It’s not about the biggest skyscraper – it’s about meeting people’s needs

Civil Engineering Honours graduate Sam Johnson has not rested on his laurels since completing his degree at the end of last year.

Since then Sam has won Best Overall Presentation and The Entrepreneurship Award at the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Humanitarian Engineering conference held in Melbourne in December 2016. And in February 2017 he was awarded the 2017 Rod McGee Medal,  a prestigious Engineers Australia award that recognises a final year civil engineering student who shows promise to make contributions to public works engineering. 

The 'Making an Impact' EWB Summit showcased the role that professionals, academics and students can play in creating positive social outcomes.   The Entrepreneurship Award was awarded to the project that provided the most useful research on how humanitarian and development products and services could be commercialised. For the Best Overall Presentation award – Sam’s contribution was selected by popular vote of other EWB researchers.

Engineers without borders

Sam’s presentation was based on his final year report, An Introductory Guide for Social Enterprises Serving Base of Pyramid Markets: Leading Business Models and Core Concepts, which presented an overview of the field using the theoretical framework of the frequently used business analysis tool, Michael Porter’s Value Chain Analysis.

A social enterprise is a company that sells products and services with the primary motive of improving social outcomes for their customers and community. Social enterprises can become much more sustainable and large scale than traditional charities as they can generate their own income and aren’t as reliant on grants and donations.  

Sam’s research was conducted on behalf of Engineers Without Borders Australia with the primary objective to provide insights into how the business model of EWB’s Cambodia-based social enterprise ATEC* Biodigestors can be improved. A biodigestor is a vessel that transforms organic waste into biogas for cooking and organic fertiliser. For eight years EWB Australia has been in the product development phase for an innovative new biodigestor design and is now at the stage where they are ready to commercialise the product.

Sam has always been interested in the role of infrastructure to ensure basic human rights and the possibilities of market-based solutions to poverty issues. He believes that the most important infrastructure challenge of the 21st century is not to build the largest skyscraper, but rather to ensure infrastructure is provided so that people worldwide can enjoy a reasonable quality of life.

His fourth year thesis was also written as a general overview document for other engineers who are designing new products for development or humanitarian aid, so that they have a basic theoretical overview of common business models – successes and mistakes. 

Currently Sam works as a consultant at the World Bank Group conducting desktop analysis for projects in Timor-Leste, Fiji and Kiribati.

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