A human engineer

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 any link to my role as a manufacturing systems engineer at the 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.