A Human Engineer

ANU Lecturer Jeremy Smith
Friday 8 June 2018

I can pinpoint the moment my view of engineering changed. It was December 2005 and I had decided to attend a conference on engineering in developing communities.

I did not see a link to my role as a manufacturing systems engineer at ANU, working on projects with some of the largest multinational manufacturing corporations in the world, but went along.

After lunch on the second day, I was listening to a talk about cooking in Malawi and the design, construction and maintenance of stoves and ovens to reduce smoke inhalation. Midway through, it hit me.

This work was using the same engineering, the same research, the same methods as myself. My work was not about the engineering, technology or manufacturing – it was about the people.

The impact of my work, of any engineering work, was on people – engineering was about humans.

As I explored this further, I discovered the power of engineering and technology to transform lives and create change for individuals, whole societies and internationally, for better and worse. I discovered the scale and urgency.

In 2017, 2.7 billion people globally did not have access to clean cooking facilities, leading to respiratory illnesses particularly for women and children; 2.3 billion people lacked access to basic sanitation facilities, with one in nine publicly defecating; 1.2 billion people had no access to electricity, limiting opportunities for education, healthcare and modern communication.

Simultaneously, all countries were increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters and the growing short and long-term impacts of climate change. Engineering and technology can contribute to overcoming these challenges, but not in isolation. What is required are engineers who can work collaboratively with individuals and communities, building on their strengths and stories, to imagine and create ideas that are appropriate, usable and beneficial within their contexts and circumstances. When this happens, engineering transforms lives.

The focus is not on engineering for its own sake but the benefits it can bring.

Technology becomes an enabler to improve health, increase income, enhance social participation and provide access to education. Engineering becomes a social activity, consciously placing human wellbeing at the heart of its effort. We call this humanitarian engineering.

To help train new humanitarian engineers, I have been embedding opportunities and experiences in the engineering program at the ANU. These expose students to the impacts of technology and engineering on society, from individuals to a global scale.

Students engage in collaborative projects working with organisations domestically and overseas to achieve improved health, livelihoods, education or accessibility.

Students are immersed in different cultures, ways of life and knowledge systems within Australia and the region, exploring concepts of resilience, vulnerability, accessibility and inclusion. The focus is not on engineering for its own sake but the benefits it can bring.

I am finding that the focus on people aspect of humanitarian engineering attracts a more diverse cohort of engineering students than is typical of the ANU or nationally. This in itself is a significant positive impact.

In countries like Australia, the lack of diversity in the engineering profession limits its potential. The relatively narrow range of lived experiences, which in Australia is predominantly males with high levels of formal education, restricts the breadth of views, ideas and values.

Designing and developing engineering for a community, region or country requires the lived experience of all those impacted. Engineers of the 21st century must, more than ever before, actively consider the consequences of their work on individuals and society.

This is not just their immediate users or clients – the impacts of engineering are felt beyond any one country's national boundaries. Engineers must work in partnership with users and clients to develop new ideas and technologies.

In turn, this creates a profession that can empower individuals and communities through the process of engineering.

This Humanitarian Engineering is part of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science’s new vision, not only reimagining what an engineer or a computer scientist is or does, but imagining new collaborative futures where everyone contributes to and shares in the benefits of engineering and technology. In this way, all members of society are benefiting from the promise and potential of new technologies and the positive transformations they can bring.

Mr Jeremy Smith, BIT ’95, BE (Hons) ’97, MPhil ’09, Grad Cert ’14, is a Lecturer at the ANU Research School of Engineering.

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