Engineering for Real-World Problems

Engineering for Real-World Problems


This article first appeared in MAKE Volume 38, on page 10.

It all began for me nine years ago: I was a designer and artist interested in processes and new techniques, busy building interactive environments to provide complete sensory experiences for users, when I found myself in the midst of one of the most devastating natural disasters in our recent history: the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Surviving such an experience and seeing first-hand what happens after an emergency, how the community reacts, and what kind of methods and efforts are implemented to provide relief triggered something inside of me. I knew I had found my calling.

Everything I had learned up until that day and any skill I possessed, from practical know-how to critical thinking, could very well be applied to help and address challenges involved in similar situations and more. Since that day, I’ve been involved in creating R&D companies to focus specifically on research, consulting, designing, and implementing custom solutions to humanitarian, environmental, wildlife conservation, and other social challenges worldwide. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years.

1. Start with the problem. Often you’ll hear of a problem from invested parties or partners that have spent a long time over-analyzing the challenge they think they’re facing and might be missing the point. Start by asking hard questions to identify the real core of the issue at hand. Don’t fall for their assumptions.

2. Research a lot. Especially when dealing with a context or country you have no experience with, there’s no such thing as too much research to get a better sense of the social, cultural, and economic aspects of the location you’re designing for and are going to deploy your solution in.

3. Sabali.Probably my favorite Bambara word, meaning patience. Everything takes longer than you expect when dealing with large challenges, so embrace it, be patient, and keep on your path. Time is a very relative concept and what would take you one day to accomplish at home might take weeks to accomplish in the field.

4. See it for yourself. The best way to learn about your challenge is to personally be involved and witness it. There’s nothing like first-hand experience, so if you can travel to your location, do it. Everything will be much clearer and a lot of assumptions will automatically be dispelled.

5. Be creative with funding. Except for a few consolidated funding channels, which are often limited to non-profit entities only, partners are still shy about spending money to fund research and development projects. But the good news is that there are a lot of creative ways to raise funds to take you and your project into the field, from design competitions to crowdfunding and grants.

6. Fail early, fail often, BUT please, fail. A lot of things can and will go wrong once you get to field-testing and implementing a project in its intended environment, and this is where you get to learn the most. A lot of projects fail and people are ashamed to document them, not allowing others to learn from their mistakes and instead causing others to waste valuable resources by replicating those failures. Learn to let go of your ego and not get attached to your solution, but instead let the things that didn’t work teach you the right path to success.

7. Be disruptive. Most work in this field is still championed by organizations that have been around for a really long time and have a very set way of doing things, which often uses a top-down approach of developing in a silo and then shipping solutions to their intended destinations, expecting communities to adapt themselves in order to adopt them. This method is bound to fail in a very unconstructive way. Disrupt this method by developing using a bottom-up approach that starts with your users, the community, and the local environment, by working with your users to design the final solution. They hold the answers, and what you should be doing is providing them an outlet to let their voices be heard.

8. Harness local innovation. Long-term solutions don’t come in a box. Most of the resources for the right solution are already there — it’s a matter of harnessing the wonderful talent that is available locally. There’s plenty of innovation, ingenuity, and makers to be fostered and supported locally that will help make the solution much more sustainable in the long run. Allow them access to resources and share skills with them to let them develop their own solutions.

9. Build sustainably. Importing materials and components that no one knows how to fix and maintain locally is a recipe for disaster that we encounter way too many times. Most things developed this way break within the first six months (if lucky) and stay broken indefinitely. Design your solution with long-term goals in mind, considering locally available materials, in order to build things that will survive the environment and the course of time.

10. Never give up. This type of work represents a long, hard road to walk on. The hills are steep and the terrain is rough, so don’t get discouraged. Just when you’re about to give up, you might actually be closer than you think to making a real difference in the world and in the lives of others.  Remember that really tough challenges can’t be solved overnight.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Benedetta Piantella is a designer turned humanitarian technologist. She has taught Lego robotics and worked for Arduino in Italy, and Smart Design in NYC, producing interactive prototypes for high-end clients. She has founded engineering R&D companies focused on producing sustainable solutions to humanitarian, social, environmental challenges worldwide. She has built partnerships with organizations such as the UN, UNICEF, The Millennium Villages Project, Universities such as NYU, Columbia and Princeton and multiple NGOs and has designed, prototyped and deployed projects in countries such as Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. She recently covered the position of Technology Architect for the Earth Institute and the Sustainable Engineering Lab at Columbia University, she is an Open Source advocate and is currently a full-time faculty member at NYU-ITP where she teaches Physical Computing and Engineering for Development.

View more articles by Benedetta Piantella


Maker Faire Bay Area 2023 - Mare Island, CA

Escape to an island of imagination + innovation as Maker Faire Bay Area returns for its 15th iteration!

Buy Tickets today! SAVE 15% and lock-in your preferred date(s).