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Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction

Transforming infrastructure through smarter information
 

In celebration of International Women’s Day 2024, Viviana Bastidas Melo, Research Associate at CSIC's Digital Cities for Change (DC2), shares her inspiring journey in science and engineering.

When did your passion for engineering start?

I developed an interest in engineering during my high school years in Colombia, where I was introduced to informatics. We used a basic game called 'Logo,' which operated through simple computer commands and this experience sparked my passion for programming. I still remember a homework assignment at school where I had to give a presentation about the ‘emerging’ electronic mail in Colombia. We didn't have internet access at home or school back then, so I had to visit the city centre library to read about it in newspapers and books. That made me curious about the transformative potential of computing technologies, such as the internet, for humanity's future. I realised that pursuing a degree in systems engineering would be an excellent opportunity to learn how to apply its principles across various fields.

What is your current position and what does it entail?

I am a Research Associate in Urban Systems and Infrastructure at the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC). I am working on the Digital Cities for Change (DC2) project which aims to investigate how urban data can be used to improve the planning, management and delivery of digital innovations that create public value.

My research focuses on the design of socio-technical systems, particularly at the intersection of governance, ethics and responsible digital innovation. While applying a socio-technical perspective is not new, it is increasingly essential in addressing societal problems through technologies such as Large Language Models (LLMs). These technologies can exacerbate existing inequalities if we don’t design and deploy them responsibly and ethically. This stresses the growing importance of a socio-technical and interdisciplinary approach in tackling these challenges.

Besides my research, I am actively involved in designing and delivering courses to equip city managers and planners with the necessary competencies to implement responsible digital innovations. This experience has been particularly encouraging, as we observe a significant demand for upskilling within the public sector and among their digital delivery partners.

What motivates/interests you about what you do?

Empowering people. What I mean by that is providing people with the knowledge, abilities and tools they need in practice to address societal problems. The research I am conducting as part of the DC2 project aims to enhance leadership capacity within local authorities and the private sector. Leadership that looks beyond the technology, leadership that prioritises public value creation at the core of efforts.

Research serves as the vehicle to co-design and shape practical tools, such as frameworks, guidelines, models, and socio-technical architectures—any artefact that can assist people in tackling real-world problems. Moreover, teaching students with different backgrounds and education experiences, and helping them to build those skills and apply those skills to solve problems in their contexts and based on their experiences is particularly rewarding.

What has helped shape your career – people, colleagues, family?

My parents were the first to teach me the importance of education. They are the inspiration of my life. Their example of being disciplined and responsible with my education and career has always guided me. Of course, I have met many colleagues and friends who have supported me and have been important at every stage of my career.

I benefited immensely from my manager, Juan Carlos Torres, in Colombia when I was working in his software engineering company. I learnt the importance of good leadership, resilience, and believing in what you do. My PhD supervisor, Professor Markus Helfert, has been a great mentor, and I am grateful for the opportunity he gave me to start an academic career and for teaching me the importance of rigorous research.

Professor Jennifer Schooling has been an amazing mentor during my current position, and I am very grateful for learning from her every day about the responsibilities we have towards people, nature, and the environment.

What have you gained from working with CSIC? Or hope to gain?

Working with the DC2 project - an interdisciplinary research team - has been an amazing experience. It has helped me to think ‘outside the box’. Before joining, I was already applying socio-technical design in my research. However, here I have gained a new perspective on extending the social aspects of urban digital innovation and transformation by incorporating concepts of ethics and responsible innovation. This highlights the responsibility we, as researchers, have towards society when investigating urban digital innovations. As Professor Jennifer Schooling often says, “Cities are there because of people”. Therefore, I try to ensure that our DC2 research prioritises the needs of people and communities in different contexts.

What is the best thing about what you do?

Creating new models and tools to support people in practice allows me to engage and stay in contact with people around the world, even from Latin America. For instance, in recent months, I have been collaborating with academics and practitioners from Brazil. They approached me for assistance with smart city projects, and I immediately agreed. Together, we have been working to understand their current efforts in transforming their municipalities through digital technologies. Like many cities in Latin America, they are in the early stages of digitalisation. The DC2 competency framework has been a valuable tool to assist them in their improvement process. I hope that together we can shape their initiatives by integrating ethical and responsible innovation considerations. This will ensure that their smart city projects not only advance technologically but also prioritise the public value for our Latin American communities.

How have you overcome challenges in your working/academic life?

When you leave your home country many things become a challenge. The hardest part has been being away from my family. Also, dealing with the language barrier has been tough, especially coming from a place where we mainly speak one language. But I have found that embracing change and keeping an open mind is key. It has been essential to push my boundaries to overcome these challenges, even in situations where I feel out of my comfort zone.

Where would you like to see your career going? What’s next?

One thing that I know is that I love to continue doing research. Whether in academia or industry, I would like to prioritise research that addresses societal challenges and promotes ethical innovation. I would love to continue with my research agenda “Socio-technical AI Design for Public Value” which I recently presented at an academic conference this summer. It emphasises the need for a socio-technical design of AI systems in cities to deliver social benefits while assessing and mitigating potential harms.

Do you have any role models?

Yes, I was inspired by a professor from my home country during my master's studies. She conducted research in software engineering, and reading her academic publications, where she demonstrated practical improvements, was truly inspiring to me. When I took her module and she recommended reading some of her papers, I decided to pursue a PhD to learn how to conduct research that directly benefits people in practice. What is remarkable is that she does not know about this impact on me, and I hope to one day have the opportunity to tell her.

What do you think might encourage more women to work in science and engineering?

I believe that early exposure to science and engineering, starting from school, is crucial. Children can explore different areas of engineering through classes, public workshops, and science events. Women need to receive encouragement both at school and at home, along with ongoing support, to pursue their interests and dreams in these fields. I hope we can inspire more women to choose careers in science and engineering and empower them to make meaningful contributions. Scientists have a key role in this effort through public engagement activities where we can explain engineering and our research in context, encouraging children to learn more.

Do you have any advice for women who may be considering pursuing a career in this area?

It is an excellent time for women to come into engineering. My advice would be to enjoy this fascinating world of engineering and science. From my own experience, I have met very supportive and encouraging people during my career, both women and men. I feel that today there are great opportunities for women to study and contribute to building a better and more sustainable world.

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