World Engineering Day: Interview with Dr. Priti Parikh

Today is World Engineering Day, which celebrates the launch of the 2nd UNESCO Engineering Report ”Engineering for Sustainable Development: Delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals”. To mark the day, we spoke to Dr. Priti Parikh, a chartered civil engineer, Associate Professor in Engineering and International Development at University College London, and EAP Board Member.

She talks to EAP about the nexus between engineering and international development, why engineering education is crucial to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and her priorities for this year’s COP26.

You have an extensive background in engineering – can you tell us about what drew you to the sector?

I grew up in India where I saw disparities in living conditions, especially in settings such as slums and remote rural communities. My father, Himanshu Parikh, who is an engineer provided piped water and sanitation services to slum dwellers using innovative engineering solutions. As a teenager, I saw how access to infrastructure transformed the environment and living conditions in slums.

People invested in improving housing and education for children after gaining access to water and sanitation services. The novelty here was in the engineering solution, which was nature friendly making it cost effective and hence feasible. I saw how engineering could change lives and this inspired me to become an engineer.

How important is it that engineering education is geared towards meeting developmental challenges specifically?

We need to create a generation of engineers and future leaders who can develop high quality technical solutions for vulnerable and marginalised populations. This requires an understanding of the context, local needs and socio-cultural barriers. We need to equip our engineers with mixed method skills – the ability to develop high quality designs and qualitative skills to engage with local communities and stakeholders.

Engineers will need to work with experts from other disciplines, such as social scientists and behavioural scientists, to design and deliver solutions which are beneficial and impactful for society.

Engineering curriculum therefore needs to be interdisciplinary. This is vital as our planet is facing multiple and complex challenges such as climate change, urbanisation, conflict and Covid-19, which needs interdisciplinary partnerships.

The theme of this year’s World Engineering Day is ‘’ Engineering for a Healthy Planet: Celebrating the UNESCO Engineering Report’’. The report highlights the crucial role of engineering in delivering the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development – what do you view as the greatest contribution the sector can make in this respect?

In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals we have to improve access to infrastructure. This is non-negotiable.

I led an interdisciplinary team of amazing colleagues at UCL to review evidence on sanitation and links with SDGs. We found that action in sanitation can benefit all 17 Goals and 130 out of the 169 Targets. This is a major win and makes a business case for investment in infrastructure.

Engineering has a critical role to play in the design and delivery of infrastructure and shaping the built environment. Hence, if engineers are able to improve access to infrastructure in a way which is equitable, inclusive, environmentally friendly and affordable for everyone we would make great strides towards addressing the SDGs.

In this article, Petter Matthews and I discuss the role of engineers in making our cities more resilient to future pandemics.

What do you foresee as the greatest challenge faced by engineers in meeting the 2030 agenda?

Engineering is powerful and impactful but often this is not recognised. When we design infrastructure for instance, a lot of this is built underground which makes it difficult to showcase the impact of engineering in our daily lives. There needs to be more work on changing the perception of engineering and showcasing our success stories. This needs to be reflected in engineering education so that the societal and environmental impact of our work is better understood.

Covid-19 poses an additional challenge to the engineering community. In the post-Covid world we need engineers to rise up to the challenges of designing buildings which are better ventilated, improving health infrastructure, improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene and access to energy for vaccine deployment.

The UK government will host this year’s COP26 – what would your priorities be regarding sustainable infrastructure?

I would like to see more work on just and equitable transitions as we head to a low carbon future. For example, nearly 600 million people lack access to electricity in Africa. Reducing energy consumption at this point is not an option, as energy access is a pre-requisite for wellbeing and human development.

The big question is how we can leapfrog those communities to transition to clean fuels in a way which is affordable, reduces emissions and meets their energy needs. Sustainable infrastructure therefore will need to incorporate environmental, societal and economic concerns to ensure that we meet the goals of COP26 and SDG7 (affordable and clean energy).