.

After spending our morning preparing the field, we took a different approach to the afternoon. Clear Village, the organization facilitating the open air lab in the Walled Garden, uses a participatory collaborative design process to ensure that various voices influence the shape and texture of projects. After all, Clear Village views itself as a catalyst organization for sustained community change. The project would fail without solidly involving the community in the project design.

My own work in engineering education has shown me that there is a lot of mystique around what it means to be a designer. When people come to see their daily activities as design activities, it can remove some of the underlying assumptions that to be a designer, one must have the right profession (such as architecture or engineering). Clear Village also finds the educational process important so a facilitator led a discussion around a design process. I particularly appreciated how the facilitator described a design process, acknowledging that a lot of people have created variations on the design process theme. For the most part, we also avoided making the process linear. And, like a lot of things, you really learn about design as you actually attempt to design something.

Because of the sheer number of people on site and everyone’s different interests, we divided first into a plants team and a structure team. Owing to some spontaneous tree clearing at the wall, some in the group had already hit the first point of structural inspiration to make tripod structures with the sycamores. We then divided the structure team further so more voices could express ideas. As an engineer with sketching experience, I found myself coordinating a team.

Personally, I often embrace a definition of engineering design as design under constraint as a useful tool for thinking. Our structure had to have potential to cover the entire field, allow people into the structure to tend to plants, and provide protection from birds (netting) and frost (horticultural fleece). We had 50 bamboo poles 4 metres in length as well as the earlier fallen sycamores. To allow for people to move around the structure easily, all teams worked with a human access height of 2 metres.

Putting numbers in created an interesting design dynamic. “Covering the field” meant either being designed to the field size (roughly 10×10 metres with a smaller area for actual planting) or designing for fractal expansion where a core would repeat itself. It was also a little strange to have the field size influencing design when we had actually never measured the field and worked from very rough estimates. To provide frost protection for the plants, the horticultural fleece actually has to be a lot closer to the ground than 2 meters, creating upper and lower structural concerns.

For our part, my team focused principally on designing to field size. All of the design teams wanted to avoid the standard rectilinear structures easily built with bamboo. We explored echoing the various polytunnels around the site in combination with various triangular structures. I’m also not the best orthogonal-view artist, so we struggled a bit to communicate how the five different structural components came together to cover the field.

Both the structure and the plants teams needed to work together. After all, the plants team couldn’t put plants in the ground until the structure established locations and shapes for the various beds. All three structural design teams shared their ideas, and a couple of members of the planting team proposed an idea based from their earlier tinkering with the sycamore tripods.

I thought the Clear Village facilitators did an excellent job at making sure the different designs could be discussed even as some teams lobbied hard for their design. Our discussion focused on the various merits of each design, identifying how various design ideas could come together. We ended the time with a weighted vote where people could vote with 3 stones to either strongly vote for one design or divide their preferences by putting stones on the various sketches.

My team’s sketch didn’t do so well. At the same time, all of the teams benefited from the thorough vetting of similarities and differences between designs. I felt good about getting stuck in with whatever design concept the next day. Something magical happens when you actually start to build up the design.

Then a whole new group of people joined in on Sunday, creating some different dynamics. In the next post, I’ll discuss Sunday morning and the surprises of prototyping.

[And as an author’s note, I will be pulling pictures into these blogs in the near future as more and more team members are getting their pictures posted online. Right now I’m focusing on writing.]


E.F. Schumacher and Small is Beautiful

After reading Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher this week, I think the book gets roundly misunderstood and misappropriated by various concerns. I read the book for its discussion around intermediate technology as Schumacher’s book established rhetorically the “appropriate technology” movement.What I found in the book is a much broader discussion about human concerns around production. His book is a rather scathing critique to advance an unpopular thesis: we have not solved the problem of production. For the clearest articulation as to where we have failed relative to production, I quote Schumacher:

To use the language of the economist, [the modern industrial system] lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. I specified three categories of such capital: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of nature, and the human substance.

