This article is Part 2 of Welding Digest's two-part series on engineering for the developing world. Read Part 1 here.

“Breakthrough” engineering and meeting SDGs

Engineering can be a major player in the quest to reduce poverty, reduce climate change and provide reliable food sources, among other global social initiatives. Organizations like Engineering for Change and Engineers Without Borders have actively worked to apply engineering to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a set of 17 goals established in 2015 to “achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” SDGs include eliminating poverty and hunger, providing clean sanitation and ensuring sustainable production and consumption worldwide.

The UN is looking to achieve these goals by 2030 — an ambitious date to accomplish all 17. To support the goals from an engineering perspective, the Institute for Transformative Technologies (ITT) publishes the 50 Breakthroughs Report, which lays out the most important technology breakthroughs needed to support the UN SDGs. The 1,021 page report, which was last issued in 2019, is freely available to the public.

Figure 1: Engineering breakthroughs can solve global social issues, such as how to provide clean water to remote locations. Source: Lars Plougmann / CC BY-SA 2.0Figure 1: Engineering breakthroughs can solve global social issues, such as how to provide clean water to remote locations. Source: Lars Plougmann / CC BY-SA 2.0In keeping with the spirit of jugaad, ITT stresses that most of the 50 breakthroughs should be low-cost solutions. Some of the breakthroughs, for example, challenge engineers to simply take existing technologies like electric vehicles, desalination techniques, solar mini-grids and smartphones and make them affordable for more individuals on a global level. Inexpensive versions of these technologies would directly enable the UN SDGs of clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy and climate action.

Many of the breakthroughs deal with inventive ways to provide clean water and more effective sewage treatment. The U.S. Center of Disease Control estimated that 780 million people do not have access to clean water, and around 2.5 billion do not have adequate sanitation, according to 2012 and 2008 reports, respectively. The 50 Breakthroughs Report therefore recommends that engineers focus on creating things like improved on-site fecal waste management systems, low-cost scalable techniques for desalinating brackish water and multiple techniques for enabling crop irrigation, including low-cost solar pumps, inexpensive groundwater drilling and a low-cost system enabling precision application of water and fertilizer at the correct time.

Engineering on a local level

These developments will be key to improving the lives of people in lower-income, less-developed areas like sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia. It is tempting to imagine that a large multinational corporation would swoop in and create a silver-bullet solution for a social issue. But most of the solutions will likely feature “good-enough,” jugaad engineering, involving widespread efforts to give local residents the tools and knowledge they need to solve their own problems.

Small, isolated breakthroughs — such as the development of key vaccines, the light bulb, the printing press or the mechanical clock — may have seemed insignificant at the time, but all radically changed life for the better. Applying engineering minds to global problems can do the same.