The Personal Change Challenge

Chapter 1

Photo: Barbara Fraser

As part of my master’s program in engineering for sustainable development, I will be writing a series of blogs over the next few weeks documenting my experiences with the “Personal Change Challenge”. This is an experiment observing the extent to which I, as an individual, can influence others to drive change towards sustainability. In the process I will also begin to further define what I and others mean when we talk about “sustainability”, perhaps even discovering by the end of the process that my current approach to achieving sustainability in practice is severely flawed.

I have chosen to evaluate two projects in which I have been partaking as of late. (To preserve their anonymity I will avoid mentioning the organisations involved)! Both projects are centred on international development, however, my role as a stakeholder in each differs greatly. I intend to contrast my approach to achieving sustainable solutions in each case. One sees me having autonomy over my design decisions and sharing equal authority with my colleagues in driving the project direction. In the second, however, there are other stakeholders whose approval is first required before decisions can be made.

The questions I will be posing to myself (and to any readers!) include:

  • Does the set-up of the second project necessarily lead to my having reduced influence in driving change toward sustainability?
  • Surely by presenting convincing arguments for incorporating sustainability criteria, project leaders be persuaded to adopt my proposals?
  • How does the decision maker’s definition of sustainability contrast with mine and how do I determine who has the right of it?
  • Am I imposing on others a personal definition of sustainability and, particularly in the case where I have increased control of decisions made, what potential issues does that cause?

The last point reminds me of the inevitable influence of “values” on sustainable decision making, whereby every individual prioritises certain issues above others whether consciously or subconsciously; environmental over social, economic over environmental etc. I hope to identify the motivations which drive my decisions in these two projects and see what “values” are influencing my personal brand of sustainability.

Project 1

Title: Design and implementation of a prototype (sustainable) dry toilet scheme for a village in South America.

Stakeholder role: Design Engineer

Role description: I have autonomy over a single aspect of the design (the soakaway), while also having the potential to influence the designs of my colleagues as well as the process of project implementation.

Current sustainability goals:

  • Consult with local stakeholders to ensure that the solution delivered actually addresses their needs and desires.
  • Design the toilet to use locally sourced materials where possible.
  • Consider the long term potential dangers of the toilet (health concerns if mismanaged) and address them in the design phase of the project.
  • Do not allow compromises on the safety or well-being of the local people to cut costs of project.
  • During implementation phase: source local construction workers where possible. At the very least involve them in the process of constructing so they can take responsibility for infrastructure maintenance.
  • During in use phase: ensure adequate user training delivered and implement a locally governed maintenance schedule for the toilet.

Project Update:

I’ve placed the sustainable part of the project title in brackets, as the design mandate we were given did not stress sustainability as a criterion for design. The current iteration provides function at lowest cost and those coordinating the design effort, while acknowledging the long term benefits that a sustainable solution may provide, are more interested in the short term goal of the project; does it function as per design. The dry toilet installation is to be a test case, intended to last 6 months. After this, the NGO with which we are working will assess the viability of the project and decide whether to expand it to cater to the needs of the entire village. As a result of this, the current project managers consider cost to be the primary factor in the design, considering sustainability issues to be “the next phase of the project”.

I have taken issue with this, and said as much in our most recent design team meeting. I will refer here to the sustainability goals I listed above, and elaborate on how the project currently stands in relation to them and where I felt (and voiced at the meeting), we weren’t doing enough.