Looking at Schumacher’s thesis positively, Small is Beautiful positions production within a broader metaphysical argument. Specifically, Schumacher longs to see an orientation towards technology that embodies both non-violence and permanence. He differentiates between mass production and production for the masses. The articulation of production for the masses is likely the predecessor to “Bottom of the Pyramid” style businesses.  When you connect all three of Schumacher’s exhortations about tools and methods, the Bottom of the Pyramid connection becomes clear:

Cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone; suitable for small-scale application; and compatible with man’s need for creativity

Schumacher’s articulation that technology needs to be of a human-size is an important realisation. His discussion around long-term feasibility studies offers some value over forecasting documents. “Does this strategy have long-term feasibility given a range of conflicting demands on the resource base?” differs considerably from the forecasting question of “What will happen in 10 years?”

The book runs into some challenges around scale. Schumacher understands and appreciates that population density is something to celebrate in as far as it enables cultures to flourish. However, he also suggests that city size should not exceed 500,000 persons. He argues for a vision that makes rural life sustainable, simultaneously acknowledging that some communities might be suffering from too much migration to justify revitalisation. He discusses at length the necessary tension around a human need for order and a human need for freedom. Both needs establish a space for structured flexible thinking. Schumacher owns and embraces the paradox, but I am not surprised to see how Schumacher’s adherents have really focused on small-scale technologies in rural areas after reading the book.

Given that Schumacher wrote in 1973, I’m impressed to see a discussion of the human substance. Current frameworks about human well-being have some interesting things to learn. Arguably, Schumacher concludes that meaningful work represents a core component of the human substance.

The book is dated in a few places, but I think that many people citing from this particular volume do so at the expense of the overarching argument. Schumacher acknowledges that accepting the triad nature of his argument is not necessary. While each place of his argument stands firm on its own, I would like to see an increased pick up on the tolerance margins of nature apart from raw ecological takeback


The Missing Middle

An unfortunate truth, things in the middle (be they children, book chapters, schedule of the day) tend to get overlooked. We often concern ourselves with the extremes, modulating towards beginnings and endings. If things start out right, we assume that they are well on track for a good end. But we’re not very good at seeing the mundane, ho-hum aspects of daily life. After all, daily life happens in the middle of just about everything else.

This year marks 100 years since the birth of EF Schumacher. His main work is entitled, “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.” But as I read a piece in the Guardian today, I was struck by how easy it is to assume that small is simple.

Schumacher’s emphasis on what he called “intermediate technology” (neither basic nor large-scale) as the solution to many of the world’s problems led to the creation of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, now Practical Action, which recently hosted a celebration of his life. “A crank”, he said, “is a piece of simple technology that creates revolutions”. Nice.

“Intermediate technology” or really the technologies in the middle of the complexity scale. If we consider a crank, we’re not talking about installing a shelf, or bridging a small creek with a fallen log, or re-purposing a table as a chair. A crank, and other technologies like it, requires intentionality and consideration. The crank has a vocabulary of use that is slightly constrained by what the crank desires to achieve. When I think about my own experience with cranks, sometimes they are in challenging access points because of what motion they want to produce. When we start talking about cranks, we have to consider mechanisms.

I think that engineering and business complement each other nicely in this occasionally confusing middle space. After all, these technological challenges go just slightly beyond the materiality that everyone takes into their own hands. Someone might see problems of trying to ride a bicycle at night. Trying to rely on a massive infrastructural system where we install various sorts of beacons might not actually get at the core issue of riding a bicycle at night. A middle solution might be looking at how to attach and power a light on the bicycle itself.

The middle space requires deep knowledge of circumstantial particulars. Because the particulars constrain the available options, these middle spaces almost have the allure of compelling objective reality. The middle space creates choice because it zooms in on particular needs.


The Limitations of Culture

Increasingly, people have identified “cross-cultural skills” as a core skill needed for success in the 21st century.  Accordingly, university educational programs respond to develop cultural awareness skills in a way that stands independent of a definition of culture.  Knowing, for instance, that the Japanese tend to be privately aggressive, group-orientated, relationally-inclined while having a sense of minimal speaking space is supposed to help someone understand why a Japanese business team generally comes as a team, stands very close to one another and the other negotiating parties, and will negotiate over tea.  Yet, culture broadly speaking has been understood by what we believe, what we do, and what we make.  To engage a different culture effectively, one must be willing to question one’s own assumptions, reflect carefully on the group’s orientation towards itself and others, and discuss process.

