Alastair Norris
Date published

29 March 2021

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Alastair Norris

Career Profiles
Date published

29 March 2021



Alastair Norris talks about his experiences in the humanitarian and international development sector. Alastair is a full member of the Institution's Humanitarian and International Development Panel.

Describe your current role

Build Change is a non-profit social enterprise with a mission to greatly reduce deaths, injuries and economic losses caused by housing collapse due to earthquakes and typhoons in emerging nations. Build Change have worked to improve construction in over 10 countries worldwide by designing disaster-resistance homes and providing training to builders, homeowners, engineers, and government officials in order to promote sustainable resilience.

I am the Risk and Resilience Program Manager for Build Change Nepal where we have been working since the 2015 earthquake as part of the reconstruction effort. My role in the organisation is to project manage ongoing plans, ensuring that we are successfully delivering the required outcomes. This includes:

  • Reporting to donors
  • Overseeing engineering designs
  • Ensuring high quality is maintained
  • Leading research work to ensure learnings are documented and can be applied in the future

In addition, I provide support to global business development focussing on how we can scale preventative engineering work and link it into disaster risk financing and insurance.

A critical but often forgot aspect of my role is in supporting my Nepali colleagues to develop, improve their career possibilities and ensure that resilience efforts can be driven from within the country.

Describe your path to your current role

I gained an MEng in Civil and Architectural Engineering from the University of Bath and following this worked for Price & Myers, a structural engineering firm in London. My work focussed on the design of small to medium size residential and commercial buildings.

After two years at Price & Myers, I joined Risk Management Solutions’ (RMS) Consulting team. My work involved modelling the risk of natural hazards to several assets across both the insurance industry and public sector in developed and developing countries. Part of this work was identifying ways this risk can be mitigated and measuring the associated potential benefits.

During my time at RMS I started to learn more about international development work and was motivated to involve myself in any related activities. Through doing this I was given the opportunity to spend a sabbatical in Nepal supporting Build Change’s project work and developing a strategy for how their work could be linked to different financing mechanisms. Following this sabbatical, I was offered a full time position with Build Change.

Are there any key things you did, or learnt, that helped you on your career path?

Studying engineering at university has helped me significantly on my career path. Engineers are inexorably linked to some of the biggest challenges of our time and engineering opened lots of career options, including areas I never even knew existed. It also gave me a good grounding in some of the most important aspects needed for all jobs, like teamwork and problem solving.

During my career probably the most helpful thing has been making myself available for work outside of the usual scope of my job description and comfort zone. I have always been active in wanting to develop my knowledge and skills and doing this has paved the way for me to get involved in development, including spending time in Nepal. Having the motivation and commitment to always learn more and improve is hugely beneficial. I would recommend to anyone interested in international development to make this their first step.

A key learning that has helped in my career to date has been how to foster collaboration across backgrounds and develop a positive inclusive culture. In a team it is vital for everyone to feel able to input their thoughts and ideas.

I would also recommend to anyone interested in this area keeping up to date with the current relevant discussions. Engaging with the sector through reading (articles, books, blogs, etc) is also helpful. Attending key conferences is a great way to understand the sector better, meet people who work in it and recognise what role you may be best positioned to fulfil.

What are your future career aspirations?

I would like to remain in the development sector, bringing together my experience in the disciplines of engineering and disaster risk financing to create holistic solutions for countries to mitigate and manage their risk. A clear overlap of these two areas is in the resilience of the built environment to the affects of natural hazards, in particular public infrastructure assets. This is of great importance with the ongoing impact of the climate emergency and the consequential increasing intensity of catastrophic events affecting the world.

Engineers have huge potential to make a positive impact on the world and I hope to be a small part of this through my work supporting developing countries.

What motivates you to work in relief/development?

My interest in development began when I joined RMS. They are a catastrophe risk modelling company who provide risk models to the private and public sectors. I was fortunate to be given a sabbatical to experience development work first hand with Build Change. Following this experience, I joined Build Change’s Nepal office.

Working in Nepal has shown me the potential for development work to enhance countries' prospects. Whilst there are many challenges, the work enables one to have a direct beneficial impact on people’s lives and ensure they are more resilient to any future natural hazard. This is both very necessary and can be highly rewarding.

I believe development work has a critical role to play in the development of countries and ensuring people are more resilient to natural hazards, especially in the face of increasing risk from climate change. I believe not enough is being done to reduce the burden on relief, this needs to change, and I want to be part of this change.

Who should become a structural engineer working in the humanitarian or development sectors?

Working in the development sector requires individuals who can think beyond the pure science of engineering and take into account critical factors like the political environment and socio-economic situation in the country/ region of work. Development work often requires a broader skill set than traditional engineering, with more emphasis placed on softer skills.

On a personal level an engineer needs to be empathetic and have the ability to collaborate with people of different cultures, experiences and priorities. Very good self-awareness is important to understand how one’s involvement might be impacting on a situation.

How is membership of the Institution relevant and useful to your work in international development or humanitarian work?

Membership of the Institution has provided good guidance on aspects of international development work through the website, Structural Awards and the Structural Engineer magazine.  A continued focus on the international presence of the Institution is highly relevant and this will only gain increasing importance with the climate emergency.


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