Addressing vulnerability with science

Date 06.12.2022
Text E. Barraud, S. Kennedy, M. Galthier et A-M. Brouet
Source EPFL
Photo Mathias Hängärtner
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
People can be plunged into hardship for all kinds of reasons, from war, famine and epidemics to poverty, pollution and climate change – and the evidence suggests that these threats are intensifying. Scientists and engineers at EPFL and elsewhere are rolling out initiatives to improve the lives of affected communities. One such example is EPFL’s EssentialTech Centre, which doesn’t view technology as some sort of silver bullet, but rather works to co-develop context-appropriate solutions with input from the very people they’re designed to help.

EPFL’s Excellence in Africa (EXAF) Centre, meanwhile, is pursuing a different but complementary approach: building long-term partnerships that aim to harness the knowledge and expertise of African universities, including through online training to fully leverage their faculty members’ potential.

Engineering students and recent graduates are also doing their part to bring the benefits of science to vulnerable communities across the globe, such as through EPFL’s Engineers of the World initiative.

Scientific progress has been noticeably slower to reach Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia than elsewhere. So it’s no coincidence that some of the initiatives covered in this issue are oriented towards these parts of the world. Perhaps more surprising, however, is that as the pendulum swings back, communities in more peaceful and developed regions also stand to benefit from this work.

In this longread
  • Evolving approaches for impact
  • Helping hands for humanitarian action
  • PeaceTech: give peace a chance
  • Tunisian scorpions and snakes provide new hope for Parkinson’s sufferers
  • African cities reinvent themselves thanks to straw, AI and conservation efforts
  • “Learning through new experiences and building things that last”
  • “A conduit between science and vulnerability”
Illustration ©  Mathias Hängärtner
Illustration © Mathias Hängärtner

“Who wouldn’t want a cheap, reliable, robust system that works just as well as equivalents on the market?” asks Klaus Schönenberger, director of EPFL’s EssentialTech Centre.

The research and initiatives highlighted in our special report are intended to inspire scientists and engineers around the world, as they are in a unique position to make a meaningful difference for those facing hardship. The examples you’ll read here show how their knowledge and expertise can improve lives – for the greater good of humanity.

Illustration © Mathias Hängärtner

Evolving approaches for impact

Photo Mathias Hängärtner
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Sheena Kennedy
Ten years ago, EPFL launched EssentialTech, an initiative aimed at promoting sustainable development in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) through science and technology. Today, with several success stories under its belt, the EssentialTech Centre looks to a more complex future where its solutions are needed in multiple contexts.

EssentialTech founder Klaus Schönenberger says the EPFL was the perfect institution at which to launch this concept. “EPFL is, we must remember, a relatively young university, so it is not constrained by the weight of certain traditions and assumptions,” he says. “And yet it holds a firm place among the world’s top institutions. So it is a particularly innovative, dynamic environment  –  perhaps the only one where we could propose this somewhat radical idea.”

Social impact, by design

The idea being tested at EssentialTech was that to create substantive, sustainable impact, you have to consider the modalities and challenges of deployment right at the outset of an academic project. A specific methodology built to this theory has borne fruit, proving its real-world applicability. To name a few successes: an all-in-one digital X-ray system that withstands power surges; a robust, dynamic and affordable prosthetic foot; a social enterprise that transports pregnant women to health facilities in Mozambique, where once they had to walk excessive distances; a PPE (personal protective equipment) suit providing enhanced comfort and safety to workers combating Ebola.

“It’s never just about supplying a piece of equipment and then walking away,” says Nathalie Morandini Siegrist, Head of EssentialTech’s Sustainable Development Division. “It’s about understanding the context and considering the entire value chain to develop technology, business models and training that will create the desired social impact at scale, with the conditions for longevity.”

Over time, the team recognized that while working in sustainable development, they were confronted with issues falling in the domains of humanitarian action and peace promotion. “This is actually sometimes called the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Triple Nexus,” explains Solomzi Makohliso, EssentialTech Deputy Director. “There is so much overlap in these areas that it came to us somewhat naturally to extend our activities. And this need is only increasing as the world is becoming more fragile under the strain of environmental crises and increasing conflict.”


The way forward

“As we took stock of our work at this ten-year mark, we recognized that vulnerability similar to what we target in LMICs also exists in other contexts,” says Morandini Siegrist. “We had been defining vulnerability as extreme poverty. But there is a broader definition of vulnerability, which is exposure to any risk that leads to unacceptable levels of harm. By considering this, we greatly extend our potential for positive impact.” She points to the war in Ukraine as a wake-up call for many, showing how quickly a region can be thrust into extreme vulnerability, with reverberations across the entire planet. Adapted solutions, such as off-grid medical equipment, could be invaluable.
EssentialTech is also adapting its activities to proactively and systematically integrate environmental sustainability. “A source of systemic vulnerability, climate change is forcing all of us to rethink the way we do things,” says Morandini Siegrist. “In terms of energy use, for instance. No solution that doesn’t consider environmental impact will be sustainable over the long term.”
Makohliso points out that the Centre’s partners working in vulnerable contexts are a key asset for meeting environmental sustainability challenges: “Our partners fully understand the challenges. The constraints are such that environment-friendly frugality is necessary for a solution to simply work at all. Having developed longstanding relationships with them, we work together and thoroughly test solutions which are environmentally sound, of necessity.”
Schönenberger cautions that this is not about creating something “low-tech”: “Look at the X-ray system. It’s robust, all-in-one, safe and easy to use. It’s digital, which creates less waste and enables telemedicine. It uses less power and withstands outages. And it is affordable. Who doesn’t want all that? It’s not low-tech, it’s smart tech! We have serious interest from users in high-income regions for several of our innovations.”

