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Farewell Madiba

The world lost a giant, a giant who fought systemic injustice and discrimination. U.S. President Barack Obama observed appropriately, “We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again, but let me say to the people of Africa, and young people around the world: You can make his life’s work your own.” The passing of the former South African President might mark the end of a chapter, an arguably dynamic, controversial, and heroic chapter, but it is the passing of the torch to today’s generation to carry on the struggle.

Some things Mandela left behind in his legacy are quotes:

Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.

Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty exists, there is no true freedom.

Mandela recognized that poverty is a result of the unjust systems people have created. While people are impoverished, they do not experience true freedom. He tirelessly worked to break down Apartheid through challenging the norm, innovating the system, building unconventional liaisons. His enemies were won over as friends. Perhaps the fight against poverty in rural Africa could take a page from Mandela’s challenge against Apartheid. There was a smile that was rooted in an uncrushable spirit, an extended hand that was supported by unwavering belief, and feet willing to get wet and go where the need is the greatest.


Pausing to Get Ahead

For those of you who follow this blog, you might have noticed there hasn’t been a new post for almost six months. Yours truly was on an unintended hiatus. My mind needed an extended break and frankly, I just haven’t been overly inspired. But that is not to say there haven’t been much activity at EWB in Vancouver. There was a big push for Run to End Poverty and I got to take part in the half-marathon along with other EWBers, new and alumni, students and professionals, local and out-of-town. (I loved the training runs leading up to the half-marathon–thanks Will, Carolyn, and Jon!) At work, I was leading the charge to raise money for the EWB Draft. There was a lot of organizing and running around. On top of that were the regular EWB gatherings and send-offs for Colleen (to Ghana) and Jon (also to Ghana).

While there’s a lot of excitement around positive change initiatives, if the change agents behind these initiatives don’t have an internal reservoir of energy, then eventually the excitement wears out and the initiatives sputter and spiral to the ground. I didn’t experience burnout; in fact I responded by listening to my body and mind by respecting my limits and taking time off from doing Member Learning.

EWB is made up of extremely motivated, high capacity volunteers who are passionate about “Doing it for Dorothy.” There are always new ventures, new frameworks, new discussions. Invitations to Google hangouts, survey questionnaires, and yes, even request for comments on the latest blog post on Intelligent Development Musings pile in your email inbox. More can always be done but there always seems to be too few people (or bodies) to do the work. It’s almost like if nobody pilots these fresh ideas that are brimming with potential, then there’s a risk they’ll never see the light of day and die unceremoniously. We who are involved with system change and promoting a better future (remember the grad class of 2036?) are often susceptible to burnout. The myriad of activities to transform the world into a better place fight for our attention and we feel we need give more and more of our time for these causes. We fall into the cycle of working for the betterment of Dorothy without giving ourselves any compassion. And soon we might find ourselves burned out.

Psychologist Michael Bader in his article “Being Progressive Shouldn’t Be Hazardous to Your Health” says leaders in social change routinely take a toll on their lives to put the movement ahead of their needs.

Too many leaders and organizers are already inclined to view constant conflict and crisis as normal, to readily shoulder feelings of omnipotent responsibility, and to be self-sacrificing martyrs for the “cause.”

Bader argues that these leaders might have a hard time dealing with burnout because they have an subconscious struggle of achieving the mission of the cause while fearing the desire of taking care of oneself with good things. He says “Activists frequently relate stories of unbearably long work hours with an ironic sense of pride, inviting admiration for their abilities to work harder and longer than anyone else.”

Self-care, showing oneself compassion, has been neglected in our results driven society. Self-care is especially important for those of us who are volunteering for a social change NGO. Taking time to rest does much to renew one’s passion, curiosity, and imagination, attributes that are so important EWB. We need members who are excited to tackle new challenges, not just struggling to go through the motions of being at meetings.

I’d like to argue that creativity–yes, engineers are creative beings!–is absolutely fundamental to EWB and any other organization. Designer Stefan Sagmeister in this TED video lauds the benefits of taking regular sabbaticals.

How do you seek self-care? What do you get out of taking a sabbatical?

Systems Thinking Habits


The diagram above is from the Why Projects Fail seminar I recently took. Indeed there are behaviours or habits that should be fostered to improve systems thinking. These are my fav five:

Uses understanding of system structure to identify possible leverage actions–The system structure reveals which actors would influence multiple other actors. These are leverage points. They should be exploited because changing leverage points could change several actors at once, hence being able to introduce disruption to the system more effectively.

Find where unintended consequences emerge–Relationships never thought of previously between actors could be unfolded in a system map. This could occur within feedback loops as there might be certain unthought of elements that could accelerate an outcome.

Recognizes that a systems structure generates its behaviour–How actors within a system relate to others is a direct correlation to how they behave.

Considers how mental models affect current reality and the future–How the system map is created is based on one’s perception. Modelling the future most definitely depends on the views of the system mapper.

