Interview with Prof. Vetterli

We spoke with EPFL President Martin Vetterli about the new Engineering Humanitarian Aid initiative – a joint program bringing together EPFL, ETH Zurich and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to put engineering know-how at the service of humanitarian aid.

EPFL has been working with the ICRC for a long time. What’s new about this initiative?

It’s true that back in 2016, we teamed up with the ICRC to create the Humanitarian Tech Hub in the EssentialTech Centre. But this new initiative has a broader scope and will involve both us and EPF Zurich, as well as other ETH Domain institutions if possible. So more strengths and more skills. We also received initial financial support from the ETH Domain, due to the involvement of its institutions. With more organizations taking part in the program, we will be able to create a center of excellence in Switzerland for innovation in humanitarian aid.

What are the benefits for EPFL and ETH Zurich in developing technology for humanitarian aid?

The students coming out of our schools are engineers, but also citizens. So it’s essential that they see how they can put their skills and know-how to work to help others. While we believe in the value of technological progress, it’s only worthwhile if it benefits society as a whole. Humanitarian aid is a key sector in which EPFL can bring tangible skills, along with the environment, physical rehabilitation and neuroscience, big data and more. Switzerland also has a long, remarkable tradition of humanitarian aid – and it’s only natural for EPFL to play a role.

In addition, many of the problems that aid workers face require high-tech know-how; these problems raise interesting challenges for our researchers and for Swiss society in general, including in the area of data security.

“Humanitarian aid is a key sector in which EPFL can bring tangible skills.”

“This collaborative effort is in keeping with the humanitarian tradition of French-speaking Switzerland. EPFL has been carrying out joint projects with the ICRC for several years, and our new initiative with ETH Zurich and the ICRC gives our work added meaning because we know what we do will have a concrete, positive impact on people’s daily lives.”

– Martin Vetterli, EPFL President

ETH Domain is committing CHF 5 million over two years – that doesn’t seem to be much relative to the schools’ overall budgets.

This initial funding is intended to get the program started and demonstrate its added value. Our goal is to bring in additional partners and anchor the program for the long term, drawing on Switzerland’s ecosystem. And to help us meet that ambitious goal, we just started looking for additional financial backers.

Will the technology developed under this initiative have a real impact on the lives of people in need?

Of course that’s our intention. The research projects we’ve chosen to support are very targeted and respond to specific problems – meaning they will meet a real need. For instance, one of these projects involves using artificial intelligence to estimate population density, because knowing the size of conflict-affected groups could help the ICRC deliver its aid more effectively. Another example is the Agilis project to develop a prosthesis. This project was run in the Humanitarian Tech Hub between 2016 and 2019 and involved the ICRC and several EPFL labs. The ICRC took the lead on the project in 2020 and filed a patent (for the first time ever!) to protect the technology. Now the ICRC is manufacturing 200 prototypes for clinical trials in 2021.

Does that mean that EPFL and ETH Zurich’s role will simply be to make the ICRC’s efforts more effective and better organized?

No, this initiative will tackle genuine technological challenges, and with this type of partnership we can take the innovations developed in our labs and implement them directly in the field. At the same time, our researchers will be able to collect valuable information.

For example, the biometric system being developed under one of our projects will let aid workers deliver targeted aid to the people who need it without collecting personal data that could be hacked by hostile groups and therefore put people at risk. With humanitarian needs on the rise and resources increasingly limited, this will also allow aid to reach more people.