Engineers make an impact in driving sustainable development

By embedding sustainable development principles, engineers contribute directly to and have the benefit of seeing the impact on lives and environments around us.

In his first two years of working, Lloyd Wallace designed a rural water scheme for a community in Northern KwaZulu-Natal. When he had the opportunity to visit the site much later, the community saw the branded vehicles and ran out to thank the team for providing them with water. “It was an amazing experience personally to see the impact of my work as a junior engineer,” says Wallace, Technical Director and Expertise Lead for Infrastructure Advisory at leading consulting engineering and infrastructure advisory firm Zutari. More recently, Zutari led a workshop between municipal officials and community representatives to unpack the public housing that the City of Cape Town administers to over 300 000 people.

“Our work brought these groups together to talk about the issues. It was the first time that both sides were able to see how difficult the situation was from each other’s perspective.” The insights from this work have been incorporated into a large training and business optimisation programme that Zutari has been supporting the Department of Public Housing with over the last three years.

“At numerous stages on projects throughout my career I have been amazed to see how much impact engineers can make in driving sustainable development,” highlights Wallace. Engineers operate in a space where they can influence how infrastructure is designed to meet different ideas of value creation. By embedding sustainable development principles and, more importantly, mechanisms to measure the impact of projects in terms of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), engineers contribute directly to changing the status quo, and have the benefit of seeing their efforts impact the lives and environments around us.

Due to the skill set that engineering equips young people with, there are numerous opportunities even before qualifying. Wallace says he funded two years of tertiary education and was then able to obtain bursaries for six years of additional studies, during which time he worked as well. “There are lots of opportunities to get funding if your marks are good and you actively build the right networks.” For example, Zutari recently employed 90 graduates in its most recent intake, and puts in place development plans and opportunities for these young engineers, scientists and advisors to find their ideal place in the business to maximise their growth.

Wallace started off studying civil engineering at the University of Pretoria as a bursary student of construction company Aveng. After realising that construction was not for him, he moved to a water consulting engineering company and did his honours degree in environmental engineering part-time, again on a bursary. He then took up a role as a general civil engineer, with most of his projects in the solid waste engineering space. This started with the design of landfills and waste containment facilities, but quickly transformed into waste management, which was much more exciting.

“Managing waste – think black bags and recycling – is as much a social issue as it is a technical issue, and this paved the road for the journey that led me to where I am now,” says Wallace. In 2016, he was fortunate enough to be awarded one of ten annual scholarships offered by the Swedish Institute to South Africans to complete a master’s degree in engineering in Gothenburg, Sweden, for two years.

Wallace opted to study industrial engineering, a field that links business and engineering – and to his surprise it was all about innovation and how we organise industry, business and teams to find new ways of doing things. “My team does exactly this: We search for new ways of solving very complex issues around infrastructure development.”

In his current role, Wallace looks at how infrastructure fits into an organisation’s goals to drive impact and success. He leads a team of diverse people, not only engineers, who assist clients to build the right infrastructure to meet multiple needs. “We focus on making investments in infrastructure sustainable so that everything still works in 20 to 50 years’ time.” The team specifically aids with creating projects where the public and private sector join forces to have a bigger impact. “We create business cases and investment strategies, we help assess and manage project risks and we also help companies with lots of infrastructure improve their businesses to deliver bigger and better impact,” explains Wallace.

His future plan is to concentrate on being an enabler to the business for embedding sustainable development principles and guide technical teams to frame the impact of their efforts in terms of the SDGs and wider impact metrics. “We are especially interested in being the connectors that help private and public entities come together to collectively solve the huge infrastructure challenges facing South Africa and the continent. I have learnt over my 15 years as an engineer that the challenges are very complex, and we need to all come together to collectively frame and solve the issues. Engineers cannot do it alone.”

His advice to young people contemplating a similar career path is: “Do not get too hung up on worrying about if you ‘fit’ the engineering mould. The industry is evolving and there is an amazing opportunity to bring creative skill sets to the table to solve the world’s biggest problems. Engineers are very much trained to be problem solvers, and this leads to a very exciting career with options downstream. Do make sure you keep your maths and science strong, but do not forget to invest in things like your people and emotional intelligence skills, too,” concludes Wallace.

World Engineering Day on Saturday 4 March is an opportunity to celebrate engineering and the contribution of the world’s engineers to a better, sustainable world.

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Building momentum for innovative engineering solutions

In the real world, breakthrough innovations seldom happen by chance or luck; they are best built steadily from years of experience and structured collaboration, according to global engineers and scientists SRK Consulting.