We work better cross-culturally than we think we do, particularly when we consider cross-cultural engagement to involve people with different beliefs, actions and artifacts.  Many common jokes exist because of relevant cultural expectations.  A well-known joke in engineering characterizes a swing or a plane according to the different disciplines involved in creating a product.  My favorite is the structural engineer seeing the plane as an I-Beam.  Yet, somehow we manage to consider the people in front of us on various teams.  We might commit to the group based on a desire to preserve relationships, to just get things done, or a mixture of both.

Every team has a way of setting up an in-group and an out-group, almost by feature of necessity.  Certain people will be on the team.  Other people are not on the team.  Various people receive insider privileges owing to relevant access to power.  Yet, I am reminded of a story from John Maxwell.  An American asked a Japanese colleague to identify the most important language in business today.  The American expected to hear “English” yet the Japanese businessman answered “The language my customer speaks.”  Carefully reflecting on both in-team dynamics and relationships with external persons forms an essential aspect of reflective process when working cross-culturally.

Process can be an overlooked dimension of group life.  Taking time out to ask the question “How are things going?” on various scales helps clarify key differences blocking group cohesion and effectiveness.  We can be tempted to operate on auto-pilot according to our dominant modes even when all signals alert us to something being amiss.  Learning to pay attention to these signals helps us make changes midstream.  Very rarely do we encounter linear, step-wise processes, especially when we work in the construct of design.  Things iterate, people morph, situations change.

While I am far from an expert about modern teaming, I cannot think of any clear situations of truly homogeneous teams at work in the world today.  My own vantage point may be constrained, yet it is not clear to me whether the world functions by sending a team of New York businessmen to Moscow for short-term negotiation.  Most of the examples I can think of deal with travel within a particular multi-national corporation.  Rather, what I tend to see are short-term and extended-term compositions of people from just about every imaginable background under the sun.  These teams must come together in a way that allows them to create a operating group culture of their own.  Negotiation and flexibility remain key.  But superficial ideas of who stands where only touch the surface of the skills required to engage effectively within this space.


The Mismatch between History and Engineering

Note to readers: This post is a classic post about what I actually do for work.

I often spend my time thinking about how engineers can be better engineers.  To me, engineering is not strictly about particularly refined use of a technical tool as the technical tools come and go.  Engineering is not about a specific discipline as disciplinary domains shift over time.  Moreover, engineers need to find ways to work effectively across the engineering disciplines all of the time.  It is not uncommon to have mechanical, electrical, industrial, and chemical engineers working alongside of each other.  To me, engineering is about solving problems that have their roots in the material world.

But I have been spending a ton of time lately researching wastewater irrigation systems in a development context.  I’m interested and intrigued by the idea of creating holistic water management scenarios at the household level in a way that honors human dignity.  As I read, I’m convinced that engineers and historians have very different ways of looking at problems.

I know a little bit about being both an engineer and a historian.  I majored in the former and minored in the latter in college.  It’s hard to think about getting a history job so mostly I keep at the historical studies as a hobby.

When you are looking to piece together a story in history, there is a distinct bias towards choosing the simplest and most elegant story you can construct given the information that you have at hand.  My work situates me predominantly in the middle medieval area (Europe between AD900 and 1300).  This period of history has been widely popularized, and there is a lot of commentary to sort.  The more voices you try to add to the conversation (looking for instance at popular sources for military history, imperial records, and traces of grassroots movements), the more likely you will find a compelling and nuanced story.  Yet you come to distrust the likelihood of an impressive cover-up spanning all sorts of characters when you lack compelling evidence.  The goal is a simple, compelling narrative that accounts for the evidence you have.

