People-centric engineering

Humanitarian EngineeringEngineers increasingly questioning what the profession means to them. It has always been viewed as a noble calling, a chance to enrich people’s lives, but far from this utopian ideal, many technological advancements have increased inequity across the world, enriching some, often at the expense of others, and leading educators are now questioning both the process and objectives behind engineering education.

There’s no onesize- fits-all solution, and we need to be open-minded and respectful when it comes to working alongside other cultures.

Humanitarian engineering is a specialisation that has emerged as a response to this unfulfilled desire to increase the quality of life for all humanity and according to Dr Fiona Johnson, the specialisation is fast gaining traction. She points to the establishment of the Humanitarian Engineering Education Network of Australasia (HEENA) as a prime example.

“With HEENA, we’ve suddenly got a critical mass of programs and courses in universities across Australasia, and a community of educators who are passionate about working together to make sure we are meeting the dual needs of students and the vulnerable communities they’ll be working for in the future,” says Johnson, who is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Dr Robert Care, Professor of Practice at the School, says humanitarian engineering is such a unique way to view a project or problem, it has yet to be slotted neatly into the “professional circumstance”, as designated by Engineers Australia. It doesn’t easily fit, because it is not an engineering discipline per se, crossing many if not all disciplines. It is more a ‘people-centric’ engineering philosophy where the focus is to improve the lives of people in disadvantaged or marginalised communities by viewing any technological solution through the deep context of the situation.

This context is essential explains Dr Hanna Grzybowska, Senior Research Associate at the Research Centre for Integrated Transport Innovation. "The biggest existing challenge humanitarian engineers face, and also the challenge which will be very important into the future, is cultivating an ability to understand the context of the cultural background and problem before weighing in with a solution,” she says.

“Some engineers like to think that cutting-edge, robust and intelligent technological solutions will solve any problem, but that’s not true. Humanitarian engineers must be very creative. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and we need to be open-minded and respectful when it comes to working alongside other cultures to ensure we design sustainable, resilient and appropriate solutions.”

Johnson, alongside multidisciplinary colleagues across the Faculty, is involved in coordinating the teaching of humanitarian engineering and developing the discipline as a whole within UNSW. She explains that the University’s strategic focus on having a positive global impact and social engagement dovetails perfectly with their advances in humanitarian engineering research and teaching.

“UNSW Engineering is particularly strong in water and energy research but there is other research based around humanitarian engineering, for example the work that Dr Grzybowska is doing in humanitarian logistics,” says Johnson, who explains that the teaching they have developed draws strongly on the University’s research strengths.

The new courses developed so far include a third-year course called Fundamentals of Humanitarian Engineering, that will be taught from the end of July 2018, and a fourthyear course called Humanitarian Engineering Project which is already underway, and from which Johnson and Care have recently returned from Nepal.

“The humanitarian project we are working on in Nepal is exploring the feasibility of producing biochar which can be made locally and either used to improve the health of the soil, or further processed into charcoal briquettes for heating or cooking,” says Johnson, who explains that the eight UNSW students were joined in Nepal by students and researchers from Arizona State University (as part of a PLuS Alliance collaboration) and one student from Tribuhavan University in Kathmandu.

With increasingly complex global challenges facing humanity, it is very satisfying to be part of this field of engineering and using my skills in such a positive way

Professor of Practice Robert Care, and Dr Fiona Johnson (back row, second and third left) with students and colleagues on site in Nepal in 2018
Professor of Practice Robert Care, and Dr Fiona Johnson (back row, second and third left) with students and colleagues on site in Nepal in 2018

“The exciting part of this project is that the starting product for the charcoal process are the noxious weeds mikania and lantana that are threatening to smother the ecosystems of nearby Chitwan National Park, which provide important habitat for rhinoceros, elephants and the Bengal tiger,”continues Johnson.

Care has 45 years’ experience working as a consulting engineer in both the private and government sectors and was involved with RedR Australia (Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief) for almost five years. His role on the trip was to provide students with contacts and advice and help them troubleshoot things that will never appear in any textbooks.

“What I can do is introduce them to industry experts, help shed light on how to handle certain situations in the field and how you recover from things going wrong. Unforeseen challenges arise in all projects and I want to help equip students to successfully navigate their way through,” he continues. This groundswell of interest from researchers and academics at UNSW is also shared by students who, Johnson explains, have led the way in some respects. “Student-led chapters of Engineering World Health and Engineers Without Borders have had a longstanding presence on campus and new groups like Enactus and Impact Engineers are joining them every year,” she says.

“With increasingly complex global challenges facing humanity, it is very satisfying to be part of this field of engineering and using my skills in such a positive way.”