Engineering a better future for society

19 Jan 2018

Jo da Silva, engineer, Arup. Image: Royal Irish Academy

Engineers play a key role in disaster resilience and recovery, according to Arup engineer Jo da Silva. Dr Claire O’Connell reports.

When a disaster such as an earthquake, cyclone or war strikes, what do humans need? Shelter is high up on that list, and keeping education on track helps to minimise long-term problems.

Engineers can play a key role both in protecting humans from disasters and in enabling recovery, and being more aware of that profound impact on society could help to encourage more young people into the profession.

That’s according to Arup fellow and disaster relief engineer Jo da Silva, who was recently awarded the Institution of Structural Engineers Gold Medal and she will give a lecture at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) next Thursday (25 January).

‘We get swept up in the technical wizardry yet, at the most basic level, people need shelter, they need a roof over their heads’

The talk, ‘Design, Disaster and Development’, reflects her own career, which has been driven by a passion for design, a commitment to quality and a desire to make a contribution to society, Da Silva told

“I love design in every form and, if you are going to things at all, do them well,” she said. “And I became an engineer not because I am in love with tech, but because engineering is really important for society.”

Her career started in ‘design with a capital D’ when Da Silva worked with some of the world’s top architects on stunning buildings, but a period spent working in genocide-torn Rwanda brought a new perspective. “That experience that made me realise how incredibly important even very simple structures are for human wellbeing, and working in post-disaster situations has also shown me how engineering really contributes to people’s lives.”

Da Silva is the founder and leader of Arup International Development, a specialist, not-for-profit business within Arup that partners with development and humanitarian organisations.

Basic problem-solving

Da Silva’s humanitarian work has seen her contribute not only in Rwanda but also in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, and in Nepal following the massive earthquake of 2015. She sees the value of recognising the fundamental requirements in such difficult circumstances.

“We get swept up in the technical wizardry,” she said. “Yet, at the most basic level, people need shelter, they need a roof over their heads; people don’t fare well if they are exposed to the elements. But even a very simple shelter needs to stand up and be durable, and such shelters often need to be built in large numbers quickly. In Sri Lanka, about 500,000 people were displaced as a result of the tsunami; they lost their homes. I coordinated the efforts of 100 organisations, and 60,000 shelters were built in six months. It was a huge achievement.”

Da Silva brought an engineering mindset to this problem: “I was very clear about what mattered in terms of the foundations of these shelters and ensuring they were of a similar size,” she said.

“It was also important to allow people to be creative and to use different materials. We weren’t too prescriptive as some materials were limited, so people used steel or timber and some had thatched roofs. What mattered here was the quality of the shelter.”

‘We need to engage with teachers and help them realise how important engineering is in brokering the relationship between people and planet’

Back to school

Da Silva sees the natural problem-solving abilities of engineers as being key in figuring out ways forward following disasters. “The way [engineers] think is that we see problems and we are very good at systematically thinking about the steps that need to be taken to solve those problems,” she said, citing the issue of schools being damaged by a major earthquake in Nepal.

“We needed to get information about the damage, so we designed an app and trained local engineers to survey the schools and provide that information.”

Schools are particularly important for getting families and societies back up and running after a disaster, noted Da Silva, who has been working with the World Bank on the Global Program for Safer Schools to improve the quality of buildings.

“There is a desperate shortfall in the number of classrooms in the world, and lots of classrooms get designed or built poorly. Then, if there is an event such as an earthquake or a cyclone, children can be killed or injured, or there may be nowhere for them to go to school following the disaster,” she said. “Children going to school is such a part of normal day-to-day life, and not having a school sets them back as individuals and it sets back the community, so it is really important to ensure that we build schools well.”

City works

As more and more humans around the world live in urban areas, we also need to ensure our cities are well engineered for a changing world, according to Da Silva. “Half the world’s population lives in cities now, and that is expected to rise to about 70pc by 2050,” she said.

“If we are going to manage as a human race, we need to make sure cities work for us. They have been seen as attractive places for jobs and opportunities, and that means that assets and people are concentrated – so, if there is an event like an earthquake or a storm, the losses can be huge.”

Building safety into cities is key, particularly as the world faces an uncertain future with climate change, noted Da Silva. “Cities will always experience shocks and stresses, that is normal – but the things that make cities work are the infrastructure such as water supplies and energy. It’s important that we build cities that are as safe as they can be.”

Engineering for society

One of the challenges in engineering, at least in the UK, is that not enough people are studying the subject, and Da Silva would like students and teachers to broaden their thinking on the role that engineers play in the world.

“The fundamental issue starts with school; teachers don’t have enough awareness of how incredibly important engineering is for society and what kids need to study to become engineers,” she said.

“We need to engage with teachers and help them realise how important engineering is – particularly civil and structural engineering – in brokering the relationship between people and planet.”

Da Silva’s Gold Medal address at TCD will take place on Thursday 25 January. It will be hosted by Arup and the Royal Irish Academy, and will be introduced by former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. To register on the waiting list for tickets, click here.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication