Alumni and Faculty Partner to Achieve Integrated Sustainable Development

September 21, 2018
The desire to utilize the sustainable engineering focused skills developed at Masdar Institute to help bring sustainable development to marginalized communities around the world is what inspired two alumni and MI’s former dean of research to set up their own company.

“We were all involved in energy access-related research while at MI, where Kyle and I were part of Dr. Scott Kennedy’s research group. Over time we realized we had overlapping interests and a similar approach to understanding development issues and the role energy access plays in achieving development objectives. Towards the end of our time at MI, we knew that we wanted to continue working together on tackling these issues,” shared Ayu Abdullah, Class of 2013 MSc in Engineering Systems and Management.

She and fellow Class of 2013 graduate Kyle Weber partnered with Dr. Scott Kennedy, the former MI dean of research, to establish Energy Action Partners (ENACT) in 2014.

ENACT works to positively impact individuals and communities through direct engagement and collaborative programs in energy and capacity building. To achieve that, it provides community energy systems, short courses on energy and social enterprise and consulting services to ensure that the lessons and experience gained from their work are effectively applied to broader energy and development-related projects.

The inspiration behind this trio of services came from the team’s previous experiences in rural sustainable energy projects, which they felt focused too much on transplanting products and systems without enough involvement from the people who would use, maintain and advance those sustainable solutions.

“After visiting and studying numerous projects to bring electricity access to developing communities, we realized that there was a fundamental flaw in how many of these projects were designed,” explained Dr. Kennedy, Executive Director of ENACT.

“Proponents would say that the projects’ objectives were to improve the lives of the members of the community, but they assume that simply by providing the infrastructure the other aspects of development would naturally happen on their own. We recognized that a new approach to energy access was needed whereby the human development objectives have the highest priority, and the process by which energy systems are planned, designed and managed must be adapted to meet this objective. We founded our organization to develop, demonstrate and promote energy access initiatives that prioritize community development and local capacity building,” he added.

The goal of ENACT’s activities is to lead disruptive innovation of the current energy sector, which often views marginalized communities as passive recipients of technology and is dominated by a desire to scale infrastructure as opposed to addressing actual local needs and concerns.

“We want to spread tools and methods that empower communities to play a central role in energy system planning and design, while also allowing them to strengthen their existing institutions and leverage local norms and practices in energy system management,” Dr. Kennedy said.

The group has led initiatives with that goal in mind in Somaliland, Indonesia, India, and Malaysia.

“In Somaliland, ENACT planned and worked with a local team from Golis Solar, a retailer, installer, and servicer of wind and solar energy equipment in Somaliland, to install a solar thermal water heater system at a medium sized hotel in Hargeisa,” recalled Weber, who is Technical Advisor at ENACT.

“This technology, while mature in many other parts of the world, had largely not reached this region, but after we installed the system in this hotel and proved the technology could work, we noticed that the equipment began to be more readily available and is now sold in many shops in Hargeisa. Although the impact is perhaps somewhat limited (most people in this region do not require hot water for showering), it is very promising to see this environmentally-friendly technology be adopted so quickly,” he added.

In Ladakh India, Central Java Indonesia and Sabah Malaysia, ENACT has delivered specialized courses on energy and social enterprise by experts and practitioners in the field of energy and human development. These courses are aimed at inspiring and engaging young professionals, entrepreneurs and youth passionate about social change and interested in the provision of energy services.

The founding ENACT team said that being able to see the real impact of their projects and courses in the communities they are delivered in inspires them to continue and advance their work.

“ENACT alumni have reported positive impacts, particularly regarding the role of our programs in equipping them with practical knowledge in community engagement and development, social entrepreneurship and energy access. Some of them have gone on to be strong advocates of sustainable energy and community-based energy systems,” said Abdullah, who is ENACT Regional Director for Southeast Asia.

“More encouragingly, since heading up our Kuala Lumpur office, I now regularly see the familiar faces of our past participants at energy-related events or actively involved in local social entrepreneurship initiatives. I believe that as we continue to run these courses, we will have helped to grow a cadre of enthusiastic energy entrepreneurs who prioritize community participation and positive human development outcomes,” she added.

Over the past two years ENACT has been evolving and growing its operations. It has gone from a volunteer-driven organization to adding dedicated staffers and interns to allow it to scale up its activities and funding.

One critical lesson the ENACT team has learned over the years is the importance of collaboration and partnerships.

“We’ve recognized that partnerships are critically important for a small startup organization with large ambitions. Now we actively partner with educational institutions to have a wider reach for our courses, we partner with energy project developers to implement our methods in community engagement, and we continue to seek partnerships with firms and organizations in related fields of software development, energy finance, research and development and others,” Dr. Kennedy shared.

The team are grateful for the network and experiences they gained at MI, which brought them together and gave them the fundamental skills to pursue their sustainable development ideals.

“MI was very helpful for developing my understanding of complex systems dynamics, which in a startup and development field is extremely important. Being able to understand the local context and plan how best to allocate limited resources to realize the maximum intended impact is a challenge that must be overcome in order for any success to be achieved,” Weber said.

The ENACT team advise MI students, faculty and researchers looking to embark on their own entrepreneurial initiatives to first find their ‘partners in action’ who have the necessary skills and will share part of the responsibilities of developing and launching a company.

“Entrepreneurship can be very challenging and requires the right set of skills among a team of people. It’s never a solo effort,” Dr. Kennedy concluded.

Zarina Khan
Senior Editor
3 May 2017