The sun rises on my last day working for Engineers Without Borders

I am overwhelmed with gratitude to have served this community and cause for the past 15 years. Every single day has been filled with hope, with people who refuse to accept the status quo, who channel their anger at the injustices they see into smart and bold action. EWB and EWBers have shaped me into the person I am today.

Thank you, to all of you.

Our job is not done. Inequity abounds and we have not learned to live harmoniously together or with this earth. I am buoyed with the knowledge that there is no more powerful force in the world than a large group of thoughtful, talented people who believe in their hearts that it is perfectly ordinary to change the world.

I remain a committed member, volunteer, and monthly donor of this organization.

A special thank you to Parker for your friendship, dreaming together for the first 10 years, and then entrusting me with the past 4. And to Boris, a remarkable leader I’ve learned so much from, and who I’m certain will achieve more than I can now dream as EWB’s next CEO. Good luck to the whole team, including Alexandra and James.

The final and most important thank you is to Sari Stillman, my partner in life.

Courage, emotion, intuition and love … and engineering!

University of Calgary Commencement Address – June 9, 2014

By George Roter on receipt of a Honorary Doctor of Laws

Thank you President Cannon, Chancellor Dinning, Dean Rosehart for this tremendous honour. Thank you fellow graduates. And thank you to the incredible supporters of these graduates who are here today—this day is as much yours as anyone else’s.

Since Chancellor Dinning has already set the stage by increasing my likeability, let me begin with a caveat and a thinly veiled attempt at applause! The caveat: I wrote this speech on the plane from Toronto this morning. Why? Well, exactly 59 hours and 29 minutes ago, as the dawn broke the darkness over Toronto, my amazing wife Sari and I welcomed our daughter Aliyah into this world.

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As you can imagine, I’ve had about 8 hours of interrupted sleep, in total, in the past 4 days. That makes me about as sharp as most of you were while writing the final lines of your 4th year, Master’s, or PhD theses. I’m convinced that the chronically underslept engineer is why someone came up with the brilliant design idea called “factor of safety”.

Now that I’ve set expectations appropriately, I’d like to tell you an old East African parable.

“It begins with a great, powerful typhoon, with a torrential driving rain that flooded the land. After the storm had subsided, an unforunately monkey found himself stranded on an island. In a secure, protected place on the shore, while waiting for the raging waters to recede, he spotted a fish swimming against the current. It seemed obvious to the monkey that the fish was struggling, thrashing about in the water, in need of assistance. With love in his heart for all living creatures, the monkey resolved to help the fish.

A tree precariously dangled over the spot where the fish seemed to be struggling. At considerable risk to himself, the monkey inched bit by bit, far out on one of the tree limbs. He reached down and snatched the fish from the threatening waters. Quickly, the monkey scurried back to the safety of his shelter and he, ever so carefully, laid the fish on dry ground. For a few moments the fish showed excitement. Soon, the fish settled into a peaceful rest.

Joy and satisfaction swelled inside the monkey. He had successfully helped another creature.”

When I first encountered this parable, I thought the lesson was an obvious one: The world is full of armies of monkeys, travelling down roads paved with good intentions.

But I’ve come to understand this parable differently, especially in the past few days.

In the parable, the monkey’s intentions weren’t empty. These intentions were supposedly driven by love, for all living creatures. That begs the question, “what is love?”

I think I understand it now. Love was the uncontrollable surge of tears I felt when I first saw my daughter in her mother’s arms 60 hours ago, the automatic and repeated “I love you, I love you, I love you, I’m so proud of you” that I spewed forth as a blubbering mess through those tears.

Love was the deep, insatiable curiosity that ran through my mind as I watched young Aliyah sleep and dream on that first day, her breath changing and eyelids flickering, deeply aware of when her sleep was moving between shallow, REM cycles and deep sleep. What could she possibly be dreaming about less than 12 hours out of the womb?

Love was the deeply intuitive sense that I developed even by last night: One type of crying to let us know she was hungry. Another, nearly undetectably different cry to let us know her diaper was full of poo.

