Engineering Heroes is turning its usual program on its head. We are sharing with you a podcast series from the ANU CECS, called Reimagine STEM.
Each episode in the series will delve into some key engineering hot topics. Through the presentation of rich and deep interviews this episode will present the exciting innovations which are occurring in engineering education.
[Cameron]I do think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we don’t want to approach problems as engineering problems. We need to approach problems as human problems. And the technology that we design is a means, but it’s not necessarily the solution. The solution is the person supporting the person. And that’s quite a fundamental shift. It’s something that we see is quite difficult when it comes to teaching students.
[Kiara] What do you think would happen if all engineering repositioned itself as social benefit engineering and had that focus?
[Sam]I think the world would look pretty different pretty quick.
[Sam]Without a shadow of a doubt.
[Kiara] When you hear the term power analysis, what do you think of? It’s not how much electrical energy is flowing through any given system, but it is sort of related. We’re looking at the power flowing through a social system. In our line of work, it’s often the experts, the engineers, holding the power. We’re making key decisions. But is that how it should be? Power analysis is one of the things up for critical considerationif you’re practicing engineering that’s informed by or oriented around social impact or social benefit. And that’s the topic of another thought-provoking episode of Reimagine STEM, the podcast of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science recorded in 2019 at the CoDesign Culture Lab on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Land, to whose Elders past, present and emerging we pay our respects. Our goal is to explore the key themes and big ideas for our collective futures in STEM. So, engineering for social benefit harks back to our roots with civilian society driving its reason for being.
I’m Kiara Bruggeman. I’m a biomedical engineer. And with us today, a collection of big thinkers and doers from our field.
[Cameron]Hi, I’m Cameron Tonkinwise,I’m currently a Professor of design studies at the University of Technology Sydney and I’m also the director of the Design Innovation Research Centre.
[Sam] Hi, my name’s Sam Perkins. I’m the head of Education, Research and Technology Development Engineers Without Borders Australia.
[Peter W.] My name’s Peter Worthy. I’m a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Queensland.
[Kiara] Peter’s in the social robotics lab and associated Co-innovation Research Group at the School of IT and Electrical Engineering. And last but not least, Jeremy Smith.
[Jeremy Smith]I’m in the Research School of Electrical Energy andMaterials Engineering, or RSMEE as we call it, as a lecturer. Although I like to think of myself as an engineer, so I often identify as an engineer more than a lecturer in that kind of respect.
[Kiara] Now Jeremy has a personal story that helps explain the impact of discovering engineering for social benefit and might also go some way to defining what it is.
[Jeremy Smith] So it was in 2007 and I happened to be in Melbourne for work. And so Engineers Without Borders Australia were running their first national conference and I knew a couple of PhD students here at ANU who’d got involved so I’d heard about it. I didn’t think there’d be anything that I could kind of necessarily relate to. So as much as anything else, I was going along to show support for that kind of organisation. And then halfway through the Saturday afternoon, almost halfway through the conference, I was attending a workshop from an engineer who’d been working in Malawi and was working on a 12-month project to introduce solar cookers into a particular set of communities, and replace existing old traditional woodfire stoves that have negative health impacts. And he was using exactly the same kind of research, exactly the same kind of frameworks and methodologies around technology transfer and diffusion of innovation that we were using in our work with a multinational automotive company. And I had a kind of classic light bulb moment that actually all the work I’ve been doing wasn’t actually about the technology, it was about the people. And so diffusing ideas or coming up with new ideas or introducing new technologies was entirely a social process and involves people and the people involved. And how do we support people, and how do we develop products and services and systems that are actually going to support people?
[Kiara] Well, hang on a moment. We’d be forgiven for thinking engineering is always done for the benefit of people. But which people? There’s been some pushing and pulling along the way, and we as a profession have at times gotten sidetracked.
