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Engineering for a Small Planet

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Issue: 28 Section: Features Geography: Latin America Honduras Topics: development

April 29, 2005

Engineering for a Small Planet

A Conversation with Kim Paradis

by Amanda Jernigan

Children using laptops in a Rio Negro school. photo: Kim Paradis
Many people talk about leaving a well-heeled corporate job to do something less "soul-killing." Few people actually take that leap. Kim Paradis, a professional engineer from Ottawa, Ontario, managed to do it. I spoke with her recently, hoping to find out how.

Paradis graduated from the University of Waterloo in 1994, with a Master's degree in Systems Design Engineering. She was a stellar student, with a creative mind and wide-ranging interests, and was poised to land a good job in the booming high-tech industry. It was not long before she was hired by Nortel, doing work in wireless communications and later in long-haul optical networks. She travelled widely, and at one point took on an extended expatriate appointment in Paris, France.

Last summer, she returned to Waterloo — not from a high-profile expatriate appointment, but from six months spent living in Rio Negro, Honduras, volunteering for Enersol [www.enersol.org], a Boston-based NGO.

The village of Rio Negro is a coffee-growing community, located in the Parque Nacional Montanas de Comayagua, which was created to protect a tropical cloud forest. "It is an incredible setting," she says, "quite lush and beautiful." The rain that is responsible for the park's natural beauty has its disadvantages, however. Paper turns to a pulpy mess; one's clothes don't dry; the villagers are forced to sell their coffee wet, and are penalized financially for the extra weight per pound. The rain also means that the village is relatively inaccessible. Paradis describes a typical drive up the mountain: "[Rio Negro] is only accessible by dirt road, in a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle. During the rainy season, which is a good part of the year, it can take more than three hours to get there from Comayagua [the closest city, 20 km away], most of the trip spent slowly slogging up the hill, with 15 to 20 other people in the back of a pickup truck, at times pushing, at times walking when the 'road' becomes unpassable."

Cloud Forest near Rio Negro.
The community's size and its isolation mean that it has never been brought onto the electrical grid — and it's unlikely that it will be any time soon. "Enersol aims to serve such rural, off-the-grid communities by providing solar energy solutions to education and clean water problems," Paradis says. "In [Rio Negro], Enersol installed a small solar-panel system on the schoolhouse to provide lighting and to power two laptop computers.... I was there to provide training to the teachers and students in the use of computers and in their integration into the classroom."

Paradis had the technical skills required to operate and maintain the solar technology, and she had some experience teaching. (She'd spent three of her Waterloo summers working as a teaching assistant with Shad Valley — a university-based high school enrichment program — a position to which she would return in the summer of 2004.) But Rio Negro provided her with new challenges.

By the time most Canadian children encounter their first classroom-computer, they are familiar with a range of electronic technologies — telephones, video games, remote controls — if not with actual computers. Children in Rio Negro, by contrast, may never have seen a button or a switch, much less a keyboard. For Paradis, this meant a readjustment of her assumptions about what is a "given" in computer education.

Rio Negro forced Paradis to readjust her approach to the technology, as well. Solar energy is not to be had for the asking in a cloud forest. It can work, she says, but more solar panels are required. There is, however, "significant potential for pico-hydro" in Rio Negro. Paradis learned this in part from a townsperson who had set up a personal hydro plant in his home: "He offered me the use of his little hydro plant to charge my laptop when the school solar panels were unable to provide enough energy for my needs."

A computer won't dissolve the way paper will, but there are challenges to keeping a PC running in a high-humidity environment. "I learned that an optical mouse was perhaps a better choice than a mechanical one as it won't get gummed up," she says, and that "a laptop's mouse and keyboard will eventually break down, [so] it is better to use an external mouse and keyboard that can easily be replaced." Given cost and transportation issues, however, "it doesn't make sense to give people substandard equipment hand-me-downs." These require constant replacements and repairs, and so can be more trouble than they're worth.

These challenges notwithstanding, Paradis's Rio Negro sojourn had its rewards. "The children were captivated by the computers, not unlike kids here at home," she says. It is her hope that the novelty of the computers may furnish the children with some motivation to continue their education, beyond the six grades taught at Rio Negro's small school , when and if that's financially possible. "I was told firsthand that children managing to attend secondary school and coming from communities served by Enersol's EduSol projects had an advantage," she says. "They were already familiar with computers and had overcome any fears they might have had about the technology, allowing them to get ahead more quickly and develop useful skills that could lead to better than minimum-wage jobs."

Teachers in Rio Negro have very few books at their disposal. "Given the proper training and basic materials," Paradis says, they can use the computers to "produce workbooks for the students, computer-based tutorials, and evaluation tools that [are] culturally relevant and tailored to the national curriculum." For Paradis, this is an example of the concrete ways in which relatively low-tech information and communications systems can help solve educational problems in the developing world. Her thinking about this is the "real learning" she took from her time in Honduras, and she hopes to apply it to further projects. Since her return to Canada, she has volunteered with and supported another NGO, Acceso International [www.accesointernational.ca], which works to improve equality of access to education in Latin America and the Caribbean.

* * *

Paradis's trajectory, from Nortel to Rio Negro, may seem unlikely — but her interest in development work goes back to her undergraduate days. After gaining her B.Eng., she looked into a variety of volunteer placements, but most wanted at least a two-year commitment — difficult for a young person, with graduate school in the offing, to provide. Later on, in graduate school, she hosted "a series of talks on development activities undertaken by various people on and off campus, where they could discuss their successes and failures and perhaps motivate others to get involved." When her own studies came to an end, however, a "real job" seemed to be in order. She decided to shelve her interest in development work, for the time being, "and get back to it, perhaps in retirement or on short volunteer vacations."

