A shot of Grand Canal Dock on the morning of the challenge

Borders Without Engineers

Tackling big problems that don’t care for political or geographical boundaries

It was somewhere between late last Wednesday night and early Thursday morning when I first caught word of the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Ireland @EWBIreland Ideation Workshop (iD8) that was scheduled for the coming Saturday (07.07.18)
The event was actually sold out when I went to book a place, but fortunately I managed to obtain a place via a late cancellation.

So the workshop in question was focused on addressing two real world problems. And although on the surface they may not seem related- the two issues are actually quite similar, in the sense that the root causes underlying them are complex. Complex and varied.

The first issue being that of homelessness in Ireland (particularly in Dublin)

A colossal systemic problem which cannot be underestimated. Nell Ward presented us with the stark, brutal reality for thousands of people living in Ireland today, coupled with how the Peter McVerry Trust staff & services are struggling to keep pace with often overwhelming demand.

The second challenge was that of helping the people (& wildlife) of a beautiful stretch of coastline in Kenya (Watamu) with their plastics pollution problem. 
Presented to us by Colin Keogh (who has already done some interesting work in this part of the world)
We were informed that, not only is Watamu part of a @UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (Malindi-Watamu) the area can also lay claim to some of the best beaches, snorkeling & diving on the east coast of Africa. Although plastics pollution is a global problem that needs addressing everywhere- Watamu is certainly a place worthy of investing time in a solution.

Some handwritten notes from the day (with obligatory scribbled handwriting)

Before we broke to form teams, there was a show of hands as to who in the room was an engineer. Admittedly only a quick count on my behalf, but I’d estimate that out of the c. 25 participants- up to 80% put themselves in that category. In keeping with my Outsider/Insider profile, I of course, was not one one of the 80%.

We were then encouraged to sit at random tables (and ideally not with people we already knew) So once our groups formed (5 groups comprising of 5/6 individuals) the session began with an 'icebreaker' exercise. In a welcome departure from the traditional "Hi, my name is x and I’m a y", instead we were encouraged to come up with a list of bad ideas. 
Bad ideas for anything? Yep.
Simple right? Nope.
A list of bad ideas is actually infinite. Don’t believe me? Just ask Einstein (Cue clichéd quote often attributed to the physicist of all physicists) 
"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe".

The scope of the exercise was so huge you could see a furrow of puzzlement appearing on people's faces. 
Similarly to when you get asked on the spot to come up with a song, any song, and your mind goes blank- a palpable moment of brain void descended over the room. But this soon passed, and creativity began to rear its head.

As a non-engineer however, something became abundantly clear in this exercise- both within my team and in other teams. So although we were asked to come up with bad ideas for anything, the vast majority of the ideas could be categorised as physical objects/products/tools/things that you might find on a building site…

Noticing this pattern quite quickly, I changed tact and came up with some bad ideas in areas like government legislation and financial planning.

The purpose of this exercise was to then transform another team's 'bad ideas' into 'good ideas'. The second part of this exercise proving a lot easier to complete than the first.

[sidebar] I did win some Lidl vouchers for a suggestion I made on turning a ‘bad idea’ (A well made from Lego) into a good idea. But that's probably best left at the workshop.

Now, back to the challenge. So teams were given a choice of which challenge they wanted to tackle- that being homelessness or plastic pollution. Following some debate among the team, we eventually settled upon the plastics issue. I think we unanimously agreed that homelessness is a bigger problem and undoubtedly worthy of some serious problem-solving. I know my personal opinion was that, conversely, it was almost too big to address in a 1 day workshop. I hope that doesn't sound too defeatist.

The day was really well organised & structured, without slipping into the murky realm of micro-management (a careful balance that similar events I've attended haven't done so well at) We were brought along through the phases- Explore, Ideate, Validate etc. quite seamlessly. This system has the benefit of really focusing the mind and keeping you on track.

So following much brain wracking, input from Colin & other facilitators, back & forth between team members, challenging each other’s assumptions, researching & formulating; our concept slowly began to crystallise. Crystallise into some sort of building block (and yes, we were definitely influenced by the morning’s exercise!) But what better symbol to represent building a new future, than a block?

Our idea began with collecting up plastic that had been washed ashore. Next, processing it into a more malleable form and then utilising some injection moulding technology.

The result? A type of recycled plastic Lego brick.

I'm a big fan of branding & inventing names- therefore I was more than happy to start finding a suitable name for our product. Initially I had ‘Turtle Blocks’, a dual meaning, with turtles being a species found in Kenya and also their shells slightly resembling blocks. In a similar vein, I also had ‘Rhino Blocks’.

But it wasn't until we started to scale down, focusing exclusively on small Lego-style bricks/blocks, that the final name came to me. And that name was ‘Leg Up' (or perhaps one word ‘Legup') I've a bad habit of explaining the obvious (so why stop now, eh?) So for anyone who didn't spot the double meaning, we've got the ‘Leg' of Lego combined with the phrase of ‘giving someone a leg up’ (i.e helping someone out)

It felt like a good fit.

The plan would be to then develop Leg Up sets based on native (sometimes endangered) species in Kenya- including the likes of rhinos & elephants. These packs would also include little educational booklets on the species (and what could be done to conserve them)

Beyond that, we also needed to run some figures, come up with a mini business plan, research production methods, explore routes to market & how to scale globally. All perfectly reasonable actions that could potentially take a few weeks to complete. We had an hour.

But somehow we pulled together something resembling a presentation. We were the last team to present, with each member covering a specific element. Considering we didn't rehearse it, I reckon we did okay. And I'm pleased to say the judges must have concurred, as they awarded us 1st place…

I then gave a speech starting with “But the real winner today is…” I'm joking of course.

Although there is a feel-good factor associated with problem-solving & winning, concurrently there exists the dim reality that these are both still huge persistent problems that really do need solving, for the benefit of everyone. More work to be done so.

Nevertheless, Engineers Without Borders Ireland should be commended for taking the initiative and delivering this workshop. Imagine how much better things could be if more & more organisations followed their example?