[Jeremy]Going back to the start of the 19th century when professional engineering associations first emerged. And that’s where they were called civil engineering to differentiate them from military engineering. And traditionally at that point, they were building bridges and roads and railways. And then obviously the other disciplines emerged as well. And since then, it was a focus on serving society, comes from fairly noble concepts as well. And that kind of kept going within, certainly since the Second World War, there was a much more of an emphasis on large scale-engineering and particularly a kind of mass production as well, and moving into much more complex pieces of technology. So that’s when obviously the aerospace industry started, the Space Race, these kinds of aspects coming out of the Second World War. I think at that point there became a shift to that kind of real technology side, so that actually if we just design the best piece of technology, the rest will take care of itself.
[Kiara]But it won’t.Tellingly, the peak organisation Engineers Australia, a couple of years ago updated its code of ethics to include reference to ‘healthy, happy, prosperous and sustainable communities’. That means we’ve got to engineer for sustainability, not just usefulness or profit. So, let’s dive a little deeper into what we’re talking about. Cameron Tonkinwise:
[Cameron]When you just add humanitarianism to engineering, a) it’s a problem because it’s going to like what is the rest of engineering? But b) it’s a problem in that you can see that it’s a very engineering version of humanitarianism. And you just hope that somebody on the team is also an anthropologist with an understanding. Or you hope that the locals are assertive enough to actually stand up for their own culture, as an appropriate technology in an emergency situation is applied to them.
[Kiara] But what if you were an engineer like me who just loves maths? What excites you is the science, the possibilities of advancing technologies and the beauty of an elegant technical solution. And you’re not all that interested in the broader social impacts or value. You trust that other people are on that.
[Cameron] I’m going to risk a possibly politically correct answer here and say I worry about specialism. And I worry, you know, I can see a kind of functional argument that you, you know, anything should be kind of T-shaped and you need horizontals, but then you need some of those deep verticals. But anyone who’s in those deep verticals, still lives in a society. They get on a bus and they hopefully have to go to a body corporate meeting in their building to make a decision about how to weatherise given climate change. And they need a whole bunch of social negotiating skills. They need capacities to imagine different ways of living. They don’t get to live in their specialism. They only work in their specialism. And so education should never, ever be encouraging people to be only specialists. And if that sounds draconian, you know. It’s a kind of benevolent dictatorship, I think. I hope.
[Kiara] So basically, you can’t ignore society in your personal life and you can’t ignore it in your work life either. We have a responsibility, all of us, not just engineers and computer scientists, to think beyond ourselves about the broader and ongoing impact of the work we do.
[Cameron] So I definitely think we’re entering a really interesting era, which I even think is kind of a little unanticipated by me. That it’s, it’s a moment in which there are lots of assertions of difference. The kind of fluidity around gender that has been totally normalised, certainly to my daughters’ generations, is not something that I had anticipated, though I think of myself as a very liberal kind of progressive in my politics. I certainly hoped for it, but I didn’t think it would come this quickly. So we are seeing a lot of assertions of difference, and really important ones in terms of Indigenous people, First Nations people, recognitions of their unseated sovereignty in this kind of country, and seeing whole bunches of cultures asserting themselves against globalisation. And we see the dark side of that as well, which is a kind of counter white supremacist kind of right wing coming back and also asserting a kind of ridiculously ill-conceived version of identity politics. But we’re in a world in which there is a lot of difference. And so when we begin to try to work out how we negotiate, being societies that have collective problems, we negotiate those in ways that don’t obliterate or underplay those differences. Then we need to sort of wonder what structures we are bringing to that problem solving, to that collective negotiation. And if we’re bringing a whole bunch of 20th century ideas, which are sort of 19th or 18th century ideas, and they’re particularly European ideas around the notion of the human, a sort of one particular universal version of the human who could be guaranteed by universal human rights. When we think about that one it was supposed to bring us together, but it only brings us together by sort of minimising us to like a minimum reduced kind of needs model. And it’s not adequate to the kind of assertions of difference that we’re now seeing. So if we tried to negotiate the kind of problems we have in ways that tolerate these differences, we actually have to deal with the fact that we’re bringing to that legacies of universalisms that reduce the human to this sort of basic model. And so we need to completely rebuild how we engage with each other, no longer on the basis of a universal human, but now on a differential human.
[Kiara] But our systems of democracy are based on universal visions of human rights. This sounds entirely noble and appropriate, but is it actually very assumptive?