In terms of energy use, for instance. No solution that doesn’t consider environmental impact will be sustainable over the long term.”

Systemic approaches

The Centre’s experts are increasingly called upon to weigh in on global issues, and to coach and advise in specific situations. They are EPFL’s point of contact for management and operation of several alliances and interinstitutional initiatives aimed at improving human and environmental conditions. EssentialTech is also increasingly involved in training and education.
Operationally, EssentialTech is moving from a tech-project-centric approach to a more holistic program-based one, enabling more dynamic solution delivery and greater systemic impact. “It leverages an existing complementarity between some of our technology projects, but it goes beyond that,” says Makohliso.
A program in the area of maternal and infant care illustrates this emerging approach. At heart are two medical devices that the Centre has been developing over a number of years: an infant incubator that stays warm for up to four hours with a thermal battery (GlobalNeoNat) and a robust oxygen concentrator (GlobalO2). “As needed, we can integrate other solutions like an AI-based mobile app that can assess children’s height and weight or another that supports detection of cervical cancer,” says Makohliso. “Other possible benefits could come from solutions we’re working on to address acute renal failure, to improve food safety, to meet challenges for water and sanitation, and to solve cold-chain transport issues for medications and vaccines.”
The maternal-infant program is developing models for training for medical staff and equipment technicians at community hospitals. It prioritizes local production of devices, which creates jobs and increases economic stability. More at-risk neonates will be treated where they are born, staying with their mothers and reducing risks associated with transfers. This in turn reduces the burden on reference hospitals, so they can focus on the highest-risk cases. The functioning of the whole system will be positively impacted.

GNN incubator concept model co-designed by EPFL and ECAL/Fabien Roy. © Noé Cotter

© EssentialTech
© EssentialTech

Geneva Technical Hub

Climate action meets humanitarian action

Climate change has multiple impacts on humanitarian needs, fueling conflict over resources and driving population displacement. At the same time, humanitarian interventions are often excessively stressful on the environment.
The Geneva Technical Hub is a partnership among EPFL, ETH Zurich and Eawag, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), supported by the SDC. Research teams are working on solutions for environmental problems in order to improve conditions for refugees, internally displaced people and host communities.
“The UNHCR estimates that 85% of all cooking in displaced persons camps is done in an unsustainable manner, using mostly harvested firewood,” says Cara Tobin, an EssentialTech project manager. “This causes deforestation along with a cascade of other problems, including health problems from smoke inhalation when processing charcoal or cooking, or safety risks for women and children gathering firewood. It can cause tension and conflicts with the host communities.”
Tobin is working with an EPFL team developing an app to quantify the GHG benefits of off-grid solar and clean cooking technologies to reduce pressure on natural resources and promote scaling up of best environmental practices. An initial version of the GHG calculator has been completed, alongside two apps by other teams: a tool to assess shelter sustainability and a decision support tool for energy planning.


© EssentialTech

The UNHCR estimates that 85% of all cooking in displaced persons camps is done in an unsustainable manner, using mostly harvested firewood.”

Helping hands for humanitarian action

Photo iStock
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Sheena Kennedy
In the field, humanitarian actors face ever more complex challenges, with overlapping trends in environmental crises and a rise in both armed conflict and cyberviolence. Through strategic partnerships, EPFL innovations help support and improve conditions for humanitarians and the populations they serve.

“There are great minds at EPFL, across a broad spectrum of sciences and engineering,” says Grégoire Castella, head of the EPFL EssentialTech Centre’s Humanitarian Division.
“At EssentialTech, it’s our role to bridge humanitarians and academics by setting up and guiding collaboration. It’s mutually beneficial: Humanitarians get access to cutting-edge technical expertise, and scientists connect with real-world situations where they can have a positive impact on society. This is not an area where you can invent something and then go try to sell it. The need comes before the solution. And we can’t fully understand the need from inside a lab.”

From the frontlines to the lab

In 2014, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) approached EPFL about a solution to better equip people in need of prosthetic feet. EssentialTech worked with the Laboratory for Processing of Advanced Composites (LPAC), Laboratory of Movement Analysis and Measurement (LMAM), and the Laboratory of Applied Mechanics and Reliability Analysis (LMAF) to develop the Agilis foot.
“Working closely with the ICRC, we understood their specific needs, which are different from those in a
developed-world market,” explains Véronique Michaud, who heads the LPAC. “The prosthesis needed to be light and dynamic, and to fulfill all requirements involving durability and resistance to fatigue, as well as adaptation to local conditions during use. However, the cost target was strictly set for affordability which impacted every decision we made in the materials choice, design and manufacturing. We clearly had to think out of the box.”
More recently, many of the challenges and opportunities for humanitarian organizations are in the digital realm. The ICRC, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and EPFL have joined forces to produce a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called “Humanitarian action in the digital age.” More than 30 presenters  –  both digital experts and humanitarians  –  took part in the MOOC, set to be released in early 2023.
Philippe Stoll, Senior Techplomacy Delegate for the ICRC, helped design and present the course. He explains: “At the ICRC we see the growing impact of digitalization on armed conflict, humanitarian organizations and, more importantly, on people. We therefore need to equip practitioners with basic knowledge on technologies and ethical considerations so as to avoid negative consequences.”

