Jo da Silva OBE FREng is Director of International Development at Arup
“I am proud of creating a successful business that is focused on social impact rather than profit.”
How would you describe your current role to someone who knows nothing about engineering?
I run a multidisciplinary team of engineers, planners, researchers and project managers who are helping cities and communities in developing countries tackle today’s big challenges: rapid urbanisation, resource limitations, climate change and poverty.
The majority of the world’s population live in cities, and they are dependent on infrastructure that is planned, designed and constructed by engineers. Engineers design the drainage, dykes and dams that protect cities from flooding, how water and energy is distributed to our homes, and the transport and networks that allow goods, services, people and knowledge to flow.
For the one billion people living in informal settlements, better infrastructure is a critical pathway out of poverty. It allows them to access food, water, energy, affordable housing and jobs.
Why did you choose to go into engineering?
I wanted to contribute to society. I liked designing things. I enjoyed physics and was good a maths. It sounded more interesting than accountancy or banking. It provided opportunities to travel.
What do you like most about being an engineer?
Having tangible skills that mean I can make a genuinely useful contribution to society. Working in post-disaster environments and developing countries poses numerous challenges, but it’s a real opportunity to make a difference.
I don’t spend much time designing any more. Instead, I use my engineering knowledge to review a design and make it cheaper, more buildable or safer, or to explain how cities work, identify key weaknesses and conceive projects that have the potential to improve wellbeing and reduce vulnerability.
Tell us about an achievement that you are most proud of.
I can’t narrow it down to one. I am very proud of the projects I’ve been responsible for, or contributed significantly to, including Hong Kong International Airport on the island of Chek Lap Kok, the National Portrait Gallery in London and a community-build kindergarten in Ghana.
I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to use my skills in post-disaster contexts, helping to save lives and reduce suffering. In Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami, I felt a huge sense of achievement having co-ordinated the efforts of 100 organisations to build 60,000 shelters in six months. It wasn’t perfect, but no-one was living in tents when the rainy season began.
I am also proud of creating a successful business that is focused on social impact rather than profit.
How has being a woman in engineering changed since you started working in the engineering sector?
It’s changed enormously; less than 10% of graduate engineers were women 25 years ago and there were fewer female architects or clients. Now there is much more diversity – it feels more balanced and more accepting.
How do you think gender parity in engineering can be achieved?
Through successful women inspiring others; men and women.
What would you say to someone considering a career in engineering?
It’s an opportunity to create the change you want to see in the world.