Yet engineers seem to lack an appreciation for the simple.  As I try to parse through various recommendations for irrigation systems, I see documents that value the large scale.  I have been working my way through scholarly papers and a few rather good books.  One thing remains that quaint household solutions are generally disregarded.  It boggles my mind against a backdrop of failed centralized attempts and known governmental corruption.  The story simply doesn’t make sense in that it is only an engineering solution if it is rooted in some large-scale enterprise or enables a large-scale enterprise.  But as I am doing my own research, I see a rather compelling case for how small-scale systems require some significant engineering work.

It has me thinking about engineers and their tools.  And it will also be interesting to see how development conversations unfold around a different sort of academic.


Overcoming squeamishness

We live in a world where our big problems connect with other big problems.  Challenges of food security, water, sanitation, energy and education compound together, often expressed in the incredibly large problem of poverty.  Yet, when addressing these challenges, it seems common to consider them individually rather than collectively.  Investigating schemes for wastewater irrigation underscores the point and speaks to our need to think creatively about viable engineering solutions.

Our general anxiety regarding wastewater in the developed world blocks some of our ability to think holistically about these challenges.  Environmentally-aware areas of the world such as the European Union have embraced rigorous standards for wastewater reuse as measures to protect public health.  Yet, policymakers created these regulations against a backdrop of highly-developed infrastructure systems designed to distance our communities from the reality of sanitation.  Therefore, these regulations rely on state-of-the-art treatment modalities and speak to our overall fear of waste.

The realities in the developing world are rather stark.  Open-pit defecation, carrying water gathered from questionable sources, and subsistence farming reflect normative practices.  Sources of disease transmission elude many persons trying to make community improvements because nearly every known pathway is wide-open.  Nearly everywhere you look, you can find evidence of fecal contamination, whether from humans or livestock.  The standardized systems of the developed world simply do not exist.  Moreover, the landscape littered with abandoned central infrastructure suggests the near-universal water and sanitation coverage continues as being wholly out of touch with many communities.

It strikes me as odd to assert that to change the paradigm, we must embrace reality.  Regardless of what we happen to think about the issues, regardless of how our stomach may churn with disgust when we consider what actually happens, and regardless of our extant pipe dreams, we must consider that for a large population of the world “wastewater” is a concept that simply does not exist.  The question remains: how can water scarce communities continue to use their limited resources productively in a way that improves their water, sanitation, and food security?

Within the context of development, developers tend to work on single projects with limited scope and quantifiable objectives.  Therefore, a development project might be something like place 10 tap stands in a community or construct a demonstration plot using irrigation.  Yet, agriculture projects enable developers to consider the community more holistically without losing the concrete objectives needed to complete the project.

Irrigation uses water for productive purposes.  Hierarchically, productive purposes rank below consumptive and hygienic uses for water; although some researchers indicate that pressing for irrigation-related development projects often carries a gendered dynamic of inverting the relationship between hygienic uses and productive uses of water.  Therefore, a systems-minded design of an irrigation project likely includes considerations of food security, water, sanitation, maternal and child health, and education.

Establishing appropriate procedures for water access and treatment forms a critical component of irrigation systems.  In many situations, these procedures involve questions of water rights.  However, water-scarce situations invite considerations of innovative water use, if we can consider the challenges in context.  Working with a community to design an environment mindful of locally-useful agricultural productivity changes the nature of the development project.  Inherently, developers have the options to say “What can be done to leverage this community’s resources towards agricultural productivity?” recognizing that water scarcity places many demands on the available water.

Best practices of modern farming in the developed world include regular irrigation and fertilization to maximize crop yields.  Yet farmers have also moved away from manure-based fertilizer in favor of chemical-based fertilizer.  Therefore, innovations that incorporate both human and animal manures in farming contexts meet with suspicion as these practices provide a means for feces to come into contact with food.  Additionally, insistence of artificially high standards of wastewater used in irrigation blocks irrigation all together or diverts water from more pressing human health needs.

The challenges facing developers working on irrigation projects in the developed world center upon the need to mobilize resources in the community.  Moreover, considerable efforts must be made to ensure project relevance.  Viewing the projects more broadly as an agricultural project may encourage more holistic solutions, particularly as sanitation improvements may make the community’s agriculture more productive.