At the ICRC we see the growing impact of digitalization on armed conflict, humanitarian organizations and, more importantly, on people.”

© Agilis | EssentialTech
© Agilis | EssentialTech

Interdisciplinarity is essential

Solutions with real-world impact require multiple perspectives and expertise. Michaud points to the example of the Agilis foot: “Making a prothesis affordable, light and flexible involves innovation for materials and processing methods as well as a strong understanding in mechanics and bio-mechanics  –  no single lab does that. This is even before you consider other needs such as field assessment or marketing the product.”
Castella adds: “Interdisciplinary collaboration is frequently interinstitutional. We work with partners around the globe, but in all three of EssentialTech’s divisions  –  covering the interrelated needs of sustainable development, humanitarian action and peace promotion  –  we especially rely on partnerships with institutions and organizations working directly in vulnerable contexts, as well as the people they serve.”
He points to the example of the Centre for Public Health and Development (CPHD) in Kenya, a longtime partner. “CPHD is currently partnered in a program aimed at improving maternal and child health in vulnerable contexts. They are involved in every stage of development and will lead field tests in Kenya. These solutions are equally valuable for low-income communities and humanitarian responses.”

© Agilis | EssentialTech

Working closely with the ICRC, we understood their specific needs, which are different from those in a developed-world market.”

© Agilis | EssentialTech

Engineering for Humanitarian Action

Researchers deliver science for humanitarian action

“Fast advances in science and technology offer huge potential to unlock innovation for greater humanitarian impact,” says Gilles Carbonnier, vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). To this end, the renowned humanitarian organization has partnered with EPFL and ETH Zurich in an initiative called Engineering for Humanitarian Action.
Two series of EPFL and ETH Zurich projects  –  12 in all  –  have already been funded, with the first round now providing results to the ICRC. A third call for proposals has been launched and projects will be selected in early 2023.
“We are very much looking forward to seeing the real-world impact of the projects already completed or in progress, as well as new proposals,” says EPFL President Martin Vetterli. “Our researchers are hugely motivated to contribute to a better world in these turbulent times.”

More sustainable construction in humanitarian settings

EPFL and ETH Zurich are helping the ICRC improve environmental sustainability when building health care facilities and other basic infrastructure. They’ve developed a bespoke software that uses checklists, visualizations and pointers to indicate how planning decisions can impact the sustainability of a building.

Laboratory of Construction and Architecture (EPFL); Sustainable Construction (ETH Zurich)

Harmful information used against humanitarian organizations

Disinformation and hateful rhetoric are common tools used to fuel ethnic and religious tensions and incite violence  –  including against humanitarian organizations. This project is looking at the attack methods employed in order to develop technical methods to monitor and combat the problem, thereby helping to prevent future attacks.

EPFL Distributed Information Systems Lab

Private biometrics for aid distribution

A challenge for equitably distributing aid in emergencies is that many people requiring help do not have identification documents. The use of biometrics  –  physical characteristics such as fingerprints or iris scans  –  can overcome that. But this raises important privacy concerns. The EPFL SPRING Lab proposes a system that avoids large-scale data collection to protect people’s rights and mitigate risk of data leaks.

EPFL Security and Privacy Engineering (SPRING) Lab

Mapping vulnerable populations with AI

In most regions where the ICRC operates, there are no recent, reliable census data to use for planning. But now, a team of experts has come up with an artificial intelligence (AI) program for estimating population density when no official census data are available. It works by aggregating different types of data  –  such as the number and size of built structures, the road density within a given area and the ratio of wooded to developed land. The program calculates population density figures for one hectare areas and has been tested successfully in several African countries. The team is currently developing a smartphone app that can be used easily by ICRC employees.

EPFL’s Environmental Computational Science and Earth Observation Laboratory and ETH Zurich’s Chair of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing

PeaceTech: give peace a chance

Photo Mathias Hängärtner
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Sheena Kennedy
EPFL’s EssentialTech Centre is coordinating work both in the Centre and with labs around the campus to help combat wars, armed conflict and violence, notably through “PeaceTech,” a relatively new field that joins other peace promotion disciplines such as peacekeeping, peacebuilding and diplomacy.

PeaceTech aims, on the one hand, to prevent technology from being an enabler  –  intentionally or otherwise  –  of violence and conflict and, on the other, to leverage technology as a driver of global security and peace.
Sociologist Johan Galtung, considered the founder of modern peace studies, defines “peace” not only as the absence of violence and conflict, but as the presence of attitudes, institutions and structures that together create peaceful societies. Violence is seen as a triad comprising direct violence, structural violence and cultural violence. The tip is direct violence, which is the smallest part, but visible and voluntary. The base is made of cultural violence and structural violence  –  underlying causes generally not visible.
PeaceTech practitioners leverage technology to act on all three forms of violence. Researchers at Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab (HRL) use satellite and radar scans to gather information about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and identify probable sites of war crimes. The investigative group Bellingcat, comprised of professional and citizen journalists, scours digital media to compile evidence of crimes and rights abuses  –  and publishes extensively on its techniques so others can do the same.
Structural violence can be seen as social injustice and is often related to resource competition. It can be mitigated by supporting vulnerable populations with essential technologies that enable access to food, water, energy, health care, housing, transportation and communication.
Finally, advanced digital technologies can be leveraged to fight cultural violence   –  which today is frequently exerted online (though not only). Artificial intelligence, computer bots and blockchain can be used to track, analyze, counter and prevent the acceleration of online mis(dis)information and polarization. They can also help verify and identify trustable information.

A unique partnership

Switzerland has a long tradition as a neutral actor engaged in peace promotion. EPFL is now part of a cross-disciplinary alliance that aims to build on this tradition with research and concrete solutions in PeaceTech.

The Swiss PeaceTech Alliance is a partnership among EPFL, the Geneva Graduate Institute and the Geneva Peacebuilding platform, supported by the Peace and Human Rights group of the Swiss Department of Federal Affairs. It leverages EPFL’s excellence in technology fields and the Geneva Graduate Institute’s expertise in world affairs, international relations and development. The Geneva Peacebuilding Platform is a multi-organization “knowledge hub” that facilitates networking among peace actors in Switzerland and worldwide.

“Expertise and leadership in the hard sciences and technology are of course needed to create technological innovations for PeaceTech,” says Martin Vetterli, president of EPFL. “But for PeaceTech to be applied effectively, strong knowledge in the social sciences is also indispensable.”

In addition to the development of specific technologies for peace promotion, the alliance aims to nurture hybrid knowledge  –  from peace to tech and from tech to peace  –  necessary to design and operate PeaceTech, and to assess its use. It will also monitor sustainability and the long-term effects of tech use in peacebuilding, peacemaking and violence prevention.

The Swiss PeaceTech Alliance is launching a first initiative on de-escalation of online polarization with a strategy based on artificial intelligence. EPFL’s Distributed Systems Laboratory, run by Prof. Karl Aberer, will conduct the project with alliance partners, supported by key external networks.

The EPFL EssentialTech Centre and the Geneva Graduate Institute jointly serve as coordinators for operational capacity. Mariazel Maqueda-López, head of EssentialTech’s PeaceTech Division: “In connecting experts from the partner institutions and beyond, we build an interdisciplinary reference group to support PeaceTech initiatives worldwide.”

Expertise and leadership in the hard sciences and technology are of course needed to create technological innovations for PeaceTech.”

© iStock

Laying the foundations for Ukraine’s reconstruction

EPFL’s EssentialTech Centre PeaceTech Division is investigating how to leverage EPFL and Swiss expertise to help rebuild postwar Ukraine. To set direction, initial assessments were conducted by Artem Gladkykh, a humanitarian sector professional previously with the United Nations Development Program, and himself a refugee from Ukraine.

With the war still going full-tilt in Ukraine, more than 1,000 international players united in July 2022 for a look ahead to recovery. Co-hosted by Ukraine and Switzerland, and held in Lugano, Switzerland, the Ukraine Recovery Conference culminated with the delivery of the Lugano Declaration, a recovery blueprint and five policy briefs for social, environmental, economic and infrastructure recovery.

At EPFL, the EssentialTech team brought in Artem Gladkykh as a PeaceTech division project manager, to assess how the university’s critical expertise could be brought to reconstruction. “We at EssentialTech set out an ambitious goal to contribute to this peace-promoting humanitarian response,” he explains. “Thanks to our broad range of partners in Ukraine  –  including UN agencies, INGOs (international nongovernmental organizations) and government entities  –  we succeeded in defining some key dimensions for future endeavors based on the Centre’s capacity and success stories of the previous decade.”

At this time, EssentialTech’s research indicates that EPFL knowledge could help address mine action, energy security, eco-safety and health care. Gladkykh first presented the initial findings at Geneva Peace Week in October, 2022. In early December, the team conducted a small workshop with key Ukraine experts to identify specific unmet needs in science and technology for going forward.

Gladkykh came to EPFL under a program to facilitate integration of displaced Ukrainians through temporary contracts. EssentialTech offered an excellent fit with his expertise: he holds a Bachelor in management of foreign economic affairs and has worked in the international humanitarian sector since earning his MBA from the Donetsk University of Management eight years ago.

“My studies were interrupted at the end by the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and armed conflict in the east of Ukraine,” he says. “I wasn’t even sure I could graduate. When I did, there were only two options that I could consider: either getting conscripted into the army or else the humanitarian sector, because there was a huge influx of INGOs at that time. Humanitarian work was aligned with my studies, but more to the point, I couldn’t hurt a fly so my choice was obvious. “When heavy shelling started just 100 meters from my home this spring, I knew I had to make a choice. Switzerland seemed the logical place for me to go, given my background within the humanitarian and development sectors.”

After his temporary assignment at EssentialTech, Gladkykh has now taken a position with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. “I once could not stand leaving Ukraine, even for vacation,” he says. “But Switzerland has been so welcoming, and I feel that currently I can do more for my homeland from here than what I could over there.”


