Engineering Without Borders

Bernard Amadei recently lectured to a full house as part of the Engineering Icons series.
—Photo credit: Timothy Lee Photographers

Billions of people around the world struggle to survive each day; engineers have the skills and the obligation to help them, said Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders – USA, in a packed Engineering Icons talk September 28 at Columbia Engineering.

The French-born, University of Colorado-Boulder professor of civil engineering detailed the urgent need for infrastructure in underserved communities around the world, where something as seemingly straightforward as a sturdy water pump can be hard to come by. It was a problem he barely knew existed, he said, until he was approached by chance 20 years ago to put together a curriculum to empower rural Mayan villages in Belize.

“It really changed my life,” said Amadei, whose research had focused primarily on geomechanics and geological engineering. “This was the work I wanted to do.”

Amadei now concentrates on multidisciplinary efforts in sustainable development, from assisting impoverished places in the developing world in meeting basic needs of the people and environment to encouraging the developed world to consume less and more intelligently. These challenges come without any one-size-fits-all solutions, he cautioned—noting that bringing electricity to hundreds of millions of people in Africa, for instance, will require small-scale decentralized systems tailored to conditions on the ground.

“The developing world is littered with failed efforts and failed technologies,” Amadei said. “Engineering is not about technology, but about meaningful solutions that utilize technology.”

The next generation of engineers will play a critical role in disrupting poverty and advancing better social and economic systems, he predicted, and help devise incentives to begin to make peace as profitable as war.

“It’s a heck of a homework assignment,” Amadei said.

He was introduced by Patricia Culligan, professor of civil engineering, and by Evan Spotte-Smith ’19, co-president of Columbia’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders along with Anna Li ’19BC, who presented Amadei with a gift after his talk.

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