And speaking of poo, love was the running commentary at about 1am last night at what was filling her diaper. I honestly would have never guessed at the intense interest I would have of colour, texture, density and volume of her shit. Nor would I have guessed at that pure joy this would bring me.

Right now, love is standing up here on stage delivering a speech to 600 deserving fellow graduates and yet the overwhelming emotion is missing my new daughter and not being able to imagine my life without Aliyah.

The fabulous author Jonathan Franzen once wrote that love is “a bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.”

So back to the monkey’s love for all living creatures. I doubt it. Just as I now doubt that I myself love all of humanity, or that I love nature. Or that I just love my Android phone, or that I love House of Cards, or this suit that I’m wearing.

Loving any of these things, or even ideas, doesn’t require me to give up anything of myself. Contrast that with loving Aliyah. When she falls and hurts herself—as she inevitably will—that will hurt me at a constitutional level. When she behaves in a way that I would disapprove of, or makes choices I find distasteful—as she likely will—that will tear a little hole in my heart.

And so back to our monkey.

Did he love that fish as the parable claimed? I doubt it. Otherwise, his intentions would not have been so devoid of empathy and context. And while his actions of literally going out on a limb to save the fish were physically dangerous, his choices did not in any way threaten his sense of self.

That leads me to the monkey’s choices and how they were made. Now, perhaps this was because he was only a monkey, but that monkey’s choices surrounding the rescue struck me as lacking any decent technical analysis.

He didn’t sit back to calculate the moment arm of his venturing onto that limb, and whether it was structurally sound enough to avoid catastrophic failure. He certainly didn’t build a partial differential equation that would solve for the variability in the water’s surge, to allow him to take probabilistic approach to assessing the risk of the branch being enveloped in water. Based on this parable, it’s clear this monkey wouldn’t be graduating with a degree in engineering here today.

But the question is this: Was the lack of technical analysis inherently bad? Isolating this for the moment from the broader context of the fish, should the monkey have been more technically minded.

If you take the cue from how all of us were trained as engineers, the answer is obvious: The monkey’s approach was distinctly lacking rigour. In engineering, we worship at the altar of careful calculation, of breaking down problems into their constituent parts, of coming up with multiple alternatives that we can judge against specific criteria. Every course I took in University, and every purely engineering analysis I have come across since has had the same fundamental approach.

What I’ve learned over the past 15 years in my work with Engineers Without Borders is that this approach—which I interpret as an attempt to remove intuition and emotion from decision-making—is both severely limiting and a dramatic practice of self-deception.

In fact, my experience is that the most powerful contributions we make as engineers are when we fully embrace the intuitive and emotional side, in combination with our technical prowess. My own example is telling.

15 years ago, like you are today, I was graduating with a Bachelor’s in Engineering. Also like many of you, I was considering what would come next. Along with my classmate Parker Mitchell, there was this idea of creating an organization called Engineers Without Borders. What was the idea born out of? A deep technical analysis of global poverty, the various organizations and entities working on that problem and it’s root causes? A clear set of options about how to structure an international organization? A well-developed set of policies and project management processes?

None of the above. In fact, I believe to this day that if we stopped to really think through what we were going to do, we never would have started. Let me try to capture how outrageous this was:

Two privileged 22 year-olds, who had never been to Africa, Asia or anywhere else where poverty was endemic, who had precisely 8 work terms between them of experience, and no resources except a few credit cards. These two people were setting out to tackle one of the world’s most complex challenges, not satisfied with helping a few people get out of poverty, but with a mission to change how the world tackles poverty. They were going to start a movement of thousands of engineers and engineering students across Canada, with a goal of changing how engineers approach their role and contributions to society.

And yet, Parker and I sparked a match that grew into a burning flame of social change, stoked by the incredible contributions of hundreds and thousands of amazing leaders and EWBers. While none of this would have been possible without our engineering training, it also would not have been possible without the emotion and intuition and passion of the thousands of people on whose shoulders I stand today.