[Cameron]We don’t have a universal declaration of human rights,we have a declaration of the rights of man. And until we get a declaration of the rights of many, we’re always going to be trying to deal with difference with tools that are there to obliterate difference.
[Kiara] What do you imagine would be the differences in the rights of the many?
[Cameron] So I certainly think they would have to be sort of more locally-identified. They would have to be things that are not abstract documents that exist in the UN, but are in fact sort of enshrined almost at the local council level. And that people actually have to agree to them and constantly revisit them, and that they are there in front of them. Literally, it’s a design problem. They need to be sort of on a poster when you walk into the room to make a council election or make an argument and actually think about what those rights are, bring them right down to the local level, rather than this kind of cascaded system of delegated representation. So it’s a much more direct democracy model. It’s a much more localist model. And then we need really careful ways of beginning to engage at the connections between locals.
[Kiara] You might think about social benefit of engineering in a number of ways. It can be emergency response engineering brought in to help a community cope with the outcomes of natural disasters. Or it could be longer term solutions for all kinds of groups who don’t generally have a lot of social power. We’ll be talking about a number of different communities by way of example during this episode.
But as engineers and others who design and make technologies, we have to get better at engaging closely with both our clients and broader disciplines. This is Peter Renehan.
[Peter Renehan]Yeah, my name’s Peter Renehan. I’m an Arrernte manfrom Alice Springs, and I’ve been the chairman of the Centre for Appropriate Technology for 10 years.
Previously, technological, I guess solutions had come in and out of remote communities for a long time in a certain way, provided by people who were either tradesmen or contractors who really quite didn’t understand the situation or the context that people were living in and why they were they. Generally, contractors would drop off types of technologies and other things and products and stuff, and without the community even knowing that they were coming. Sometimes they’d install some equipment, sometimes they wouldn’t. And they’d jump in their vehicle and take off again. So it was a system of lack of understanding from providers around why was important to provide services to people that actually mattered.
[Kiara] Who do you need to involve when you’re practicing engineering for social benefit, which could be all engineering? It has to be a collaboration, a co-creative event with the community concerned. Andre Grant works for the Centre for Appropriate Technology or CfAT in the Queensland office, where most of his work focuses on the Torres Strait and Cape York. How does talking face-to-face with a variety of communities affect design and installation? And what might the differences be between working with a well-established community like Kakadu and, say, the smaller Oenpelli?
[Andre]That’s a good question, excellent. One of the key differences I see, and I’m you know a non-Indigenous person, but you know, I work a lot in Cape York where people are less nomadic. So you might see communities in the Top End where traditionally they may have been in a smaller area, not moving around so much. You got the desert Mob, they move around all over the place. And so one really positive thing about Bushlight was that you go from a diesel-generator to solar power, you’ve got 24 hour reliable power. You can keep food in the freezer. You can go away for a couple of months and you come back and half a kangaroo is still in the freezer. And that has a massive social, positive social impacton, just financially on those communities. So we might be having yarns and conversations about who are the users and who moves through this place. You might do training with one group of people, but there’s going to be another group of people in three months. So who you’re engaging with and how you build capacities will be different as well.
[Kiara]Well, you could call in other groups to help you shift your thinking. Sociologists, historians, anthropologists, psychologists can all offer context and other issues to consider.
[Jeremy Smith] So engineers don’t have to be experts in kind of social impact or social consequences or humanities or social science or anthropology. But they need to know it’s important and recognise that, you know, it’s one of a number of discussions they need to have when they’re designing, developing, implementing whatever it is that they might be doing as well. So as part of the Engineering Positive Impact Hub and Reimagine, at ANU we have some great strengths in those areas. And so it’s been great to trigger some of those discussions of like, ‘hey, well, how do we have social scientists or anthropologists sitting down next to an engineer of a different type?’ Again, that comes back to that same conversation. Well, I want to design and build something,and a social scientist kind of ‘well, we think about the context. Think about the local history. Think about the traditions. What’s gone before’.
[Kiara] If we get a definition of engineering out of the Encyclopedia Britannica we get ‘the application of science to the optimum conversion of the resources of nature to the uses of humankind.’ Now, how much can we keep going with this definition, which really looks at using resources, how much can engineers keep thinking of resources as something there for them to use?
