"It's about developing solutions with local people, not for them"

Food security, sustainable energy, the promotion of gender equality – the challenges facing sustainable development today are many and varied, but the potential of engineering in this area is just as diverse. To mark World Engineering Day on 4 March, Christian Frutiger, Head of the Global Cooperation Department at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), explains the role that Swiss engineering plays in international cooperation and why becoming an engineer is a good option for anyone who wants to change the world.

Christian Frutiger, Head of the SDC's Global Cooperation Department

"The challenges are considerable and wide-ranging, but so too is the potential of this profession in development cooperation": in this interview, Christian Frutiger discusses the great potential of Swiss engineering in the context of international cooperation. © FDFA

Whether it be modern urban infrastructure, roads, railways, bridges and dikes, clean drinking water or a sustainable energy supply, engineers shape almost every aspect of our collective lives. They are responsible for the modern world as we know it today – from the homes we live in and the food we eat through to the digital mod cons we use every day. They address issues around sustainable infrastructure and the need for clean water sources. Other engineering projects are highly innovative and use digitalisation and cutting-edge technologies to better predict extreme risks from natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods.

All these examples underscore how diverse a profession engineering is and the range of technologies that engineers use to promote sustainable development. However, since half of the world's population lives in poverty and millions of people have to get by without adequate food or sanitary facilities, technologies need to be adapted to support this progress around the world – and this is where engineers come in. The diversity of their expertise and the broad spectrum of fields in which they operate means that they have an important part to play in achieving the 2030 Agenda's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Men and women from the local community stand near a roof with solar panels and are taught the basics of how to use them.
Modern technologies geared to the needs of local people: the example of solar-panel training for the local population in Belize. © ZENNA

Christian Frutiger, how does engineering tie in with sustainable development?

Christian Frutiger: Looking back at the history of humanity, we see that engineers and their technological innovations have been responsible for major advances. It began with the invention of the wheel. Today, we're talking about quantum computers and artificial intelligence. Many inventions have a huge impact on our mobility, energy generation, safety and security, and productivity. If we want to help people in poorer countries and change their lives sustainably for the better, these are precisely the kind of innovative technological and social solutions we need. That doesn't mean deploying cutting-edge technologies everywhere but rather coming up with solutions that meet a specific need while being socially and culturally adapted to the local situation. And of course what really matters in the end is that they are efficient, sustainable and cost-effective to maintain.

The Latin word 'ingenium' means 'ingenuity' or 'cleverness', and I think we can all agree that the world needs plenty of that.

What makes engineers particularly good partners for developing such solutions?

If we want technical solutions to have a sustainable impact on the ground, many interests need to be taken into account in order to end up with a practical solution that works well. That requires a lot of inventiveness, and inventiveness is what engineering is all about. The Latin word 'ingenium' means 'ingenuity' or 'cleverness', and I think we can all agree that the world needs plenty of that if we're going to tackle current and future challenges. 

So if you want to change the world, you should really become an engineer?

That would definitely be a good choice! Just look at what's happening now in areas such as sustainable energy, future mobility, green urbanism and smart buildings. In all these fields, engineers are hard at work designing a sustainable future. They work with a focus on practicalities, needs and solutions. They have to be flexible and often work alongside other specialists to solve problems. The challenges are considerable and wide-ranging, but so too is the potential of this profession in development cooperation.

How can Swiss engineering be successfully integrated into international cooperation?

Swiss engineering is already an integral part of Switzerland's international cooperation. In fact, it's probably the oldest occupational group within the SDC. When the SDC was established 60 years ago, it focused mainly on technical cooperation. Agricultural engineers made up a large part of its staff. Over time, international cooperation has become more multifaceted: we want to change systems holistically, which means adopting an interdisciplinary approach. In this context, engineering is one occupational field among many, working closely with sociology, economics and political science. We need innovative, cross-sectoral partnerships that combine a wide range of skills.

Creative and flexible working is vital. Learning cycles need to be short so that innovations become available and usable quickly.

What does it take for engineers to be able to change the world in the medium term?

Engineers must always put the needs of target groups centre stage. First and foremost, therefore, they have to listen, in order to understand where the problems lie and what exactly is needed to address them. Then they have to look at everything that's been done in the past and consider why these approaches didn't work. Only then should they move on to development. Creative and flexible working is vital. Learning cycles need to be short so that innovations become available and usable quickly. It's about developing solutions with local people, not for them. That's the only way that the solutions will ultimately be relevant to society.

What conditions need to be in place locally for developments to have an impact?

A country's development always hinges on many factors, which vary according to the social and economic context. It isn't an exact science. Investment is needed to drive innovations forward. There also needs to be legal certainty, the right economic framework and a degree of political stability. That said, poorer countries' economic potential and capacity for innovation should never be underestimated. As a West African businessman friend of mine once said to me: "We have solutions to problems you don't even know about (yet)."

Poster showing all 17 SDGs of the 2030 Agenda.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals form the core of the 2030 Agenda. Switzerland, along with other countries, has committed to achieving these ambitious goals by 2030. © UN

The 2030 Agenda's Sustainable Development Goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pursue an integrated approach to the future development of our society, combining progress on economic development with social inclusion and environmental sustainability. The 17 SDGs, with their 169 targets, form the core of the 2030 Agenda. They balance the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, and place sustainable development and the fight against poverty on the same agenda for the first time. The 2030 Agenda, which came into force in 2016, is the new universal frame of reference for national and international efforts to jointly solve major global challenges such as extreme poverty, climate change, environmental degradation and health crises. All UN member states have declared their willingness to join forces to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Switzerland too has committed to meeting the SDGs. In addition, incentives are to be created to encourage non-governmental actors to make an increasingly active contribution to sustainable development. 

More about Switzerland and the 2030 Agenda

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