In fact, I strongly believe it was emotion and intuition that carried the day through the most important moments. Responding to my leadership failures—the disappointment they represented and the hurt they caused others—with a renewed energy to try again or to try differently. That was driven by emotion and intuition. Constantly revising a vision, coming up with new ideas, never settling—emotion and intuition. Thousands of mind-wrenching, ambiguous decisions on what to do and how to do it—emotion and intuition.

I’ve witnessed the same in so many others, especially around choices about where they should apply their energies in life. My friend and UofC grad—now fellow UofC grad—Dave who is applying his mechanical engineering degree to working for a solar energy company in Kenya. Jason and Eli, UofC grads who work on environmental policy. Dena, a UofC grad who is working to spark a revolution in how engineering is taught. And my fellow graduate today and good friend, Patrick Miller, who is dedicating his immense talent to shaping our urban landscapes. All of these powerful choices were based on a foundation of technical competency, and driven by emotion and intuition.

But sometimes those choices don’t work out, which brings us back to our monkey again. What we realize when hearing this parable is that the monkey is not someone else, an “other”. We are all the monkey.

We can’t hate him any more than we can hate ourselves. We can’t deride his naivete any more than we can deride our own. We can’t make him our enemy without realizing that enemy is within each of us.

And that takes me to a view of the world we live in. A world that has been badly stewarded by generations who came before us. A world that needs us.

I believe humanity is at a turning point. We are faced with a multitude of complex challenges. A changing climate, concentrating wealth and increasing inequality, dwindling natural resources, changing global power structures, among others. Among others.

These challenges are different. The 70th anniversary D-Day commemoration last week reminded me just how different these challenges are. Defeating the Nazis was the defining challenge of our parents’ and grandparents’ time. Storming Juno Beach required bravery and courage. The enemy was clear, the existential threat was palpably urgent, and we knew what we needed to do.

The challenges that our generation are facing are a silent D-Day. Instead of a clear enemy, we are all the enemy. Instead of palpable urgency, the threat is diffuse and hard to see. And instead of clear actions, it is tremendously ambiguous as to how we should act or what is needed.

Faced with this, we have options: We can stand down, choose willful ignorance, engage in self-interested defensiveness, or wait. This is largely how the world is responding today.

And it’s understandable. It’s relatively easy to react to my own privilege—in comparison with my friend Sahada in rural Ghana, or the hundreds on the Siksika First Nation struggling to recover from last year’s flooding— it’s relatively easy to respond with acts of charity. It’s much harder to even ask the question: Does my privilege require their deprivation? What is just and what is right? And that’s before even approaching solutions that will address the fundamental problem.

So let me bring this back to you, fellow graduates. All of you will be on the front lines of these challenges, especially those of you who choose to work in the oil and gas industry. Our climate is changing, it’s urgent that we do something, and this industry is clearly important in any solution.

Faced with this reality, I urge you to be as brave and courageous as those who stormed Juno Beach. Please, don’t ignore there’s a problem. Please, don’t be defensive in justifying your career choices and the quality of life this industry avails you. Please, worst of all, don’t declare that the enemy is either the oil companies themselves or the activists who oppose them.

Instead, as an engineering graduate, recognize that you—every single one of you in this room—has more power than you might think. Great power. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in the past 15 years with Engineers Without Borders, it is this: That young people, young engineers like all of you absolutely have the power to change the world. That’s not a slogan, it’s a fact. You absolutely have the power to change the world around you.

But only if you choose to. Only if you remember the parable of the monkey and the fish. You must have the courage to see yourself as the monkey. Embrace your emotion and intuition even if they increase the risk of failure. And, most importantly, you must find and embrace love, the kind of love born out of a revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.

On my graduation day today, my daughter Aliyah has redoubled my own efforts and choices. My wish and hope is that she will inspire yours. Congratulations, and good luck.

She arrived!

Dear Friends,

As the sun crept up into the beautiful clear sky over Toronto Saturday morning, our daughter Aliyah Davida Elena Rotman was born.

George was crying, Sari was smiling and Ali snuggled up to mum ― everyone was healthy, and it was so … human.

“It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.” ― Ursula Le Guin

So what is the power in Aliyah’s name?

First, the universe told us that we chose wisely. Aliyah Elena means “ascend, shining light” ― she was born right at sunrise.

Aliyah is a Hebrew, Arabic and Persian word meaning to ascend or go up. Our central wish for her life is that she ascends to her highest self.

Davida is the name of George’s late-aunt ― an artistic, political, iconoclast and teacher, who also strangely loved the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team. Just as Davida ― and the two of us ― have followed our passion, so to will we encourage the same for our daughter.

Elena was a name that we both just loved, meaning to shine a light. In our hearts, we hope to raise a lovely human being, who through empathy and optimism will light people up.

And finally, her surname, Rotman. Aliyah is part Sari and part George, part Stillman and part Roter. So rather than stick with patriarchal tradition, or establish a new matriarchal tradition, or burden Aliyah’s children (if she choose to have any) with a hyphenated name, we’ve chosen to create a new last name. We know that this is strange, a bit radical, and perhaps a bit foolhardy. But Rotman it is ― a little bit of each of us.

Thanks to all of you for your support and advice over the past months.

With love (and a great deal of fatigue and new baby induced giddiness),

Sari and George
P.S. – Pictures to follow, but only if you click here to let us know that you want them.

Empathy, trust and respect: Village Stay

Learning about and working within the development sector from a classroom, behind a computer screen, from watching the news or behind a desk in an air-conditioned office in a capital anywhere in the world will only teach you so much. Building empathy, trust and relationships that are genuine and meaningful with those living in vulnerable and poor situations will allow you to experientially build your understanding of their multiple stories and the systems in which they live.

These are wise words from my colleague at Engineers Without Borders, Miriam, on the power of understanding people and empathizing with their realities as part of a village stay.

http://unfinishedstories.net/2014/05/29/the-village-stay/

#bringbackourgirls – Arab Spring or Fleeting Clicktivism?

Akintunde Oyebode and Gerald Caplan face off in this debate.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/is-bringbackourgirls-dangerously-naive-or-helpful-to-nigeria/article18657169/

My assessment: Gerald’s argument is much more compelling.

History matters. Change only happens when you have really well organized, knowledgeable, and fully committed activists and organizers who work for this change over a long time. And then sometimes change doesn’t happen.

Every complete description of the Arab Spring shows this to be the case. The compelling social media campaign, the act that sparked a revolution in a moment; these were all useful and ripened the moment, but change happened because courageous people were organizing for those moments for years. Perhaps that has also happened in Nigeria in this case, but let’s not over-attribute the importance of the #bringbackourgirls clicktivism. The risk is that a whole generation will think that’s all that’s needed.

End of stuff envy?

“Twice as many people (46% vs. 22%) said they personally would rather share things than own them.”

If this shift is underway in the way this article claims, it’s truly disruptive for our economic system. But I remain unconvinced:

  1. How different is the reaction of GenY in their 20s and 30s to the Boomers, peace not war, change the world, etc? Is this just a case of a new generation expressing their idealism and distinguishing themselves from the prior generation?
  2. What’s going on in the larger and faster growing economies that will largely drive economic trends globally in the next 50 years (i.e. India, Indonesia, Kenya, China, etc.)? Is there a similar shift?

http://www.forbes.com/sites/mariansalzman/2014/05/14/the-end-of-stuff-envy/

How our stereotypes of Africa are reinforced, even in serious literature

In short, the covers of most novels “about Africa” seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.

This article and the image below from it are striking. It also got me thinking about how my own storytelling, presentations and other actions are reinforcing these same stereotypes about Sub-Saharan Africa?

Time to challenge my behaviours.

Be wary of managing by numbers alone

More agency autonomy translates into more empowered in-country personnel. The fewer individuals on the ground that are required to defend their decisions to distant supervisors, the more creative and less conservative they will be — taking smart risks, rather than acting to ensure that they never make a mistake.

http://aiddata.org/blog/re-conceptualizing-how-we-evaluate-aid-be-wary-of-managing-by-the-numbers

I wonder if the conclusions are perhaps making a logical leap and conflating management by numbers and management by activities?