© iStock

When heavy shelling started just 100 meters from my home this spring, I knew I had to make a choice. Switzerland seemed the logical place for me to go, given my background within the humanitarian and development sectors.”

Tunisian scorpions and snakes provide new hope for Parkinson’s sufferers

Photo Mathias Hängärtner
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Mathieu Galtier, Tunis
A research group in Tunis is investigating how venom from local scorpions and snakes could potentially be used to treat Parkinson’s disease. The study is being led by Inès Bini at the Pasteur Institute of Tunis (IPT), working in association with EPFL’s Laboratory of Molecular and Chemical Biology of Neurodegeneration. 

The deadliest scorpion in the world –  Androctonus australis Hector – ventures out of its burrow at dusk in search of prey. It’s quickly caught by one of the many scorpion hunters in the region and handed over to researchers. While this creature seems an unlikely ally in efforts to improve patients’ lives, the venom from this species native to southern Tunisia just might hold the key to developing an effective treatment against Parkinson’s. That’s the goal of research being carried out by Inès Bini at IPT’s Laboratory of biomolecules, venoms and theranostic applications (LBVAT). Her group is looking at how venom from these scorpions and certain local snakes, just as deadly, can be used to treat motor-function and cognitive disorders.
Bini is an assistant professor at IPT, which is headed by Prof. Hechmi Louzir. She began this research in August 2021 along with Prof. Hilal Lashuel, the director of the EPFL lab involved in the study. “For now, we’ve tested two
nontoxic peptides – P1 and P2 – contained in the scorpion’s venom,” says Bini, who’s in her 40s. “The tests were run in Prof. Lashuel’s lab on models of cells affected by Parkinson’s disease. Our initial findings are really promising. Once they’re confirmed, we’ll examine venom from Macrovipera lebetina, better known as the Lebetine viper.”

Hunting for precious ingredients

Androctonus australis Hector venom contains a compound that targets potassium channels, which carry potassium ions in cells, while venom from Macrovipera lebetina has a substance that interacts with the integrins, or transmembrane receptors, involved in the abnormal propagation of alpha-
synuclein proteins – a key factor in the development of Parkinson’s. During her four- to five-year research program, Bini and her colleagues will aim to isolate, purify and characterize the nontoxic compounds contained in both types of venom. The hope is that these compounds can be used to stabilize alpha-synuclein activity and therefore prevent the formation of Lewy bodies in the brain.
Far from a shot in the dark, Bini’s hypothesis is based on 35 years of pioneering research at LBVAT. The P1 and P2 peptides were discovered by Najet Srairi-Abid, currently the head of LBVAT, in 2005. Today, Prof. Srairi-Abid is playing an active role in the research being carried out by Bini and Lashuel; her office is home to a library of freeze-dried samples of scorpion venom. IPT purchases scorpion venom once a year, in the summer, from scorpion hunters who spend weeks crisscrossing the semi-arid desert lands of southern Tunisia. “Their scorpion venom is a really precious ingredient,” says Srairi-Abid.
The snake venom is easier to collect. The IPT has its own serpentarium in La Soukra, some 13 km north of downtown Tunis where the Institute itself is located. There, scientists keep around a dozen snakes including five Lebetine vipers. “In 2016, the IPT and other research Centres filed an international patent on a new neovascularization inhibitor made with Macrovipera lebetina venom,” says Prof. Naziha Marrakchi, head of the Anti-tumor, Anti-angiogenic, and/or Pro-apoptotic Biomolecular Program at IPT and one of the inhibitor’s inventors, along with Dr. Erij Messadi. “Our inhibitor, when combined with existing treatments, leads to better outcomes for patients suffering from age-related macular degeneration.”
Tunisia is no stranger to snakebites and scorpion stings, with some 30,000–40,000 poisoning cases per year. The LBVAT was established precisely to find treatments for these victims. “The problem is that we can’t carry out clinical trials because there aren’t enough patients for pharmaceutical companies to take an interest,” says Srairi-Abid. However, by teaming up with EPFL, the IPT will be able to conduct larger studies and use more advanced equipment. For instance, the LBVAT will soon be getting a confocal microscope – the first of its kind in Tunisia. “The microscope will let us run on-site analyses of how Lebetine viper venom affects models of cells affected by Parkinson’s disease,” says Bini.

The microscope will let us run on-site analyses of how Lebetine viper venom affects models of cells affected by Parkinson’s disease.”

EPFL’s Excellence in Africa (EXAF) Centre employs digital technology to support high-caliber research, education and innovation on that continent.