There was a lot to like about the Nortel job, particularly in the early days. It gave Paradis a chance to make real use of her technical skills — and her interpersonal skills. "To fill the demand during the telecom heyday, Nortel had to recruit from all over the world," she says. "This created a unique working environment that I really enjoyed, and afforded the opportunity to work with people of a wide variety of backgrounds." As the years went on, however, the company declined, and the aspects of the job that she liked were overshadowed by the stress of constant layoffs. She left the company in 2002.

Ironically, her tenure at Nortel had made a volunteer placement seem more possible. For one thing, she now had the financial wherewithal to devote herself to an unpaid project. Secondly, all that experience working abroad, and working with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, would stand her in good stead. "Working with individuals of different cultures may initially pose challenges to communication," she says, "but it helps develop the ability to listen more carefully and to better understand and appreciate each person's unique contribution. In a setting where language and culture were both foreign to me, this skill made integration a little easier."

Paradis learned to speak Spanish, gave herself a crash-course in solar technologies, and then offered her services to Enersol. For Enersol, as for many NGOs, the problem lies not in finding volunteers so much as in finding skilled volunteers; they took Paradis on in a minute.

Paradis is an engineer at heart, as well as by profession. She delights in elegant design, and will discuss with equal fascination her new digital camera, and an oil-lamp in Rio Negro that was fashioned from a recycled maple-syrup can. She has an engineer's pragmatism. She speaks frankly about the difficulties of integrating one's principles with the practical circumstances of one's life; about trying to make oneself useful in a community to which one is an outsider; about the conflicts that can arise within non-profit organizations, or between those organizations and the communities they serve. Her response to these difficulties seems to be informed, on some level, by what an engineer might call the Systems Design approach (after the department at Waterloo where Paradis studied): define the problem, generate alternative solutions, evaluate and select the best solution, implement the solution — and continually refine the problem-definition and/or solution, as new information arrives or the system changes. This last step is particularly important to Paradis. In the context of development work, it involves "feeding the lessons learned from every project implemented back into every new project, further refining the model for project delivery."

* * *

In modern history, technology has been both hero and villain. Engineers Without Borders (EWB), another technology-oriented NGO, uses the industrial revolution as a case study. Engineers designed new technologies to address certain problems. These technologies created problems in turn, however: "populations were concentrated in cities, income disparities grew, people continued to be exploited and the natural landscape was decimated." EWB goes on, however: "Soon engineers were hard at work creating mass public transit systems, applying environmental standards and cleaning up factories." EWB is optimistic about the role of the engineer in society.

But there are some who would see in their example a terrible cycle, in which the problems we create may eventually outstrip our ability to deal with them. (Industrialization is one scenario to which this argument is readily applied; weaponization is another.) Is it possible to have positive technological development without unleashing the destructive potential of that same technology? Can engineering be a helping profession? "It can be and should be more so," Paradis says:

At times I have felt that too often we simply pursue technology for technology's sake and, as engineers, don't often look beyond the "cool" factor. True there is some merit to pushing the envelope, trying to see how far we can develop a technology, making it cheaper, faster, "better," but this is primarily driven by the competitive demands of the marketplace. Other important aspects of the design equation are often overlooked, such as basic accessibility of the technology (and not only for the wealthy, connected, first-world countries), recoverability and reusability of materials at the end of a product's life, the true cost of resources needed to manufacture, operate and dispose of a product over its lifetime. As well, many difficult and technically challenging problems are ignored or overlooked, because they don't fit a market-driven model. This is true of many of the challenges facing the developing economies around the world. It is a shame that so few of our brightest and well-educated engineering minds are devoted to tackling these challenges, as there is certainly demand for their services. It would be good to refocus, recognize and value that there are rewards for our work beyond just the monetary.

For Paradis, that refocusing and revaluation is an ongoing process. Six months immersed in development work can make one see the world with new eyes — but it can be difficult to maintain that perspective once one is re-immersed in one's home environment. Still, our home environment, here in Canada, is more deeply connected to the world's privations and injustices than we like to think. Paradis addresses this in relation to technological development: "I think [that] whether a technology will have a positive or negative impact on society and our environment depends a lot on what is driving the development of a given technology," she says — "and this mirrors the values that we as a society are promoting through our choices as consumers." She continues:

When efficiency for profit or technological novelty for competitive advantage are the rule, other unaccounted-for or invisible costs to the environment and to society are ignored. When the true cost of manufacture, operation and disposal of a product is valued in terms of its environmental footprint and its social cost, such as its dependence on workers in foreign countries where labour and environmental laws are lax, perhaps only then will we see technological advances that are on the whole positive, driven oddly enough by the same market forces. As long as these costs are out of sight, out of mind, people will readily accept cheaper, faster, better technology for lack of information and lack of choice. In the absence of information on true costs, what other criteria are at hand to judge the merits of one product over another?

Paradis's term as a volunteer with Enersol ended last summer. In January, she took on a new paid job with a not-for-profit organization in Ottawa, working to find technological solutions to clean energy access problems, in Canada and abroad. "Perhaps in a year we should do a follow-up," she suggests, "to see how well I've managed to apply the experience I gained in Rio Negro to the international work I am undertaking now." I recall the final step of Paradis's Systems Design approach: continually refine the problem-definition and/or solution, as new information arrives or the system changes. This is not the guise in which we're used to seeing it, but it seems to me that what we have here is a species of hope.

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