Resilience Reflection #27: Sustainable solutions for vulnerable communities

In this week’s issue of  Resilience Reflections Peter Chemweno  shares his research experience within engineering and how this has led him to work with colleagues at the UT on engineering solutions for vulnerable communities. 

In this regular series by the  Resilience@UT  and  4TU Resilience , UT researchers share their personal reflections on current events and trends that impact our daily lives, exploring their implications for resilience. The series is just one of many UT initiatives responding to the urgent need to respond to rapid societal and environmental change. As an academic institution, we have a role to play in strengthening the resilience of the social, technological and environmental systems that support us. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. 

Sustainable solutions for vulnerable communities

Upon reflection, it’s now slightly more than five years since I joined the University of Twente. Time has gone by pretty fast, but on the other hand, it’s been exciting especially since I didn’t know what to anticipate.  

Since then, the journey has been exhilarating. I started as a Mechanical Engineer, transitioned to Operations Management for my master’s, and then a PhD in Maintenance Engineering. Subsequently, I researched how the industry can safely integrate Collaborative Robots on the shop floor. This was essentially the bridge to what I now research at the UT - Smart Industry, Industrial Automation, and in the past two years, Humanitarian Engineering. So, in a sense, a roller coaster of ’transitions’. 

Challenges facing vulnerable communities 

Sometimes I get the question: why are you pursuing humanitarian engineering? Originally from Kenya, there has always been a strong urge within me to find, albeit small, the purpose of my research and contribute to a broader societal impact. From my PhD onwards, my research unintentionally addressed the challenge of how power plants in developing countries such as Kenya, could better manage their equipment through tailored maintenance practices. This extended, in part, to co-designing operation and maintenance protocols for critical diagnostic and treatment equipment, for instance, CT scanners, dialyzers, or incubators for premature babies. The complex nature of these challenges and the not-so-straightforward pathways to appropriate solutions intrigued me.  

But it still did not occur to me that it was feasible to connect my day-to-day research with the complex societal challenges facing vulnerable communities. A spark of an idea led us to consider how we could realize a sustainable societal impact. This morphed into a Humanitarian Engineering sub-group collaborating with vulnerable communities to create tailored socio-technological solutions to address their needs. Our focus includes affordable, resilient and sustainable technologies such as water extraction equipment for shallow wells, water filtration systems, and building materials from recycled plastics.  

A COLLABORATIVE EFFORT for sustainable technologies 

One of the main advantages at the UT is the diversity of the research we do, and the focus on empowering society through sustainable technologies. These ingredients create the impetus and supporting ecosystem to positively impact lives, perhaps in a biased sense, for the most vulnerable in society.  

This is precisely what is happening with the collaboration between the three faculties of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation, Behavioral, Management and Social Sciences, and Engineering Technology.  A new MSc programme in Humanitarian Engineering is being developed to address systemic socio-technological challenges facing communities. Ultimately this contributes to broadening the societal impact of our research and education. It is one sustainable pathway to which I am proud to contribute.  

But how do I keep connecting my research on Smart Industry, Industrial Automation and Robotics? There are very strong connections between these seemingly ’developed world’ topics and the challenges facing vulnerable communities in the Global South. For instance, one of the projects we are focusing on is the development of appropriate automation solutions for plastic recycling. Other closely interlinked projects include innovative learning spaces with equipment for ’printing’ prostheses for affected individuals in vulnerable communities.  

With a bit of creativity, there are always opportunities to connect what we do every day to a broader societal impact. I am convinced that this makes my research landscape richer and stimulates me to look for the next wicked challenge, and in my own small way, contribute towards creating meaningful societal impact, especially for the vulnerable.  

About the author

Peter Chemweno is an assistant professor in Advanced Manufacturing and Humanitarian Engineering in the Chair of Advanced Manufacturing, Sustainable Products and Energy Systems. Peter’s current research focuses on organizational and management factors influencing the transition from traditional manufacturing to the ’Industry of the Future’ where increased roles are anticipated for automation and robotics. 

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