EPFL collaboration promotes academic excellence in Africa

“There’s no place for the condescending, neocolonialist attitude to Africa reminiscent of Tintin in the Congo,” says Jérôme Chenal, who heads EXAF. “We need to speak on the same level and work towards a common goal: excellence.” Chenal pulls no punches in his calls for closer collaboration with African countries. “That means creating the necessary conditions for high-caliber research and repudiating the pessimistic views of Africa that have prevailed for decades.”
EXAF was established through a joint initiative by EPFL and the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Morocco to promote excellence-oriented projects in Africa. Since the pandemic arrived shortly after the Centre was opened, its first project was to develop a website where African students can view EPFL’s MOOCs free of charge. But EXAF’s sights are set much higher. Its founders want to create a network of digital-education skills Centres across the continent. So far, 12 universities – selected through an application and review process – have received assistance with incorporating digital technology into their degree programs.
EXAF will also provide funding to a total of 100 promising PhD students, whose thesis projects will be supervised jointly by an EPFL professor. The first ten students have already been chosen. And EXAF will pair up young researchers in Africa with peers at EPFL to work together on four- to five-year research projects, like the one being carried out by Inès Bini. The second call for projects under this initiative just ended.
Other EXAF initiatives include the African Cities Lab (see below), where researchers will develop MOOCs and other online continuing education programs on the topic of urban development in Africa. The Lab will serve as a forum for universities and other stakeholders to explore all aspects of urban development on the continent, including food security, energy, transportation, heat islands and the environment.

African cities reinvent themselves thanks to straw, AI and conservation efforts

Photo Mathias Hängärtner
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Mathieu Galtier, Tunis
Researchers at the Tunis Institute of Urban Planning and Construction & Environmental Technology are creating a MOOC on novel approaches to urban development for large and mid-sized cities in Africa.

On a narrow street designed to shield pedestrians from the blazing sun, a man walks along to visit a friend. He stops suddenly, unsure of whether he remembered to turn off the air-conditioning at home. He pulls out his smartphone and checks the real-time power consumption in his living room, and is quickly reassured that everything is in order. He then continues on to his friend’s house, a building made from traditional clay-and-straw bricks called toub – a low-cost, well-insulating construction material.
This scenario combining state-of-the-art technology with time-honored local practices – the 7th century design of the Tunis medina, and construction methods from southern Algeria in the 11th century – is one of the many urban development options being modeled at the Tunis Institute of Urban Planning and Construction & Environmental Technology (ISTEUB). Teachers from ISTEUB, working through Carthage University and with the support of EPFL’s African Cities Lab, are creating a MOOC on resilient habitats that should be online next spring.

Large cities across Africa are facing a myriad of challenges, from climate change and rural-urban migration to informal settlements and migrants relocating from other developing countries. “The MOOC consists of 20 hours of instruction spread across five weeks,” says Olfa ben Medien, the head of degree programs and internships at ISTEUB. “It covers two general topics: issues specific to habitats in Tunisia and elsewhere in Africa, and possible ways to address those issues.” For example, the curved lines characteristic of North African architecture, as seen in its domes and vaulted arches, are particularly interesting for Prof. Fakhreddine Oueslati at Carthage University. Such nature-inspired lines – “right angles are man-made,” he says – could be used across the continent to improve home insulation and acoustics.

Through the African Cities Lab – a initiative run by EPFL’s Excellence in Africa Centre – EPFL trained the professors involved in creating the MOOC through four two-hour online sessions. The African Cities Lab has also provided training to 12 other African universities to help them create MOOCs on sustainable urban development. These online courses will serve as a valuable teaching resource and give students and professors an opportunity to discuss key issues.

In addition, EPFL is providing financial and teaching support to ISTEUB to develop a hybrid training program for city officials and utility operators. Through a series of webinars and in-person workshops, the program will teach participants about topics associated with natural resources and heritage sites in mid-sized cities, or cities situated somewhere between rural villages and large agglomerations.

Right angles are man-made”

“Learning through new experiences and building things that last”

Photo Mathias Hängärtner
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Anne-Muriel Brouet
Basile Pasquale, a second-year Master’s student in robotics, carried out his Master’s internship at an NGO in India, spending two months in a village suspended in time.

Master’s students at EPFL are required to complete a two- to six-month internship where they gain experience applying the theory they learn in class to real-world problems. Basile Pasquale chose to do his internship in a small village in India through a program run by Engineers of the World, a student association that arranges internships for EPFL and University of Lausanne students in developing countries (see below).

“I’d never travelled on my own before, and I wanted to experience something new and learn about a culture I wasn’t familiar with – all while doing something useful that was in line with my skill set,” he says. This was the opportunity offered by the two-month internship with Vigyan Ashram, an NGO based in Pabal, a village of 10,000 people located 175 km east of Mumbai. Vigyan Ashram operates like a large campus, offering training programs in rural technology based on the Gandhi-inspired approach of “learning by doing.” Youth aged 15–20 can sign up for a year-long curriculum that teaches skills in agriculture, breeding, engineering, environmental preservation, energy, health and more, primarily through hands-on experience in greenhouses, farms and workshops. Vigyan Ashram also gives university students from India and around the world a chance to receive training and turn their ideas into socially useful products.

Good in theory but second-best in practice

After some hiccups in obtaining his visa, Pasquale arrived in Pabal in early September along with 80 other students to “develop things and learn stuff,” he says. “Each student had a project to carry out, ideally from start to finish.” But Pasquale chose to work on two. His first project was to design an exoskeleton that could support users’ legs and make it easier to perform laborious tasks like lifting heavy objects. In this project, Pasquale soon realized that even though he had a stronger theoretical foundation than students from India, they were better at the pragmatic, empirical side of things. He learned how to drill and weld. And with the materials that were available – such as old springs, bits of string, rusted metal bars, pipe segments, pieces of insulation and clamps – he built a pretty decent device.

