A Response to Cumberbatch by Alyssa Davis

I’ve known Toby Cumberbatch since the day I started Cooper Union. I took a course called Engineering Design and Problem Solving (EID101) with him, which is a mandatory class for all freshmen engineers. From what I heard, Toby’s section was different from the others. When my classmates and I had our first day of the course, we didn’t know what we were designing, who we were designing for, or where our final product would be used. All we knew was that we were supposed to design for an impoverished part of the world that is in need of emergency assistance. Toby made us figure everything else out through independent research and class discussions. At first, it felt like a purposeful scheme to make the group of 20-something timid freshmen talk and get to know either other, but I soon realized that he was letting us lead and make decisions for a different reason. Toby did not want the direction of the project to be influenced by his own experiences and knowledge; he wanted the project to be a reflection of how a group of (occasionally-enlightened) 19-year olds thinks about complex problems.

EID101 Final product: A dome for Somali refugees in the Dadaab Camps (Kenya)

EID101 Final product: A dome for Somali refugees in the Dadaab Camps (Kenya)

When Toby came in to visit my Global Forum class on Monday, November 19th, the format of the class very much reminded me of EID101. He first passed out a list of 15 pressing questions for us to read over that related to our assigned readings. As Toby played a minute or two of upbeat music from Northern Ghana, I looked over the sheet. Do we feel so guilty about the less industrialized world that we prostitute our ideals to coincide with circumstance and so claim some intrinsic understanding and relationship with them? Everyone in the class participated in the discussion that took place after. Toby shaped our responses by questioning his own belief in the disastrous state of the world and the need for sustainable engineering. He mentioned published facts and data, but he did not try to “teach” us what was happening in the world. It seemed like he was more interested in our level of skepticism of major global issues such as climate change, charity, and catastrophe.

As I’ve felt from working in Ghana with my sister, it is difficult to come back to the U.S. and talk about what I do over there. I know that there are so many stereotypes of wealthy white girls going to Africa to “help” and—to some people—no matter what I say, my words will reinforce that stereotype. And almost worse, there are some people who praise just the attempt of “helping,” without really knowing or caring what that really entails. I found it is actually harmful to go into a place like Ghana thinking that you are there to save poor people. I agree with Toby in that poor people living in less industrialized countries can teach us. He said they do “things we did once here but have forgotten.” Often these forgotten techniques are the basis for how to be truly sustainable, even such a simple skill of knowing how to wash dishes perfectly with minimal amount of water.

I think there is a major ideological clash in the United States between the ideas of “helping others” (i.e. Aid to Africa) and “helping ourselves” (i.e. Sustainable Design). Toby says that we should be learning from Africa in order to design and engineer better. I think as engineers, artists, and architects in the 21st century, it is our duty to design “closer to nature” and in the case of designing for the poor, we must work with them. If we can stop thinking of poor people in Africa as starving and pity-worthy and instead engage African citizens as resources and partners for better ideas, I believe we will be heading towards a better type of “aid.”