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Engineers Without Borders “Unite to Unlock” Conference Leaves Attendees Inspired and Excited

Graphic recording the goals and story of EWB by Sara Heppner-Walston

This year’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Conference from January 16-18 in Montreal was an energy-filled weekend host to a diverse and refreshing group of people who all share one underlying goal: to change systems and make the world a better place.

From university students to engineers, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, politicians and corporation representatives hailing from as far as the UK, Malawi and Ghana, the conference was host to a wide group of people passionate, driven people using out-of-the-box thinking to tackle various social challenges.

“Systems change” involves changing the way a community delivers services to its citizens and how it allocates its resources and programs. Some examples would be affordable housing, clean energy, rebuilding non-GMO food supply chains or energy security. To change systems, a community must bridge the gap between multiple stakeholders such as community members, government and business. Attendees at the EWB event were united in their desire to change antiquated systems to make things better for people in Canada and around the world.

Finding a Tribe

Urban Matters Principal Ken Gauthier introduced Urban Matters at the event and says that he felt very encouraged that attendees were immediately able to grasp his message and there was a tangible sense of energy around the space Urban Matters is now entering.

“I found myself immersed in a room of 750 or so people who instantly got it. My first reflection was to feel encouraged and relieved that such a culture of systems changing activity and language is alive and well.”

Urban Matters consultant and former EWB employee Mike Kang echoed Ken’s thoughts.

“Engineers Without Borders is a rich, powerful community to be a part of and a place where Urban Matters will find a warm home. We’ve joined a community of practitioners who are taking a lot of personal risk and being very entrepreneurial in how they affect the systems they participate in.”

The conference featured keynote speakers, table talks, workshops, brainstorming sessions and more. Throughout, there was a theme that many attendees shared common barriers and methods for success.

Paying for Systemic Change

During a session Mike Kang facilitated called “Paying for Systemic Change,” group participation revealed that many faced difficulty formulating a business plan that clearly described their story and goals in a way that would attract investors and funding. Urban Matters participated in this group panel and helped brainstorm new solutions to this challenge.

“We brainstormed some different and some very practical ways people have tried to frame and scope things differently to generate creative streams of income to pay for what needs doing. We’ll be compiling our learning about that and sharing that in the near future,” says Jody Rechenmacher who attended the event representing Urban Matters.

What’s Working

Common patterns of success also emerged. For example, groups that approached social solutions one small step at a time, rather than trying to formulate extensive work plans or define the process to deeply before beginning seemed to unanimously find that this was a helpful route—Having the right “people on the bus” was more important than having the perfect plan.

“It’s not just about drawing up a grand plan, the key seems to be to start small, just do it and iterate it,” says Jody. “And don’t come out of the gates attached to outcomes. Be flexible with the process and the players. It’s definitely what we’re trying to do at Urban Matters.”

Participants using “art thinking”, photo credit: @maddycollective
In addition to the stimulating discussions, Ken Gauthier explains that this was a valuable venue to build connections.

“We met some people we think will be good partners, advisors and collaborators down the road. Everyone was very generous with their knowledge. These are people with a track record of not just talking about it, but ‘doing it’. We’re all on this journey of learning together. The culture created by Engineers Without Borders is refreshing and we left the conference absolutely fired up and committed.”

To learn more about the EWB Unite to Unlock conference visit conference2015.ewb.ca/en/

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