His second project involved developing a low-cost system for taking automatic temperature and humidity measurements in greenhouses in order to improve yields. The systems currently on the market are too expensive for local farmers, meaning the measurements must be taken manually. Pasquale therefore engineered a new device using cheaper components. He installed sensors and hooked them up to a computer so that farmers can view readings in real time and activate misting systems and fans as needed. “I really wanted to create something that would last,” he says. “It was important for me to do something useful while I learned – to make an improvement that would remain after my internship was over. That made my stay here even more gratifying.”

A philosophy and lifestyle

The internship was also an unforgettable experience on a personal level. “It’s true that it confirmed some of the stereotypes people have about India,” he says. “But even though I was the only foreigner in the village, people welcomed me with open arms. They were really friendly and helpful, and not just because I was from a different country.” Pasquale also learned to adopt the local philosophy of “simple living, high thinking,” and to follow a disciplined routine of morning prayer, evening meditation, simple vegetarian meals and modest accommodations.

“It was two months suspended in time, far from campus life,” he says. “I appreciated the tranquility and laid-back lifestyle. Those are things I’d like to hold on to, at least in part.” Another thing Pasquale brought back from India is a desire to return there – this time for a longer stay – before getting caught up in the whirlwind of working life.

It was two months suspended in time, far from campus life. I appreciated the tranquility and laid-back lifestyle.”

Illustration © Mathias Hängärtner
Illustration © Mathias Hängärtner

Engineers of the World was established to give EPFL and University of Lausanne students an opportunity to take concrete steps to reduce inequality by working hand in hand with local communities.

Building a more equitable, sustainable world

The student association holds talks and conferences, like a week-long awareness-building event scheduled for next March, and has its own social media accounts. It also coordinates internship opportunities abroad. It’s not that problems don’t exist right here in Switzerland, but to receive internship funding – which is provided by EPFL’s EssentialTech Centre – the project must be in another country.

“There’s scope to reduce inequality everywhere,” says Iléane Lefevre, an EPFL Master’s student in materials science and a former Engineers of the World president. “We don’t target certain countries in particular – it depends on the challenges faced by the people living there and the specific issues involved.” Internships are open to students of all disciplines, whether they want to gain hands-on experience over the summer or complete a semester or Master’s project. Previous projects have included building a pollutant filter for a factory in Italy, designing a solar-energy system in France, creating solar-powered air-conditioning units in Nigeria, examining the factors contributing to obesity in Mexico and studying social housing in Chile.

Depending on their degree program, students may receive credits for their internship. That’s the case for around half of the students who’ve participated so far, while the others participated as volunteers. Although the internships were put on hold during the pandemic, they’ve since picked back up. “We try to offer as many internships as possible with the funding we receive,” says Lefevre. “That usually comes out to around 20 to 25 per year.” A variety of formats are possible, and the proposals can come from the students themselves, the host organization or another entity. The program offers an array of exciting opportunities for those who are interested.

In the 35 years since Engineers of the World was founded, it’s made a continuous effort to improve equality worldwide by training students on key sustainable development issues. And the association itself adheres to high sustainability standards. “We do everything we can to operate in a socially and environmentally responsible way,” says Lefevre. “Students travel by train to internships in Europe, for example. And when the assignments are farther away, they travel by plane but offset the carbon emissions.”


Illustration © Mathias Hängärtner

We do everything we can to operate in a socially and environmentally responsible way.”

“A conduit between science and vulnerability”

Photo Mathias Hängärtner
Dimensions - EPFL Magazine
Text | Emmanuel Barraud
Yves Daccord, the former director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), joined EPFL’s EssentialTech Centre this past spring. His extensive experience with humanitarian crises and his legendary straight talk have given the Centre a heady start to its second decade. We spoke with Daccord and Klaus Schönenberger, the Centre’s founder and Director, about how they are leveraging technology to help those in need.

Dimensions: EssentialTech turns ten this year. Happy birthday!

Klaus Schönenberger: Thank you. I’m still struck by how enthusiastic people at EPFL were when we launched EssentialTech ten years ago. We knew from the beginning that our approach would be considered unorthodox: we call on the School’s researchers to consider, from the very beginning of their projects, how the technology they’re developing can be used to help the world’s most vulnerable groups in a tangible, lasting way. That’s what lets us tap into the strengths of our School’s labs and maximize the chances for real societal change.
Yves Daccord: I only joined the Centre this year, but I firmly adhere to Klaus’s vision and admire the way he’s been able to apply it, using EPFL research to make a real difference in the developing world. Our approach isn’t to just ship the technology we develop off to the Global South so we can feel better about ourselves. Rather, we work hand in hand with partner organizations, speaking directly with people on the ground to get a better grasp of the many factors contributing to precarity in their region. Then we outline possible solutions together.

Klaus Schönenberger, EssentialTech Centre’s founder and director

Who are the “customers” you serve?

KS: From the outset, we have focused our efforts on the basic needs of the world’s poor. We saw early on that many of them are suffering the consequences of a humanitarian crisis or armed conflict. The one thing these groups have in common is that they’re highly vulnerable due to a confluence of factors. And of course climate change only aggravates the problem.
YD: We need to completely rethink our view of the world and current events. The landscape is shifting – we’re now seeing people who we never thought were at particular risk falling into critical situations. An obvious example is in Ukraine, but even closer to home, there are more and more people in France and Italy who live in areas without adequate access to medical care. But science and technology can help. For instance, engineers at EssentialTech have developed a low-cost X-ray device called GlobalDiagnostiX that can improve health care for these “newly vulnerable” people.

