Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Integrated Design vs. the Constant Crisis

Back home I worked (and come April will continue to work) for a small mechanical engineering firm specializing in energy efficient design. Our guiding philosophy was the concept of integrated design, which means coordinating our work with the architect at every phase of design. It requires a lot of talking, coordinating, and patience because the process is iterative. For example, if I increase the size of an air cooling unit, I need to inform the structural engineer (to make sure the ceiling beams are strong enough) and the electrical engineer, who needs to know about the increased power demand. Changes can therefore have cascading, unpredicted effects. The process is hard, but the benefit is great - a well functioning, energy efficient building. And by eliminating potential conflicts before construction, it should also reduce the building's cost.

The alternative, traditional design process is top-down and sequential. The architect creates his building, then passes the plans on to the structural engineer. He then passes his plans to the mechanical engineer, and so forth. The process is simpler but doesn't allow for changes very well. Mistakes are also more likely to go unnoticed.

What does this have to do with water, Africa or development? I think it points to the problem of crisis-driven management, which seems to be endemic here. With few resources, there are a thousand fires to fight at once, to the detriment of long-term planning. What resources are available are short-lived and dedicated to specific purposes, which usually have more to do with the donor's priorities than the recipient's. Crisis-driven management precludes the forethought inherent in integrated design, resulting in a confused decision-making process. Many of the buildings and campuses I've seen in Uganda and DR Congo are the result - ad-hoc and confused places. Places that cannot use their limited resources efficiently because they are squandered fighting real (and imaginary) crises.

The solution is the implementation of "soft" improvements, such as a reliable revenue stream, master-planning, and improved personnel management. Only then can the wonderful physical donations (such as buildings and medical equipment) be put to full use. Until then they sit under-utilized, waiting to be integrated into the whole.

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