The most pressing question at this stage of the project should be: will anyone use these toilets? There are multiple reports on the implementation of dry toilet systems failing due to a lack of community engagement. Locals need to be consulted throughout the lifetime of the project, including the design stages. (Stakeholders were consulted before the advent of our project, to establish that there was a need for some form of public toilets — they have not been consulted since). There are many factors which have contributed to the failure of past projects. Most are simple considerations that could easily have been incorporated into the design and implementation of the projects without massive additional costs. These include decorating the toilet to make it appear aesthetically pleasing, continuously highlighting to locals over a period of time the sanitation and health benefits of moving away from open defecation, or building the prototype toilet in the house of an influential member of the community first– thus prompting the other locals to request their own. When the drive for the project came from the locals themselves, they were much more likely to consider it their responsibility to take care of the toilet and train others to use it properly. It was no longer a project imposed by outsiders. This extends also to their inclusion in construction of the toilet — use local labourers and locally sourced materials. Again, this was not a listed consideration in the original mandate we were given.

The NGO in question also has no experiences implementing dry toilet schemes, and comes from a background of renewable energy. As such, I feel as though we are as qualified to make judgements about how to implement this solution as they are. My co-designers feel as though we are tied to whatever mandate they issue us with, since they have engaged us to design the toilet for them. Thus they have been focussed on cost as the driving force for our design. I made some progress however, in this regard, by bringing a wealth of literature to the last design meeting, highlighting the failure of dry toilet schemes for a multitude of reasons. In the coming week, everyone is to read through these case studies and determine whether their current design is already doomed to fail. Furthermore, I drew attention to the simplicity of designing the toilet around locally sourced materials, but the great value which could be added to the project as a result. In terms of maintenance, everything required would already be in the vicinity. Furthermore, looking ahead to the expansion of the project, such a decision would not only increase participation by locals, but also stimulate the local economy. Again the proposal was met positively, with fellow designers agreeing to take another week investigating what might be locally available.

Engineers in general are used to being given a narrow technical mandate, for which they develop a solution in consultation with the mandate giver. They then produce the best result they can, which meets the design mandate at lowest cost. However, reminding them of the scope to influence not just the technical design of the product, but also its social impact, can produce a different result. Now that our designers have increased the scope of their work beyond “at least cost”, I expect that next week’s design meeting will prove a lot more challenging than the last, as everyone seeks to justify the decisions they have taken.

Another area which I attempted to address at the last meeting was the long term operation of the project and how it will contribute to local development.

After it is installed, there are intentions to provide training to the locals on its correct use; however, we have yet to begin work on that stage of the project. Furthermore, while maintenance may be carried out if requested by the community, (through communication with the NGO), no plans have yet been made to involve the locals in self-regulation of the toilet maintenance schedule. There are clearly a lot of untapped areas here where we might improve the chances of uptake by the community. While we may be a while out from implementation of the project, I feel that such issues need to be addressed now. The aim for the 6 month project is simply to test whether our design functions; however, this can’t be tested if no one is using the toilet!

A final rather horrifying point is the seeming lack of concern for the impact on local people should the toilet be used incorrectly. The dry toilet scheme, when fully launched, is expected to provide a mini industry to the locals by producing compost which can either be sold on or utilised within the community itself. The initial prototype toilets will also produce this compost, but not enough to sustain more than a one/two person industry. I drew attention to studies in literature regarding pathogen survival in compost produced from human waste, whereby there was a significant risk to human health if the compost has not been through a number of processes before being handled and spread. My concern would be that the 6 month storage of the waste, without additional treatment would be insufficient to remove these pathogens. This, however, has been classed as a “long-term” sustainability issue of the project, arising once enough dry toilets have been built to support a local industry; but what about the family that will be using the compost from our initial prototypes? Also, surely it is worth considering how to remove these pathogens now so we don’t have to change the design completely a year down the road? So far I have managed to advocate for lime or an equivalent substance being added to the dry waste after each use of the toilet, in an attempt to increase PH levels and kill off the pathogens. Those in charge of designing the urine separation system and the storage of the dry waste are now “investigating” what the cost of such a process might be.

The next blog entry will detail the second of my projects, which involves my role in developing entrepreneurship at a local level in Uganda. I will also continue documenting my progress in achieving my sustainability goals for the dry toilet design project, as well as questioning whether they are even sustainable.

Anyone who made it this far — thanks for reading!