Checks results and changes action if needed: “successive approximation”–This is related to the habit above. It is important to test the system map to determine results and adjust the map to make it reflect the system more accurately. Systems change over time so system maps need to change to better reflect them.

Systems Thinking at Work!

System Map of Project rotated

I went to a seminar yesterday on why projects fail. This is the systems map that I drew. It was pretty cool that a map of a typical engineering project could be produced. Sure, there were a lot of things that could contribute to project failure, but it was neat to visually see what pitfalls to avoid. There are two reinforcing loops in the system: both lead to bad things like fire fighting and burnout. We didn’t get into leverage points in the seminar, but I think I have an idea on how to increase chances of project success. I can’t wait to deploy more systems mapping in my everyday work!

Breaking New Ground

There was some soul searching within the EWB community after this year’s National Conference sponsored by Statoil among other companies. EWBers expressed their opinions on the sensitive topic of EWB accepting sponsorship from an oil sands corporation. The thread was composed of impassioned multi-paragraph entreaties of EWB to be accountable to our own values and no let “our ideals be coopted in the name of holding traction,” admonitions of Statoil for trying to disseminate propaganda, elucidations of EWB’s fundamental need of corporate sponsors lest no conferences could be held, and pleas for us as EWB to address the issue of climate change as oil sands companies are contributing to human-made global warming. (The original myEWB discussion could be found here.) In typical EWB fashion, a single discussion thread opened up a multitude of thought provoking realities. The richness of debate within our organization is one of our strengths. Hopefully “impassioned discussions that ultimately lead nowhere but the forgotten corners of myEWB” is a myth because this blog hopes to bring to light the dialogues that are shaping EWB’s fabric and encourage readers to act and not be mere bystanders. And in particular this myEWB post contained some action items related to Invested Partnerships and climate change. Again, the myEWB post is found here:

What I found encouraging was the response post from National Office– Although EWB is an organization, like most others, that has finite resources and therefore can focus on only so many issues at a time, we are willing to explore various areas, including climate change (ie. how our development work in Africa is sustainable in the the view of climate change). This is a bold step in systemic thinking as climate change could affect and/or be affected by EWB’s work in Africa.

This is an opportunity for the Advocacy Team to shift gears and dynamically adapt to the movement within EWB. EWB prides itself in asking tough questions. Perhaps we need to spend time and effort on researching climate change so that we can effectively have a credible stance on the issue. Right now we’re spending resources on exploring our involvement in the mining sector in Africa through the Extractive Industries Social Change Entrepreneurship–maybe something similar could be done for climate change?

This is a discussion that should be followed. If you have thoughts on either of these posts, I encourage you to respond. It’ll be interesting to see the direction the Advocacy Team will take. But it pays to voice your opinion because the masses might be listening!

Meet the Global Engineer

A few VCN EWBers attended the training session last week for the new Global Engineering presentation. The presentation was the fruit of the tireless efforts of Ryan Kilpatrick and the GE team. It will be a pioneering attempt to bring the concept of the global engineer to he workplace. Global Engineering is one of the ventures that is further along in the EWB incubator. EWB has been taking a lead on global engineering for a number of years now and it has primarily been promoted in the realm of engineering education. However there is now a mechanism to advance global engineering in offices and inspire practicing engineers to integrate global engineering principles.

Conveying the concept of global engineering to those outside of EWB can be a challenge. While a two-letter acronym sparks instant recognition to EWB veterans, working engineerings might scratch their heads when they hear it. Although there is no one authorative definition of a global engineer, here are some of the characteristics:

    • superior communication skills and understanding across different cultures and languages;
    • a faculty for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary teamwork;
    • a well-developed sense of social responsibility and ethics, with due considereation in his/her personal and professional activities;
    • being entrepreneurial; and
    • an ability to deal with complexity and systems thinking.

–Taken from Chan, Adrian and Jonathan Fishbein. “A global engineer for the global community.” Journal of Policy Engagement 1 (May 2009): 4-9.

Another characteristic I would add is a having a continuous desire to learn. New information is constantly displacing outdated ideas in this ever-changing world where engineering projects take place across borders and engage practitioners from other disciplines. Engineers need to keep abreast with fields outside their own such as politics and economics to effectively realize the impact their work has on the rest of society.

How would you define a global engineer? What has been your experience from sharing global engineering with your peers?

Here are some resources on global engineering:

Empathy in Engineering


There is an interesting article found on myEWB about a study done at Linköping University in Sweden. Researchers directed a questionnaire to 200 hundred students in six different study areas to measure the individual’s level of empathy. Surprisingly, or not so, engineering students tended to be less empathetic than their counterparts. The entire paper is accessible only with a full subscription to the website, but the abstract is sufficiently informative:

What does this mean for the workplace? Does the lack of empathy in engineers limit their full potential? Have you encountered any situations at work or at school where empathy was an important factor? Is there a difference between men and women engineers with respect to level of empathy?