Just over a year ago, I graduated from the University of Salford with a master’s degree in civil engineering. I was excited about my career and working on projects that would shape the environment in which we live. However, I realised that I had large skill gaps in areas that I felt were important in designing a positive built environment. With one-third of the urban population living below the poverty line, I felt it was important for me to connect with and understand wider social issues. This has led me on a journey in which I have immersed myself in the fields of social impact, sustainable development, and 21st century leadership.

The journey started with simple questions: Why do we design? What are our roles and responsibilities? With this in mind, I wanted to explore where civil engineering fit into the wider picture, and understand the public perception of engineers and how we could improve our representation in society. The most important takeaway from this journey was that our skills as civil engineers are appreciated; we have incredible problem-solving and project-management skills that can make a real difference in society.

This led me to develop my own ideas and social action campaign around civil engineering and engineering outreach to young people. This campaign was unsuccessful as I found it difficult to connect with and bring people on board. Failure is, however, only part of a journey as it provides the foundation to learn and move forward. The next part of the journey took me to Southeast Asia with the UN University for Peace to complete a diploma in social innovation. I believed the course would enable me to connect the themes I had been studying with high-level strategic thinking.

The course shifted my mind set; you can only do so much from a distance — in order to design a better future, we need to connect and build upon the potential of the people and community we are working for. Going on this journey enabled me to set up Engineering Design for Social Innovation (EDSI). EDSI explores the different concepts of grass roots social innovation and how they can be integrated into strategic design. EDSI aims to empower designers and the community to build a better future. We need to unlock the human resources in the design process in order to bridge the gap between available resource and increasing demands.

Over the last year, I have met passionate leaders in their fields — designers who are driven by the necessity to create a better future for their community. I have been challenged and continuously stretched by different perspectives, ideas and concepts. This experience has enabled me to bring a creative energy back into my design. This journey started with one simple step. I gave myself permission to pursue, to place the why before the logic. As designers, we need to give each other permission to bring our identity into engineering. It’s within this freedom, this empathy, that we will design a better future.


John-Donaghy_89x100John Donaghy ( is a graduate civil engineer in the U.K. rail team and was a finalist in the NCE Graduate of the Year Awards program for 2014, as “Highly Commended.” John is the founder of Engineering Design for Social Innovation (EDSI), which aims to connect the dots between people and engineering. He is passionate about social change and has recently completed a diploma in social innovation with the UN University of Peace.
LinkedIn: John Donaghy
Twitter: @JohnJDonaghy
Twitter: @ED4SI

Originally published Dec 29, 2014

Author: John Donaghy