The Old Thinking Isn’t Sustainable

Is an expensive, Israeli-style, automated dairy the best way to provide food security for rural Angolans, when labor is cheap and jobs are scarce?

When traveling in my diplomatic capacity ‏(that is, as an Israeli tourist‏), again and again I am posed the same question: How did Israel develop such a strong economy so quickly?

Though not an economist, I stand behind my perennial response: intellectual capital. Lacking both natural resources and a powerful manufacturing sector, Israel’s economy is fueled primarily by ingenuity, whether in biomedical, electronic, agricultural or other technologies. While our gains are impressive, we certainly had a running start, having benefited from the beginning from massive imports of talented professionals from around the world. Jewish scientists and engineers arrived in Israel fully trained, providing huge intellectual returns without the investment of years of academic and on-the-job training.

Unfortunately, we cannot continue to rely on an endless influx of cheap intellectual capital. In a world where Chinese and Indian engineers make stiff competition for Silicon Valley, Israel must stay at the forefront of engineering education to keep its economy growing. Strangely, teaching our young engineers to work in places like China, India and Africa may be precisely the solution.

The world, like Israel, has made progress. Brazil and China are sudden superpowers, and development indices have spiked across continents. The developing world is indeed developing, both as a competitor and a market, but due to widening gaps between the rich and poor, the majority of its citizens are not reaping the rewards. For their part, Israeli companies are building water, agricultural and other infrastructural projects in many of the world’s least developed nations, but the majority simply copy Israeli designs and paste them into foreign contexts. Is an expensive, Israeli-style, automated dairy the best way to provide food security for rural Angolans, when labor is cheap and jobs are scarce?

Such nearsighted approaches do not provide long-term solutions. These firms perform little or no knowledge sharing, meaning that local professionals are not trained to maintain, upgrade or adjust these systems after the Israelis go home. They provide large-scale, centralized, high-tech solutions where smaller, networked, low-tech solutions would allow for more flexibility and easier repair, and they completely ignore potential consumers in areas where only small-scale solutions are feasible.

The old copy-paste mentality is simply not sustainable, and is thus quickly becoming uncompetitive. Worldwide, sustainability is becoming a prerequisite of multinational, national and private projects. Israeli engineers must learn to keep up. In the U.S., small but motivated groups of students and professionals have opened chapters of Engineers Without Borders ‏at major universities and Fortune 500 companies alike with the goal of learning sustainable engineering principles while working to improve the lives of the world’s destitute. Experience has shown that professionals grab at the opportunity to spend time designing technologies for underdeveloped communities. This provides a unique challenge while satisfying the moral imperative to do good for those with less. While a new processor will become obsolete in a year, providing clean water to a community is an accomplishment with no expiration date.

Corporate EWB chapters have undertaken dozens of projects, building solar energy systems for Haitian schools coupled with training of local technicians, and digging wells in Cameroon while providing sanitation education and establishing local committees for long-term maintenance of water resources. By working within developing countries, EWB members learn to understand the developing markets of tomorrow. For university students, working in developing countries demands the sort of cooperative, creative problem-solving and resourcefulness that standard lecture-based pedagogy struggles to teach. Copy-paste solutions are simply not an option.

Volunteering with EWB, students get much-needed hands-on experience, develop their social consciousness, and network with professionals from around the world. In this context, sustainability is studied not as a concept but as a design tool, a modus operandi.

Here in Israel, chapters have opened at Midreshet Sde Boker and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, where Prof. Mark Talesnick insists that “there is no better way to learn engineering” than to work on the problems of the developing world. The Technion chapter has worked extensively in Nepal, improving a technology that produces cooking gas from cattle dung, so that rural communities do not need to chop down forests to meet their energy needs. Now the chapter has moved on to technologies that purify drinking water without chemicals, and that harvest the excess electricity that is wasted in small-scale hydroelectric systems.

The toolbox for sustainable global engineering is expanding every day, and includes such Israeli innovations as drip irrigation, fish farming techniques, new solar energy and desalinization systems. Of course, a sustainable approach is required to integrate these technologies into communities alongside social tools such as micro-finance, education, professional training, community empowerment and the like. This is where the next generation of Israeli engineers can rise above the competition, and some institutions are heeding the call.

What’s missing is professional and administrative support. The faculties at Israel’s large universities need to recognize the potential of this type of learning, and to build more courses around these concepts. Professors should have the option of mentoring such projects as part of their teaching responsibilities, and students ‏(particularly undergraduates‏) should be able to earn credit for participating. At the same time, Israel’s leading engineering and technology firms should help employees build corporate EWB chapters to spearhead sustainable, moral, life-changing projects in developing countries.

Together, students and professionals can build the skills that will keep Israeli engineering at the forefront of new global markets and sustainability practices. If only a fraction of Israel’s high-tech brainpower can be invested in the developing world using sustainable designs, then young Israeli tourists will never again have to account for their country’s accelerated success. The world will have seen for itself.

Jon Liberzon is the general secretary of the Technion chapter of Engineers Without Borders. He recently completed his master’s of science degree at the Technion.