Great Problems Seminar Celebrates 10 Years

Social entrepreneur and environmentalist Albina Ruiz Rios to deliver keynote
September 29, 2016

In this—Year 10 of the Great Problems Seminars (GPS)—it’s only fitting that a speaker with appeal across a variety of disciplines comes to campus as part of the GPS Speaker Series.

Noted social entrepreneur and environmentalist Albina Ruiz Rios, founder and president of Ciudad Saludable in Peru, will present “From Engineering, Generating Social Innovation” on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 4–5 p.m., in Olin Hall 107 (refreshments and time to meet the speaker until 6 p.m.). Earlier in the day, Ruiz and WPI’s social entrepreneur in residence Martin Burt will be available for informal conversation at a brown bag lunch in the RCC Chairman's Room.

Keynote speaker Albina Ruiz Rios

Associate dean of undergraduate studies Kris Wobbe says Ruiz’s story of innovation—designing a waste collection system in her community in Peru—will interest a variety of students and faculty.  

“Waste is a problem whose solution involves multiple disciplines,” says Wobbe, reflecting various areas of study. “I can see much of our community having an interest in this crucial issue: industrial engineers, chemical engineers, GPS students, IQP students—even those from such organizations as the Global Health Alliance, and Students for a Just and Stable Future … [Ruiz’s experiences] fit a lot of different areas.”

Visionary spirit

Ruiz was an industrial engineering student who designed a community-managed waste system in a neighborhood in Lima, Peru. Hundreds of tons of trash was generated, yet only half was picked up by the city, leaving unhygienic piles in lots and streets, causing noxious fumes and illnesses.

The only woman in her class at the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería,(UNI), Ruiz set up a system under which local entities would collect and recycle trash and reduce the amount going into city landfills. Meanwhile, microenterprises were launched that would use the discarded materials to make products that could be sold, such as compost that can be used as fertilizer.

Ruiz graduated from UNI in 1986 and went on to earn a master’s in ecology and environmental management and a PhD in chemical engineering. Having written her thesis on the social and ecological implications of the use of refuse, the city asked her to start a pilot program.

Her project evolved into Ciudad Saludable (Healthy City), founded in 2001. The group trains workers, assists them in their start-up phase, and charges families a low fee to get pickup service. By 2014, 300 employees had been trained, and service was provided to three million residents in Peru. Her work resulted in a national law regulating waste recyclers’ activities.

Now, trained waste collectors in Ruiz’s program have improved living conditions for millions of people in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela, while uplifting impoverished people with needed jobs.

Connections abound

Wobbe said Ruiz’s WPI visit is the result of an invitation from Burt. He chose Ruiz as a good fit to visit WPI.

“He is exceptional in this way,” Wobbe says of Burt, looking back on other speakers he has brought to campus. “Our hope was that Martin would open a window onto the world, but he has served more as a French door, inviting others in,” adding that Burt's and Ruiz’s time here will allow them to deepen their connection, as well.

For those who can’t make the lunch or the lecture, Ruiz will have time on Monday and Tuesday for appointments with students and other WPI community members.

- By Susan Shalhoub