Engineering, Art and Water

Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate, in his keynote at the UCL Institute of Education two years ago, had famously titled his talk. “What’s the use of education?” Amartya then went on to lay out what was the Capability Approach (CA) – that education does more than giving skills and ensuring employment; it forms an integral part of our self-worth and our ability to take part in a democratic debate. The CA has been employed extensively in the context of human development, for example, by the United Nations Development Programme, as a broader, more profound alternative to narrow economic metrics such as growth in GDP per capita.

What’s the use of Engineering? 

The evening at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), with its focus on the water, shed important light on the fact that 80% of illnesses in the developing world are linked to poor water and sanitation. They displayed projects of immense scale that include building huge sewage cleaning plants in the Thames (Thames Tideway project is building a  25km Super sewer under the Thames to intercept those nasty spills and clean up our river for the good of the city, its wildlife and us), removing fat from domestic waste, and building infrastructure to irrigate fields in arid climates etc.

Is the goal important? The UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 aims to provide everyone in the world clean water and sanitation by 2030. On the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the country open defecation-free[1], claiming success for the government’s initiative under which every household now apparently has access to a toilet. This is so not true, still some way to go. BBC had reported in 2014, that near half the population lacked access to toilets and why open defecation was the norm[2].

Poor water and sanitation is one of the most significant causes of death in children through dysentery. Sanitation has been close to the Gates Foundation, a programme of work that Bill Gates has pursued relentlessly to provide affordable toilets that clean up after themselves and sewer sludge processing plants that converts human waste into energy and clean water. The Omni processor as it’s called and runs like a perpetual motion machine that does not need external power and is a real feat of innovation and engineering.

So, what is the use of engineering?

Engineering is not just about beautiful bridges, that are technically challenging to build or the leaf shaped structure of Sydney opera house (never mind if the singer inside is Olivia Newton John).

  • It’s about upgrading the quality of life in cities like London, which whose “150 year old modern infrastructure” needs to be repurposed for the next few generations, transport needs and climate change and it does happen with minimum disruption to our civic lives and ecology.
  • It’s about using engineering technology to tackle goals as ambitious as the SDGs and be an active contributor in hitting the targets.
  • It’s about inspiring a whole new generation of African entrepreneurs who can use a combination of their engineering degree, frugal innovation techniques and entrepreneurship skills to create power, sustainable vehicles of economic output that tackle one or more of the sustainable development goals.

We often think engineering is limited to function, if that was so we would only need one design for a flat head screwdriver and yet we don’t. Art brings engineering to life, some of these projects mentioned are not only ingenious in their innovation but also aesthetic in their appearance. And I’ll come back to that later

Its more than just appearance, it about shedding light on things that matter, makes us feel good about ourselves and improves our sense of wellbeing. Just as Amartya Sen’s capability theory does, improving our sense of self-worth.

And what’s the use of art in engineering?

Back to water, it’s not all about engineering and function. A new project, the illuminated river, is a £45 million crowdsourced charitable initiative to light up the Thames and its bridges. The project does so in a manner that it actually “reduces” light pollution, exemplifying the beauty of the Thames and the 15 bridges, while preserving the natural habitat of wildlife from molluscs to bats. The project is intricate, uses illumination levels far lower than those on Big Ben, reduces glare and makes the river look beautiful. Have a look at the illuminated river project. It’s was not all about rivers. The use of art to create reflective spaces in the new cross rail station at Tottenham court road has a whole story behind the purpose of installation, the choice of the artist (most are Scottish) and how the installations were created has a story on its own!

As I said its more than just appearance, it about shedding light on things that matter, makes us feel good about ourselves and improve our sense of wellbeing. Just as Amartya Sen’s capability theory does by improving our sense of self-worth.

I hope you enjoy this vignette from our teams visit the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).


We are genuinely grateful that ICE host an open evening once a year, to invite everyone into their magnificent premises and through intricate displays and inspiring talks draw attention on issues that matter and issues their members tackle on a daily basis.

Viren Lall is the Managing Director at ChangeSchool, a specialist in entrepreneurship and a an adjunct (visiting faculty) professor of management. He has delivered programmes in 15 countries and manages international partnerships across the 6 GCC countries, South Asia and Central Asia. His contributions on organisational change were published by Kogan Page. He has launched two start-up companies in the past. He has advanced degrees in computer science and engineering from King’s College London, IIT Delhi and has an MBA from London Business School.



- Viren Lall, London