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Engineering for people, that’s the challenge

Engineers are problem-solvers: first, there is a problem, then a solution. But that’s not the end of it. Everything we design has an impact on society, the environment and the economy – the world around us. For truly responsible innovation, engineers need to learn to consider the wider implications of the solutions they create.

That’s exactly what the annual Engineering for People Design Challenge asks participants to do. The competition, delivered in partnership by Engineers without Borders South Africa and Engineers Without Borders UK, encourages engineering students and those collaborating with engineers to broaden their awareness of how their decisions change the world.

The students are set a real-life engineering challenge they have to resolve, bearing in mind the economic, environmental and social context of the brief. Every year, we work with one of our partners around the globe to identify a problem people in their country face. The issues related to areas that significantly impact people’s everyday lives, such as water and sanitation, the built environment, transport, energy, waste management, information communications technology, and the local industry. The students have to come up with a solution that resolves the issues and addresses the needs of the local community, all within the framework of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The best team from each participating university is then invited to participate in the Grand Final. During the one-day event, they have a chance to network with peers, academics, and industry representatives and pitch their innovations to a panel of expert judges.

The competition excels in showcasing the fantastic diversity of engineering and its endless potential for innovation. This is obvious from the shortlist each year: the same problem invites many different approaches that touch on various aspects of the challenge, from innovative concepts to actual working product prototypes. Past winners have included a design for a community hub where women can spend time and learn new skills in a safe environment in rural India and an energy-free terracotta refrigerator that also filtrates water.

First introduced in 2011, the Engineering for People Design Challenge has seen over 60,000 students take part in South Africa, the UK, Ireland, and the USA. In the UK, the competition also contributes to the Engineering Council’s requirements for students on accredited degrees to demonstrate an understanding of the design process and the economic, legal, social, ethical, and environmental context of engineering. According to the Council, the initiative is a great way to demonstrate the wide range of opportunities an engineering degree can offer through solving real-life practical problems that can have a transformational effect on people’s lives.

This year, the challenge focuses on the Cape York Peninsula in North Queensland, Australia. We worked with the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CfAT), an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander controller not-for-profit organisation, to identify the appropriate challenge for the community, and decided to focus on the land management sector. According to the CfAT, the rapidly emerging Indigenous Land Management sector offers great opportunities to support Indigenous people in their efforts to revive and protect the world’s oldest continuous culture. Here, engineering can play a key role in providing the solutions that enable the local people to thrive and develop their community. Still, the students have to be creative in their thinking and consider different perspectives, including the cultural and historical, to come up with an idea that meets the requirements of the brief and delivers real value for the people in the Cape York Peninsula.

To discover the winning projects in this year’s Engineering for People Design Challenge and or more ways to collaborate with Engineers Without Borders UK, visit our website

Engineers Without Borders UK are working to reach the tipping point to ensure a safe and just future for all. Part of a global movement of over 60 Engineers Without Borders organisations, we inspire, upskill and drive change in the engineering community and together take action to put global responsibility at the heart of engineering.
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