Engineering Students Bring Clean Water to Small Community with 'Local Tech'
March 10, 2011
A team of Rowan University engineering students recently traveled to La Ceiba, El Salvador to install biosand water filter systems. The filters are part of a pilot program that serves ten homes in the small village, with more to come in future visits. The students are members of Rowan University's chapter of Engineers without Borders (EWB), which has some 250 chapters in the U.S., including 180 chapters on university campuses.
This story provides an important lesson beyond how these student-engineers found personal fulfillment in "making the world a better place." There is a larger story of how organizations are now able to focus on small, "local tech" projects as the way to get things done.
EWB-USA currently has more than 350 active projects in 45 developing countries around the world including water, renewable energy, sanitation and construction projects, such as a bridge across a mountain river. Most projects involve water or wastewater treatment. These projects are completed in partnership with local communities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). All chapters work with communities for a minimum of five years:
"EWB-USA's unique grassroots approach requires that all program proposals come directly from the communities themselves. This increases the likelihood of success by ensuring that the needs addressed by our chapters are being identified and driven by the community. Every program begins with an assessment trip where the chapter performs a community needs assessment and works with the community to identify their priorities. During the following years the chapter returns to perform further assessment, implementation, training, and monitoring and evaluation trips. Throughout the program community members receive training on the maintenance and operation of their infrastructure and a financial mechanism is established to ensure long term economic sustainability."
You could think of EWB's approach to these small-scale infrastructure projects as "long tail engineering," following the online marketing pattern Chris Anderson described in an October 2004 Wired Magazine article and later in a book published in 2006. With its ability to share information instantly and at very low cost, the Internet has tipped the value proposition of engineered projects from mass solutions, brought to us via mass production and mass communication.
Now organizations can fund lower cost, local solutions, with easy to produce custom solutions that rely on targeted, very local communication. To get the benefits of economies of scale, mass solutions required large-scale, one-size-fits-all projects.
Today, the Internet makes it possible to share engineering expertise cost-effectively for customized, very small, truly localized projects.