John Donaghy is a Graduate Civil Engineer working in transportation and Rail at AECOM. He is also the Founder of EDSI. As a student, he was a participant on two Common Purpose programmes - Frontrunner for Disabled Students in association with Santander and a Global Leader Experiences programme in London.

What was going through your mind when you first arrived at Frontrunner for Disabled Students in association with Santander?

Excitement, mainly. I was excited to see what I could get out of it. I was excited to see what I could give to the other people I was meeting. It was a great thing to meet up with other people who had dreams and visions and were looking to give something back. I wanted a learning experience where we could use the skills we developed at university but apply them practically, and apply them in a way we could make a difference to society.

What did you personally get out of the programme?

At university, there are some great opportunities, but getting out of university and meeting diverse and inspiring people in the community gives you a wisdom that you don't normally get in a traditional learning environment. For example, on a visit to the YMCA we talked to their management and, as a team, looked into the issues they were facing. Working in a team where there are a very wide difference of opinions, backgrounds and skills has since encouraged me to work more with other people.

Do you think progammes like Frontrunner for Disabled Students are important?

Before the course I had always considered my dyslexia to be a barrier, but seeing what other people are doing and are managing to do and having that very positive environment enabled me to see it more as something which is positive and something I can use to add value.

One of things which surprised me was the amount of people with disabilities that weren't visible and the amount of people who are undergoing day to day challenges without people knowing it. Everyone has their own way of overcoming disability and everyone is at a different stage of how they relate to it. For so many people, it's part of their identity but it doesn't need to define who they are and what they can achieve.

I think everyone on the programme gained something whatever stage they were at, and whatever personal difficulties they were facing, you could see them move forward. It's very rare that you see everyone move forwards in leaps and bounds. It was confidence building. You could see it. It was great.

You also attended the Global Leader Experiences programme in London, why did you want to attend a second Common Purpose programme?

The CQ [Cultural Intelligence] side of the Global leader Experiences programme really spoke to me. Because it was asking: how do we take our ideas and look at their cultural context? How do we build something that is a little more resilient in the global world that we live in today?

You are currently in the process of setting up a social enterprise for civil engineers, would you like to tell us more?

When I finished my first Common Purpose programme, it gave me a few ideas on how to take my thoughts and ambitions and apply them practically; with other people and within the industry. This led me to research social enterprise ideas and start my own project: Engineering Design for Social Innovation. EDSI is about connecting the dots in between people and engineering. The aim is to grow organically into a social enterprise with the following objectives:

  • promote the best standards of care for the decision framework involving civil engineering and raise the next generation of engineers with a greater understanding of why sustainable impact matters
  • promote the best standards of care for the decision framework involved in civil engineering to the wider community enabling an understanding of how sustainable impact is implemented.

This idea arose from thinking about how we get people to engage more with their built environment. I wanted to get more of a discussion going between civil engineers and the communities they design for. I am currently working with two other Civil Engineering graduates from Salford University to move the project forward towards a social enterprise.

What do you hope the project can achieve in the future?

Over the last 10 years or more the construction industry really has come forward in engaging with their community - but I feel that there is still more work to be done. EDSI will ask: how can we get engineers to connect with the different people involved in the construction industry? How do you get civil engineers to connect more with architects and the users they are designing for?  And how do you get communities in conversation with designers in order to meet demands which are becoming increasingly more complex? We'd also like to be involved in sustainable development linked with conflict resolution.

How have your Common Purpose programmes helped you with this project?

One of the main messages I took from my Common Purpose programmes was that you don't have to wait to be a leader. If you're on a leadership journey then whatever you are doing, you are leading. Whether that's in your local community or at university - whatever you are doing, you can be leading and you can make an impact. So are you going to use that position to just 'get the job done' or are you going to use it to promote positive change?

Visit the Engineering Design for Social Innovation website

Find out more about Common Purpose programmes for students

Common Purpose is running Global Leader Experiences in the 50 Magnet Cities of the world. A Magnet City has students from over 100 countries studying in it. So that students don't just graduate as Economists and Engineers. They are also networked, responsible, global leaders with Cultural Intelligence.

Frontrunner Disabled Students is a leadership programme for disabled students. It gets students off-campus and out into the city they are studying in to discover how it works - and doesn't work.