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Simi Aluko

PhD candidate
Civil & Environmental Engineering
My first trip to London opened my mind to the idea that buildings can tell stories.

London is a historic town and there’s a lot of history and culture behind structures both big and small. It was my first time experiencing a built environment that really preserved history, celebrated culture, and was designed for people’s welfare. Around that time, at age 15 or 16, I grew interested in sustainable design. Now, I study the subject as a PhD candidate at Stanford’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. 

To understand my love of engineering, though, you have to first understand my love of writing, since they feed off of each other. Growing up as a kid in Lagos, Nigeria, I used to read a lot of books from UK authors in which progress, innovation, and the notion of what was “good” were all presented through a Western lens. Then, I discovered African literature, which really changed my perspective. African literature showed me that there is beauty in who I am, with all the intersectionality that I carry being a Black African woman. Books were the first place I realized the importance of identity. When I started doing my work in engineering, that idea stayed with me as I recognized that innovation should preserve people’s identity and quality of life, instead of erode them. Sustainable development isn’t possible unless it takes into account and celebrates cultural context. 

The global housing gap is an issue that sits on my heart very heavily. In Nigeria where I grew up, the problem is acute – there’s a lot of homelessness and housing insecurity. I’m hoping my work will, in some way, contribute to the industry’s ability to not only build better housing and more efficiently place people into housing, but also give them homes that are dignified. My favorite Nigerian architect, Kunlé Adeyemi, is the founder of the design firm NLÉ and he does a lot of innovative work in sustainable engineering and community-centered design. I am always moved to see work that prioritizes community needs, and considers and integrates traditional building methods into the technology that will support underserved populations. It’s important that sustainable development is anchored by solutions being self-sustaining within the community. I can’t imagine how that’ll happen without co-designing with the community and infusing their practices into the final design in a way that makes it intuitive for them to build and maintain. The easiest way to undo all the good work you do is to not make your work accessible to everyone. I’m interested in pulling all these ideas together to create housing solutions that are truly sustainable, not band-aid solutions for a global problem.

I’m early in my PhD so I haven’t yet explored the breadth of classes Stanford has to offer, but my favorite class at Stanford so far has been Venture Creation for the Real Economy. It’s a deep tech startup class. There were a lot of examples of people using wild, weird, and wacky innovations from civil engineering to build homes in different contexts, like low-income housing and accessory dwelling units. I loved learning about how people are pushing for access in all different types of housing through construction technology, a lot of which is heavily influenced by or directly pours out of the research that comes from our department. I learned practically how impact-driven business can democratize access to new knowledge and distribute engineering solutions to people who can directly benefit from them. 

I’m very happy that the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering recently became a joint department with the new Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability because I hope that our participation in SDSS will force a reorientation of thought from, “I’m interested in this technical problem,” to, “I want to create a solution that will create positive outcomes for the environment and people.” It’s a necessary first step. It also matters that we change our classes and coursework to incorporate not just calculations but communities. That’s something I’m actively working on right now both through my research and as I support Professor Martin Fischer at Stanford and Professor Nea Maloo at Howard University in redesigning and teaching their joint class Managing Sustainable Building Projects. We’re wrapping up our first quarter teaching the class collaboratively across the two schools, with added focus on community-centered management. I’m really excited to see courses like this push beyond the theory of engineering and promote community-first, people-first design and management. 

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