What sets EssentialTech’s systems apart?

KS: We made a conscious choice to put “Essential” before “Tech” in the Centre’s name. Since we’re based at an engineering school, our approach obviously draws on technology. But our priority is to thoroughly understand the problems faced by at-risk groups. Only afterwards do we start thinking about what systems can be developed, making sure they’re designed to be actually adopted by the people who need them. On occasion we see that the best solution doesn’t lie with technology. In such cases, we hand the reins over to organizations better suited to help. The main thing EssentialTech brings to the table is a good grasp of at-risk situations, along with the system-engineering and implementation skills needed to deliver large-scale, lasting improvements.
YD: This approach has proven to be effective. When we look at a vulnerable community from Geneva, it’s easy to think we understand what’s going on. Even just ten years ago, our understanding was largely theoretical, and we would draw on existing solutions. But now, more attention is being given to assessing the complex array of factors that underpin the situation of vulnerability. We’ve found that three interrelated forces are generally at work: poverty, humanitarian crises and violence. And all this against a backdrop of climate change. It’s clear there are no simple answers to such complicated problems.
KS: Regarding EssentialTech systems in particular, they’re developed using a comprehensive methodology that involves EPFL research labs, public- and private-sector organizations, and people in the at-risk communities themselves. Our systems are intended to have a lasting impact, so we consider longer-term issues like training people locally to use them, especially when it comes to maintenance, like for our GlobalDiagnostiX system. In short, our approach entails speaking with people on the ground, working together to come up with ideas that could work, and acting on those ideas through cross-disciplinary project teams. We also support new business creation, either in Switzerland or locally, to help with implementation.

Whenever we embark on a new project, we do so with humility, as we’re all too aware of how much we need other people and groups.”

Are you the only ones with this kind of approach?

KS: There are other organizations out there doing excellent work, but I have to admit, I’ve never seen one that does something like what EPFL does through EssentialTech.
YD: One thing I would point out, and it may seem surprising, is that you don’t see this kind of approach at universities in the US and UK. When a school like MIT or Harvard gets involved with at-risk groups, it’s usually under the old model and not through partnerships the way we do it. But that could be for historical reasons: when the people receiving assistance are from former colonies, as is often the case, they tend to be reluctant to work with former colonial or imperialist powers. That’s understandable, especially if the relationship is experienced as paternalistic or even condescending, which still occurs frequently. Switzerland – and particularly the Geneva area with its many international organizations – has an advantage in this regard. For EPFL, which is close by, that’s a big benefit and another reason why I think the EssentialTech Centre is positioned to play a unique role.

Yves Daccord, the former Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC),
joined EPFL’s EssentialTech Centre this past spring

You’ve placed the bar pretty high! Klaus, do you think the Centre is up for the challenge?
KS: More than ever! Especially if we can count on distinguished figures like Yves, who challenges us regularly on our approach and initiatives. We’re also lucky to be able to count on all the partner organizations we work with worldwide. Whenever we embark on a new project, we do so with humility, as we’re all too aware of how much we need other people and groups – their reading of the situation and of the circumstances on the ground. On our own, we wouldn’t be able to do anything. Our greatest assets are the extraordinary skills in EPFL’s labs. We at EssentialTech act as the conduit between this scientific expertise and vulnerable contexts.

How do you see EssentialTech’s work evolving over the next ten years?
YD: One important point is that vulnerable situations can be found closer and closer to us. It’s no longer an issue that only concerns “other” people, whoever they are. Vulnerability can exist on both a personal and systemic level, and the world today is so interconnected that the butterfly effect is stronger and faster than ever before. I think a school like EPFL has no choice but to get involved.
KS: Another trend that’s emerged in recent years is that more and more students are taking action. They’re rising up in response to problems like climate change, inequality and repression, and they’re taking the future of the planet into their own hands. The way I see it, the embers of change are burning and we need to stoke the flames. Especially since this student activism will shape the direction of the research they’ll do later on. The small part EssentialTech can play is to create opportunities by building up students’ awareness of how science can be used to address vulnerability. I’m sure we’ll soon need to set up a skills Centre on humanitarian engineering, development and peace.

What reaction has your vision gotten from the scientific community?
KS: A lot of scientists today are no longer satisfied with just getting their research published. They want to have a concrete impact on the major challenges of our time – they just don’t really know how. Our goal is to give them practical tools for doing so. Another problem is that many researchers simply aren’t aware they can make a significant contribution to the complex issues affecting vulnerable groups. One striking example of this is the fact that the “hard” sciences are almost completely absent from discussions about how to promote peace.
YD: This is another area where efforts will likely expand over the next ten years. The world has gotten to the point where peace is viewed as simply the interlude between two wars. Science can go a long way towards making these interludes last as long as possible. But we need to be strong in our convictions and allocate the necessary resources. Here too, EPFL can make a real difference by working in close collaboration with Geneva’s international organizations.

Now, more attention is being given to assessing the complex array of factors that underpin the situation of vulnerability.”