Neglected since 2018, the locals of Buhung Pitue, South Sulawesi could only clean the solar panels but don’t know what to do once it’s broken. (© Dhirga Erlangga)
If you’re someone with an engineering background or someone who knows how much the solar panel roughly costs, then this picture may hurt your soul. It is real and it’s not exactly a rare story. But is it the local’s fault?
Hello, welcome to my first blog post! My name is Bambang Wisanggeni from Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I’m a new research assistant intern on su-re.co.
Currently, I’m working with the think and do team in developing a business model to incentivize farmers who use biogas and further empowering their community. This social impact-oriented goal is the main reason why I applied for the internship on su-re.co. I’m looking forward to contributing and honing my skills here.
Speaking of social impact, I have a hobby of joining voluntary social projects such as teaching street children. In fact, it is my biggest hobby! You read it right. Yes, I know it is way off from my engineering background. But, you know what? From these experiences, I learned a great deal why some engineering projects intended to improve the livelihood of a community fail miserably.
In this blog, I want to write about my experiences and lessons learned from social projects that can be projected in engineering projects. Unlike other writers, my posts will be based on personal experience and could be highly anecdotal. So, be warned! Nevertheless, I do hope you can get a thing or two from my posts. If you happen to like them, though, you can expect new ones every Sunday!
Ok, let’s jump in now.
First lesson: sustainability involves not only technical / engineering dimensions. It is also heavily influenced by social dimensions. It may sound obvious, but this is something that is not taught well in engineering classrooms of a bachelor's degree. Most of my colleagues realize this only after they jump into community development projects.
Let’s get back to the picture above and do a little roleplay. Assuming you’re an engineer, can you help an isolated community with difficult access to electricity? Sure, you can use sustainable energy like solar power. You can calculate how many solar panels are needed to power up a whole neighborhood. Just take into account the number of people, the light intensity, the weather pattern, and boom! It is done. Order the panels and install them. Maybe do some tinkering here and there so the people can use them effortlessly. Easy peasy. But is it sustainable?
Second lesson: the use of sustainable energy / or sustainable technology does not directly translate to a sustainable community. We have to make sure that the changes we bring last long. From a technical perspective, we have to plan the long-term maintenance. Additionally, from a social perspective, we have to communicate our intentions well to the community and gain their support. Because, after all, people are not just objects. Instead, they are the main players in the game!
If the people don’t support the program, then they would not really care about it. Solar panels neglect and theft are not rare stories in remote communities that struggle economically. Even worse, the thieves tend to steal the inverter components, not the panels (which are arguably more expensive!).
People within the community should be able to actively use the tech, quickly report any problems, and in the long term: do the maintenance themselves (effectively cutting the cost of hiring outside technicians). In a truly sustainable community, the community should have the power to resolve their problems, not overly-relying on outside parties. If the people always have to rely on you to fix their problems, then you should question whether your project is truly sustainable.
Fortunately, su-re.co has already incorporated these concerns within the company’s projects. I’m really glad about it. It’s been a fun fortnight working in the team and I’m looking forward to learning more things. If you’re interested, you can read about the company’s values from various posts on the blog.
As for this post, I have to end it here for today. Do you enjoy reading it? Let me know your thoughts and see you next Sunday!