[Jeremy] Yeah. I mean we resources there, but the resources need to be more broad as well. So we need to think about human resources as well. And that’s just as equally as important. So how do we draw on human resources? And we have to recognise that we have finite resources as well. There’s some interesting elements in that definition. And it’s very, you can certainly interpret that as quite an exploitative definition. So it’s kind of the world is there for us to just kind of do whatever we want with for the good of humankind. Which is obviously gonna lead to, and it has led to, lots of environmental challenges that we’ve got as well.
[Kiara] We’ll get to the big one, the climate crisis shortly. But first, let’s consider real world examples of these challenges. There are so many ways we can get it wrong just because we haven’t taken the time to really understand the user.
[Jeremy] So, I mean, I’ve heard many examples. One from somewhere in India, for example. So they were assessing wells, so lots of wells for drinking water. And the water table was contaminated with arsenic and heavy metals, which is quite common in that area. And so they had a big assessment team that came in from outside and was assessing the water quality, which was a Western assessment team. And so wells that didn’t have arsenic in them were it was safe to drink, they put a big green circle on. And ones that were unsafe to drink from, they put a big red cross on. But it turns out in one particular community, the kind of notions of what green and red stand for are different. So actually red meant good and healthy. So that meant that everyone would drink from those wells. So even just something as simple as the way you communicate. The way to try to resolve that, again, we’ve mentioned a number of times is that dialogue in that discussion and that kind of local engagement.
[Kiara]Let’s take a look at the nuts and bolts of how to change course with a really interesting project that taught some valuable lessons to the computer scientists, engineers and designers working on it. Peter Worthy.
[Peter Worthy] So Florence is a really interesting project. Its aim is to deliver technology that’s going to support people who are living with dementia, as well as the people who care for the people who are living with dementia. It’s interesting in that it started out in a specific direction, but very quickly we realised that we needed to change our direction. So its original intention was looking at supporting communication. So our idea was that there would be, imagine a box sitting on a table, and if we were conversing and then I as a person living with dementia, started to lose my way or forget what I was going to say, the box would jump in and help me. But we quickly got some feedback that said that’s probably not the right direction and probably would be considered to be quite rude and embarrassing. So Florence has changed direction quite a bit.
[Kiara]So how did you get that feedback?
[Peter W.] So one of the things we did right at the outset of the project was ensure that we engage with people who we were designing for, working for. And so we established a reference group. The reference group are people who are either living with dementia or caring for people who have lived or currently living with dementia. And they guide all of our activities and all the research that we do. So before we do anything in our research project, we propose it all to the reference group and they give us feedback on what they think and what kind of direction they think we should take.
[Kiara]And is this use of the reference group right away? Is that normal practice?
[Peter W.]No, we think it’s relatively innovative because certainly there are different kind of approaches to this type of project. And certainly the word co-design is thrown around quite a bit. What we wanted to do is actually take a little bit of a step further. And we’ve felt that it was important that whatever we do really be for people. And the only way we could discover what they needed was to engage them in the project and integrate them into the project.
[Kiara] And is it difficult for you when you have this initial idea and you realise, obviously you have great intentions for it and that it’s not going to be used or received the way you want? Is it difficult to change your idea?
[Peter W.] In some respects it is, because I think with this kind of idea about what you think help is, you discover that it’s based on some misconceptions and some stereotypes. And so that takes a lot to shake because you don’t realise how ingrained those stereotypes are. And so once you kind of get this feedback, there’s a lot of reflection that goes on, a lot of discussion that goes on within the project group.
[Kiara] And once you’ve made that change, is it rewarding to you?
[Peter W.] Yeah, absolutely. It’s like those light bulb moments that you get where suddenly you realise that, you know, the world is not what you think it is. And that then changes everything that you do. I think it changes your approach to how you work within the field of designing technology.
[Kiara] So how how did you have to change things with Florence?
