Putting the Human in Humanitarian Engineering

People often think of Engineers as problem and solution focused. Many problems remain in the world, acutely so in poor and disadvantaged communities, and human-centered engineering offers solutions to fix them.

Fiona Li meeting women and children of the Cents for Seeds programHumanitarian Engineering challenges the idea that engineers are just scientific thinkers focused on a technical problem and a solution. UNSW Engineering students tackle problems and engineer human- orientated solutions, working towards positive change.

It was engineering solutions to create better lives that drove Adam McCurdie to study engineering at UNSW. His admiration for his grandfather, who as an engineer created many lift saving inventions, led him to studying engineering.

Adam graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering and Bachelor of Science, working for a number of high-profile companies before co-founding Humanitix, which funds education programs for disadvantaged students. It’s a disruptive online platform for events ticketing that donates 100% of profits to funding indigenous scholarships and girls’ literacy programs in low income countries.

Adam explains, “a trend is emerging where consumers are expecting brands and industries to be contributing back to society in a meaningful way beyond simply selling a product or service.”

Adam speaks to the growing importance of social responsibility and assisting those in most need of help. “Humanitarian Engineering” does this through appropriate and sustainable solutions developed in partnerships. UNSW contributes to many areas of Humanitarian Engineering through teaching, student projects, research and the success of our alumni in the area.

Humanitarian Engineering often provides essential services such as food, water, shelter and energy through sustainable means that communities can then maintain themselves. In places that lack reliable access to these essentials, engineers develop solutions that improve community access to these services. Different to emergency aid, Humanitarian Engineering seeks to empower communities rather than rescue them.

With interest in humanitarian engineering growing, UNSW Engineering developed Fundamentals of Humanitarian Engineering, a subject that teaches students how to create engineering solutions to improve the wellbeing of individuals. Dr Fiona Johnson led the course development and noted, “there’s a real need to create ‘global citizen engineers’ who can address humanitarian problems faced by societies around the world.”

UNSW Engineering student Fiona Li joined the Drought Resistance Uganda (DRU) Social Impact team after the course sparked her interest in humanitarian engineering. “It opened my eyes to global projects which work collaboratively with locals to develop culturally appropriate solutions”. The experience added a humanitarian element to her study, showing her the positive impact engineers can make when combining compassion and problem-solving. 

UNSW Engineering is committed to this human side of the discipline with many academics and students pushing to promote and grow this ‘human focussed’ engineering approach. The faculty continues to introduce Humanitarian Engineering subjects and student projects with real-world development partners where students receive hands-on experience in the field.

Students can get real hands-on experience through the ChallENG program where they can work with non-profit and social-change organisations in unique cultural experiences. Projects include repairing vital medical equipment in Cambodia or Uganda, creating a sustainable portable water treatment solution for communities or developing sustainable options for drought-resistant agriculture.

Study at UNSW Engineering will not only help you develop leading edge skills in engineering but inspire you to use your skills in unique ways as a force for good. The role of engineers in improving lives and working towards achieving targets withing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is becoming increasingly consolidated as the field of Humanitarian Engineering. At the end of the day, engineers are increasingly bringing a little heart to this mind-led discipline.

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