In today’s digital world, there are opportunities aplenty for apps, gadgets and clever inventions. The real challenge, however, is to build continuous improvement into a company’s workstream – so that staff and customers alike can build on experience and past achievements for a smarter future. According to SRK Consulting managing director Vis Reddy, the company has for many years been recognised for its technical innovation; now it is taking the process up a notch.

“As a global network, SRK has always believed in the power of collaboration – especially across disciplines and global regions – and the digital era has offered tools to enhance this,” said Reddy. “With the organisation now spread across 45 offices worldwide, it is not always easy to leverage the full extent of all the experience on offer.”

Since about six years ago, the company has been actively consolidating its efforts to further entrench innovation through systematic collaboration across practices and countries. In South Africa, this includes regular innovation workshops, which have in recent years embraced online communication. These platforms have also allowed greater international engagement, networking, sharing ideas and innovations across continents.

“Many of these discussions focus on the value opportunities in gathering, analysing and sharing data across the organisation,” he said. “Projects that we engage in often generate vast amounts of data to be processed, but the sharing of results and lessons learnt can be of great benefit to colleagues in similar fields in other offices.”

He highlighted the increasing pace of work allowed by ever-improving software and computer power, and that client expectations were continually evolving to expect results faster. The speed in itself, though, was only one benefit; the more important aspect of automated processes, for instance, was providing more time and better data on which analysis could be conducted.

Tracey Drew, a senior environmental scientist and the head of the company’s Data Services Department, also providing strategic innovation support, noted that a company’s success in innovation could be reflected in its ability to solve traditional problems, and to accelerate business activities, processes and competencies. The way that technology is embraced should also allow change in the ways people work, and in the opportunities, they have for providing new solutions.

“Among the forums we use to share ideas and promote innovation in our daily working lives are our lunch time presentation events,” said Drew. “This is an informal lunch-time event where a presenter shares their useful experience, invention or idea as a learning opportunity for others – inspiring comment and collaboration.”

According to Xanthe Adams, the principal engineer who pioneered the innovation workshops at SRK and digital transformation specialist: water sector, many of our innovations that the company’s engineers and scientists develop make working processes more productive, while the best ones help implement or even improve good industry practice.

Data science is an increasingly important foundation for much of SRK’s work (Image: SRK Consulting).

“Data science is an increasingly important foundation for much of our work, allowing us to develop effective and novel solutions on which clients can rely,” said Adams. “Using modern sensors to help generate more accurate and reliable data, for instance, allows us to move onto the next step of developing smart solutions with better results.”

Water monitoring is one field which can contribute significantly to South Africa’s water challenges, and technology is opening doors for new ways to manage and protect this valuable resource. She said the process of remote water monitoring is well developed, and data from sensors can now be streamed wirelessly for real time analysis.

Real innovation comes by harnessing the Internet-of-Things in a complete system that addresses a client’s risk (Image: SRK Consulting).

“Real innovation comes by harnessing the Internet-of-Things in a complete system that addresses a client’s water risk,” she said. “If a data source and pre-designed algorithms can be applied to a real-time chemical analysis of a water stream, for instance, it could be possible to alert the owner to the actual source of unacceptable levels of certain chemicals.”

Larger volumes of accurate data – or ‘big data’ – are also becoming vital where historical data may no longer be a reliable guide for the future. With climate change, for example, it is no longer enough to rely on the past century of rainfall data to determine bloodlines when designing civil or other structures close to natural water courses, said Reddy.

“When determining the appropriate design parameters for decades into the future, we are needing to rely far more on the climate and rainfall patterns from the last five years to identify new trends,” he said. “This means we need the necessary tools to extract every clue we can from the more recent data, which often requires new methods and technologies.”

SRK’s reputation for quality studies, integrity and independent advice have laid a foundation to collaborate closely with clients on pushing technological boundaries, said Drew.

“Innovation is most effective when it can underpin or accompany a practical solution for a client or industry,” she said. “As SRK continues to build its own in-house innovation channels and forums, we foresee even more constructive contributions both to clients’ actual projects and to broader industry practice.”

With innovation as a cornerstone value, SRK Consulting encourages its engineers and scientists to share and evolve their technology tools – many of which leverage the power of big data.

Pushing these boundaries achieves:

  • More productive work processes
  • Improved industry practice
  • Accurate and reliable data
  • Smart solutions
  • Insights into climate change
  • Effective responses to changing conditions
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