It strikes me that it’s likely not the concept of holding people/projects/investments to goals that is the problem, instead, the research seems to show:

1) The goals must be the right goals, and they often aren’t.

2) The accountability mechanisms should be at the outcome and learning levels, rather than the activity/workplan level.

Thanks to @amirallana for this.

More or Better Aid? Or both?

Thanks to @Amir Allana for starting this discussion:

https://www.facebook.com/ewbcanada/posts/10152358262946830

Hey EWB, just to throw a different viewpoint into the ‘better/more aid’ debate, check out this (in my opinion, excellent) piece from the Springfield Center. As EWB staff, in the field, working on aid reform, this resonates with me more than I can describe. In fact, I think this piece touches on most of what I rant about in the office here in Uganda on bad days!

http://www.springfieldcentre.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/2014-03-17-If-we-want-better-development-cut-the-UK-aid-budget.pdf

My response: 1) Every single country context is different. Drawing lessons that advocating for more aid from the UK and applying it broadly, for example to Canada, without asking about the country context (about DFATD and the Canadian government) is a risky way to advocate for good policy.

As a couple of examples:
a) In 2012, UK aid flows were $14b per year and 0.56% of GNI. Canada it’s $5.6b and 0.32% of GNI. Is the distortion argument in the article equally valid with $9b less spending?

b) The UK spends twice as much in relative terms (and 4 times in absolute terms) on Country Programmable Aid as Canada does. This, in theory, is a lot more negotiation between the UK government and recipient governments — and according to the OECD DAC and Paris principles a good thing. How does this affect the core task of facilitating development?

So, who’s going to do the Canadian version of the Springfield Centre analysis?

2) I think this article makes some great points, but the most powerful ones about the quality of aid fail to convince me that AND is not possible. Why is it so much harder to challenge the idea of direct deliverables and value for money when spending $9b as compared to spending $14b? Linking the two is a logical leap that I’m simply not willing to accept.

I think the direct deliverables and value for money pressures, at least in Canada (where these have become more prevalent, even with declining aid spending), are more a function of other forces. Open government, less trust in government, more power for citizen action, less patience with social media, the cult of applying “business thinking” to everything, etc.

I certainly believe in many of the arguments about the quality of aid. But there’s nothing to suggest that these are better achieved with either a stagnant or declining aid budget. And I haven’t heard a good arguments saying that a smart, sophisticated, scaled-up and relentless set of advocates — which we have yet to fully establish on a Canada-wide basis…but we’re working on that! — can’t say both more and better aid.

Social intelligence and intrapraneurship

“Insurgents accomplish their goals by identifying like-minded allies in key functional positions and persuading them that it is in their own interest to take action by demonstrating the value in sustainability,” says Unruh.

The key ingredient is “social intelligence.” Social intelligence involves the embedding of social and environmental responsibility into every level of decision-making. And it can be a valuable corporate asset. For example, “knowledge of the Millennial Generation’s greater expectations about social responsibility can be key in attracting, motivating and retaining the next generation of employees. Understanding activist and shareholder demands for transparency in political contributions can avoid damaging revelations about your company’s lobbying policies.”

http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/organizational_change/deb_gallagher/rethinking_role_sustainability_executive

What a great articulation of the value of social intrapraneurship.

The proposition that I’m least convinced of in this article is the idea that “once line managers know the personal and business value” then change and implementation will happen quickly. The questions for me are:

  • How much value needs to be demonstrated? 20% more? 10%? Measured in what way?
  • What leading indicators of line manager capacity and interest are there to understand when execution will happen, and when it will get stalled/hung-up?
  • What if the new business practice is an innovation that the line manager either will mess up in the implementation (i.e. not achieve social or business value) or not be able to get started because it requires skills or ways of thinking outside of his/her capabilities?

Also, if you’re interested in this stuff, check out EWB’s intrapraneurship fellowship: http://pivot.ewb.ca