Water, Climate, and Society: Who invited the mechatronics engineer?

Editors Note: In this post, Heloise Greeff Marais, Doctoral Researcher in the Water Programme, Computational Health Informatics Lab and Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, discusses the opportunity for multidisciplinary collaboration in the WASH sector.


Oxford’s REACH Water global consortium involves partners from many countries and organisations. Credit: REACH2016

I’m a robotics engineer from South Africa. I like technology, control theory, and data science – mostly things that don’t  (and can’t) get wet!  I know very little, if anything, about marine governance science, watershed management, or international water law. So why am I in a two-week intensive research course focussing on water, climate, and society?

Over the last decade, the need for multidisciplinary teams has been widely published, however, this approach remains poorly applied outside of the healthcare sector.  Collaboration is too often treated like a minor add-on to a project; considered an inconvenience that only causes delays in decision points.

It can be uncomfortable to leave the familiarity of our professional scope. Sometimes rather unpleasant. Like being an adult at kindergarten. It’s scary.

Relationship building is a two-way street. More specifically, capacity building of professionals should begin at an individual level through personal development before we can expect changes at an institutional and societal level.

So, who invited the mechatronics engineer to the water event? No one. Her curiosity and compassion led her here.

To ensure universal drinking water access by 2030, we need to not only invest in capacity building of the local communities we engage, but also the professionals we rely on. Proposed integrated approaches for water interventions focus on breaking down the silos that exist between governments, donors, and local communities, yet, often overlook their own expert role.

The people (like me) who help develop the technologies, models, and infrastructure needed to achieve water security, may not always have in-depth knowledge of climate change impact factors or socio-economic dynamics related to water.

The water sector is particularly exposed to the effects of climate change. Although the impacts will be felt by developing and developed countries alike, unfortunately, it is the most marginalised who will be particularly vulnerable to the uncertainties in future weather patterns.

Recognising the pivotal role of water in climate change adaptation presents many opportunities for sustainable development. Innovative technologies and suitable implementation strategies for adaptation and mitigation are urgently needed. And with them will come the engineers, the techies, and the geeks who design them.

The Oxford Smart Handpump, which I work on, is a brilliant example of the potential impact of a social innovation emerging from successful cross-functional collaboration towards a common goal: universal drinking water security. Open communication and continuous feedback between engineers and geographers ensure a more robust technology while maximising social impact.

A two-week course on water and society by no means makes me an expert in the field of climate change or water security. But it does do something much more powerful: it begins to break down the silos that exist between different professional fields that evidently share a passion.

Social and natural scientists think, argue and view the world differently than engineers. But by entering a world in which I am considered an “outsider” and acknowledging that I lack speciality skills and insights, I make room for other people’s gifts. Making ourselves vulnerable is not easy and some may consider it a liability. But I recognise that technical expertise alone will not enable me to deliver the most impactful innovation.

In short, collaboration is not only a good investment, but also a necessity.

Water is pure. It cleans, renews, and gives life. But water is complex, water policy is messy and global water laws are murky. Impactful innovations require multi-dimensional approaches and unconventional expertise. It needs multidisciplinary teams.

So, who will invite the mechatronics engineer to the next water event? Everyone. I hope.