BLUElab NicarAGUA team reflects on growth and challenges of practicing socially engaged design in the field

For the past two years, the BLUElab NicarAGUA team has been working with a small community called Las Banderitas, in the El Jicaral region of Nicaragua. After identifying the major need of the community as reliable access to water for bathing, cooking and cleaning during the dry season, the students have been co-designing rainwater catchment systems to help alleviate pressures of seasonal water scarcity in Las Banderitas. As the students from the NicarAGUA team have gone through the design process, they have been exposed to many of the inherent challenges of socially engaged design, such as understanding the expectations of multiple stakeholders, adapting to changing needs in the community, and being strategic in the implementation of a design.

During the Winter 2018 spring break, members of the NicarAGUA team traveled to Las Banderitas to learn more about the evolving needs of the community and to prepare for a longer trip this coming May, where the team initially planned to continue their implementation of the water catchment systems and perform a preliminary needs assessment both in Las Banderitas and other nearby communities. About a month before traveling, however, they learned that the municipality had installed a well water system in Las Banderitas, causing the team to reconsider the implementation of water catchment systems as the water scarcity issue would likely be alleviated.  The main goals of the spring break trip to El Jicaral became meeting with partner organization, Nuevas Esperanzas, and local government officials and to get as much face to face interaction with community members as possible.

A tank built by the NicarAGUA team and Nuevas Esperanzas in May 2017. Photo courtesy of Brigitte Smith.

When the NicarAGUA team found out that the new well had already run dry due to overuse, they realized that access to water in this area was much more complex than they originally anticipated. NicarAGUA team Project Engineer Cam Beversluis says that they had assumed the new well water system was “meeting water needs, but it wasn’t, so that was something we hadn’t planned for as much as we could have.” The installation of a new well also meant that the government no longer trucked fresh water into the community regularly.  This forced the spring break travelers to make changes “on the fly.”

Adapting to unexpected situations like this represents not only the challenges of working with a remote partner, but also the challenge in working with multiple stakeholders. Beversluis expresses the importance of talking face to face with not only partner organization, Nuevas Esperanzas, and Las Banderitas residents but also the local municipality and others to better understand all the factors that impact water access. “We’ll have to learn more about some of the dynamics of how the municipality intends to do projects in the community,” says Beversluis, since the NicarAGUA team learned that information residents had received from the local government about the state of the well system turned out to “not be completely accurate.”

NicarAGUA team members on their way to meet with community members in Las Banderitas to discuss the next step in their project. In this picture you can also see the new well system installed by the municipality. Photo courtesy of Brigitte Smith.

The complexities of the NicarAGUA project have shown team members the difficulties of doing socially engaged design well. Beversluis comments that the team has learned from “experiences where we’ve not had success, or been too ambitious, or optimistic, or unprepared in the past” and that these experiences have sparked a drive among team members to learn how to do things “thoroughly and properly.” The team has been working closely with C-SED and the executive board of BLUElab this year to learn more about not only co-designing solutions, but working with stakeholders and partners in the implementation of solutions.

NicarAGUA team member, Emily Brady says that C-SED consultations have been especially helpful to the team, providing an “unbiased opinion” on where the team should steer the focus of their project. She says that C-SED helped by “asking questions that we hadn’t really thought about, questions like ‘you’re building these tanks but why haven’t they already done this themselves?’ things we want to take into account more in the future when we’re deciding on a new project or new community in the future.”

NicarAGUA team members surveying families in the communities surrounding Chacraseca, Nicaragua. Photo courtesy of Liye Xing.

As the team looks forwards to potential next steps for the continuation of the rainwater catchment systems, they need to find a way to make the implementation of the systems into an economically sustainable model for the community. Faced with both external pressure of the community members’ desire for rainwater catchment systems, and the internal pressure of providing a valuable and educational experience to students through the design process, NicarAGUA is proceeding carefully as they try to understand how the rainwater systems can be expanded in El Jicaral without subsidization of the systems.