Contextual Engineering
Research Group

Contextual Engineering

The creative application of science, mathematical methods, societal understanding, and place-based knowledge to address a physical need that serves the user of the innovation while recognizing the influence of stakeholder motivations, capabilities, and values.

Women surrounding a water well with a pulley in Senegal.

A hand-drawn pulley eases the work of drawing water from a well in Keur Balla Marie, Senegal. The well also provides a gathering space for women in the village, many of whom are not permitted outside of their homes unless they are working on household chores.

The justification for Contextual Engineering can be best viewed through the perspective of humanitarian engineering. When projects fail to last under a recipient community's care, it is often from popular but false assumptions: that industrialized infrastructure must also develop a society's economic and social conditions, and that their failure to maintain infrastructure stems from insufficient training.

Challenging these assumptions, Contextual Engineering utilizes technical and societal knowledge to construct solutions for the specific needs of client communities, increasing the probability of successful implementation and adoption. Additionally, in Contextual Engineering, solving physical needs supersedes solving political, economic, or social problems.

Perhaps what distinguishes Contextual Engineering from humanitarian engineering, though, is recognizing that engineers bring their own perspectives and experiences into any project. Therefore, it is imperative that any investigator first look at themselves and their own context, so they acknowledge and address any implicit biases and predispositions that may prevent them from fully understanding their client community.

Core Considerations

1. Take into account global influences, as their effects on community dynamics and how they interact with the outside world often largely determine how they respond and perceive foreign assistance and engineering.

2. Understand unique local physical and social characteristics. These often inform how communities use their existing technology and how they would operate other infrastructure.

3. Consider the motivations and expectations of each stakeholder. Identify what drives stakeholders, including the practioners themselves, can provide valuable insight into the logistics and ramifications of an initiative.

4. Collaborate and iteratively work with the client. Collaboration and iterative design increases client feedback and insight into how the client will use the infrastructure.

Contextual Engineering
Research Group
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