UNESCO’s take on engineering and development

UNESCO’s report on Engineering: Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities for Development that was published recently does not have any particular section about or message for computing, but that did not deter me from flicking through the roughly 400 pages and read a few sections. In short (according to the exec summary), the report “is an international response to the pressing need for the engineering community to engage with both these wider audiences and the private sector in promoting such an agenda for engineering – and for the world.”, given that “engineering, innovation and technology are part of the solution to global issues”.

Aside from the need for better statistics and more precisely identifying who is an ‘engineer’, there are sections on the national and international engineering bodies, engineering ethics with, among others, the World Federation of Engineering Organizations’ model code of ethics, engineering and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), and several country-specific assessments.

Some SA statistics

It was through the latter topic that I stumbled upon the answer to questions and criticisms raised during the Annual NACI symposium on the leadership roles of women in science, technology and innovation that I reported on last summer. Several participants of the symposium wanted to se a breakdown of the numbers of publications by age group, as the suspicion was that it is old white men who produce most papers. Page 182 of the UNESCO report has the details, provided by Johann Mouton and Nelius Boshoff from Stellenbosch University. In 1990-1992, the numbers of engineering papers produced by researchers <30 years of age was 10%, but that gradually went down to a mere 5% in 2002-2004, whereas for the >=50 years age group, this went up in the same years from 26% to 39%, all the while that the percentage of engineering articles in the same period went from 5% to 7%. It has to be noted that the percentages for female authors went up from 6 to 11% and for African authors from 3 to 10%. There is also a table with a race-by-gender distribution of graduates at all third-level education degrees, measuring 1996 and 2006. Many things can be read in the numbers (see table, below), and I will not burn myself on my, relatively uninformed, interpretation of these data, except for noting that, given that there is a doubling of doctorates, to me it seems odd that there is relatively a lower output by young researchers. If anyone has an informed explanation, feel free to leave a comment.

Engineering and the MDG

Section 6 of the report looks into engineering and the MDG. The role of engineering to meeting the MDG goes from building infrastructure to have clean water and sanitation to roads (p253 has a large table with the relationship between physical infrastructure and the MDGs, in case you have any doubts they are related). Instead of prior mega-projects that have loose ends when it comes to ongoing operation and maintenance, one has to go to a needs-based approach using a so-called unified-design approach, argue Jo da Silva and Susan Thomas form Arup (pp250-252): “Taken seriously, a unified approach requires us to address issues in depth, in breadth, at their intersections, and over time. Behavioural psychologists, sociologists, physicists, anthropologists, economists, and public health officials all need to be engaged in a broader definition of the design and engineering.”. The remainder of section 6 considers the main MDGs and several case studies, including touching upon the greening of engineering, education and capacity-building, and the issues and challenges of the WEHAB agenda (Water and sanitation, Energy, Health, Agriculture productivity, and Biodiversity and ecosystem management) that are summarized on p262.

Ron Watermeyer form Soderlund and Schutte illustrates differences in priorities between “the ‘North’ (developed nations) and ‘South’ (developing nations)”, who have “‘green’” and “‘brown’” agendas, respectively (see figure). The former “focuses on the reduction of the environmental impact of urban-based production, consumption and water generation on natural resources and ecosystems, and ultimately on the world’s life support system. As such it addresses the issue of affluence and over consumption”, whereas the latter “focuses on poverty and under development. As such, it addresses the need to reduce the environmental threats to health that arise from poor sanitary conditions, crowding, inadequate water provision, hazardous air and water pollution, and the accumulation of solid waste. It is generally more pertinent in poor, under-serviced cities or regions.”. (p265-266). Now, link that to Silva and Thomas’ needs-based approach, mentioned above.

Further points are made in Section 6.1 about prevention and mitigation of risks, disasters, and emergencies where engineering can help out in such a way that certainly costs less than not doing anything.


Perhaps I am a bit biased by my education, but I find it a pity that there is only one 1-page paragraph dedicated to agricultural engineering; a sustainable production column producing healthy food accessible to the people is of vital importance and with which one can prevent many other problems.

Anyway, throughout the text, agriculture is referred to at least still a lot more often than the “computer and systems engineering” and “software engineering” that are mentioned in Section 1.1 as a type of engineering, but somehow did not make it in the assessment for opportunities for development. That is short-changing ICT a bit, I think, as there are many issues and opportunities for ICT usage for development and contributing to meeting the MDG, which I wrote about in earlier posts, such as about ISF’s projects outlined during the Aperitivo Informatico at FUB, micro-credit with Kiva, ICT & peace & gender & Africa, ICT for development and sovereignty, and mobile electronic health records in Kenya, among many other online information sources and books on the topic and the ICT and Development Conference (ICTD 2010) that starts today in London.


4 responses to “UNESCO’s take on engineering and development

  1. Pingback: Development Officer | Nuclear War in 2011

  2. Lets say that engineers start publishing at age 28 and continued to age 68. If the rate of publishing was constant over the lifetime, and if there were equal numbers of engineers at each age, then five percent of publications would be by people 50. Thus the change in South African engineering publications by age group may simply be due to a relatively constant rate of production of engineers capable of publishing since sometime in the 1970s.

    Of course, the rate of publishing is not constant with age. It may be that older engineers can co-publish more with their junior colleagues, or that they have better contacts with foreign researchers that allow more internationally coauthored papers.

    The more likely explanation is that there are not enough young engineers publishing.

    • On “The more likely explanation is that there are not enough young engineers publishing.”:
      I would refine that assumption to two options: either there are not enough young engineers in the first place, or they are there but less ‘scientifically productive’ (as measured by publications) compared to prior young engineers. I don’t know which one it is, but expect to find out some time soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.