What is Contextual Engineering?

We define Contextual Engineering as:

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

Humanitarian engineers want to make a difference in the world, but they’re often discouraged by lack of infrastructure sustainability. We believe that recipient societies’ failure to adopt and maintain infrastructure designed by industrialized-world engineers results from two false assumptions:
1) Engineered infrastructure must address a physical need and also should improve economic, political and social conditions for the recipient society, and;
2) Recipient societies fail to adopt and maintain infrastructure because they receive insufficient training and education from design practitioners.

Contextual Engineering challenges those assumptions by taking a 360-degree look at the project process, from practitioner drivers to local identity to global inter-dependencies. The illustration below shows the four quadrants of Contextual Engineering practice along with the 16 key conditions that interact to determine true context in design and implementation.

How do we practice Contextual Engineering?

  1. The Contextual Engineer must start by developing an understanding of the world. What global influences are at play that could affect the conditions of the client society as well as the relationship between an outside practitioner with that client. Is there a history of conflict, a legacy of colonialism, unfair trade relations, racism, hierarchical relationships, any of which could change the dynamics between design practitioner and client?
  2. The Context of place is critical to understanding how to design an effective infrastructure. In addition to geologic, atmospheric, topographic, and other physical conditions associated with place, conditions such as indigeneity, economic need, population homogeneity, governance structure, and talents/skills must be considered. All of these will come together for a Contextual Engineer to inform appropriateness of design and implementation.
  3. Because any project is, at minimum, a partnership between Contextual Engineering practitioner and client, stakeholders must explore not only each others’ needs and conditions, but their own motivations and expectations as well. The savvy Contextual Engineer recognizes that their motivations are a jumble of altruistic and self-serving drivers, equipping them to recognize which motivation(s) is influencing decision-making at any given time.
  4. Armed with an understanding of drivers, relationships, needs, capabilities, and legacies, the designer can proceed collaboratively and iteratively with their client to produce an infrastructure design that incorporates place-based needs and conditions into a solution that leverages client capabilities using rigorous scientific thinking.