[Peter W.] So we got two pieces of really strong feedback from our reference group that have really shaped the direction of the project from here on and are kind of embedded in my brain so I can pretty much quote them. Two things: one, make my day go better. And second of all, help only when I need it. And so a lot of that kind of resonated quite significantly because what it was, was around, it’s my day that they’re talking about. So we needed to understand their lives and we needed to understand what was important to them, and then help only when I needed it was all about the fact that technology shouldn’t try and take away control from people. Technology really should empower. It should support them. And it certainly should work on what their strengths are. Not as we often do with this type of technology, focus on what the problems are.
[Kiara]So how did these consultations and collaboration work?
[Peter W.] The hackathons are difficult because they’re so condensed, they’re so intense that people living with dementia and in fact, many other people just can’t simply attend these sorts of events. So what we’ve done is we’ve drawn it out. We’ve made it online. We’ve created different ways for people to engage. And so I think what that means is that when it comes to engaging with people specifically living with dementia, you’ve got to give them that time to reflect. So it is that giving them different mediums as the way that they can communicate with you. So quite often people are comfortable with email because it’s something that they’ve been working with for quite a while. Sometimes you revert back to something that people know, a lot of face-to-face consultation, and it’s that consultation where it is one-on-one and it is slow. But even the idea of how you present things to people can be challenging. So for example, we did a program where we designed a whole series of technology in direct consultation with people who are on our reference group. And in our process, we often mock up things that we use cardboard. We use paper, that sort of thing, because it’s cheap and quick and easy to change. Some people have the issue of going ‘it’s a piece of paper and I don’t envision what it is that you’re trying to make it represent’. And so sometimes you’ve got to take it to a different level.
[Kiara] So once you’ve done the work for the client, do you pack up and go away?
[Peter W.] No, you can’t do that. You either have to train the community to look after the technology or you factor ongoing service and engagement into your system.
[Kiara] Peter Renehan on the Bushlight program:
[Peter]One of the key components of installing our renewable energy systems was around not just understanding the systems and the training, but also a maintenance program that was actually really core to the success of the program. We had situations where people would troubleshoot themselves if there was anything that went wrong. They worked their way through it and with advice and support from our staff, if it got to a point where they needed some external assistance, we would have staff responding within a day or two days from a phone call from the guys out in the community. So it was quick turnaround.
[Kiara]Our ambitious nature in approaching problems needs to be examined, too. When you’re working in or from a first world perspective, with all the assumptions that privilege brings with it, how do you avoid what art historian Teju Cole called the White Saviour Industrial Complex?
[Cameron]It’s a fundamental shift. So having been a student of interaction design not so long ago, you kind of come through this process where you think ‘ah I’m this tech designer and I’m gonna save the world’.I think this is that person on the white charger, charging in to save the world. And that’s become quite a common view in the design of technology that we can use this skill that we have in design and we can fix things. But in reality, what we’ve got to understand is that we’re really probably more facilitators, really more to be able to kind of help people design their own solutions and help people come up with what’s important for them. We don’t do it to fix. We do it to support. And all of a sudden you start to realise that you’ve got to change your conception of what your role is and what you’re doing. And the power shouldn’t sit with me. I’m actually here to really just support people and understand what their needs are and facilitate them doing what they want.
[Kiara]I think more than anything else, Sam Perkins from Engineers Without Borders says it’s when you prioritise the needs of the people you’re working with, that’s when you can add your expertise.
[Sam] So you obviously can’t remove the white part of it, well certainly not for myself. That’s really challenging for me, recognising that I am a white, privileged, male engineer. I am the embodiment of a stereotype that I think is arguably quite poisonous.
[Kiara] How difficult is that? Like personally, if your initial instinct is this is something I can do, I want to go fix it. How hard is it to make yourself not just jump into action, but really assess and get more input from the other people who are there?
[Sam]I think it’s really hard at the beginning until you realise that it’s absolutely essential if you want to be developing a solution that actually adds value to the people who it’s intended for and can have the opportunities to be scalable and sustainable. I think that this stereotype you lean on is the idea of what do engineers like doing? They like problem solving. So what are they gonna do? They look for problems to solve. That’s fantastic if you want to solve the problems that you see in the world.
[Cameron]We need to approach problems as human problems and the technology that we design is a means. But it’s not necessarily the solution. The solution is the person supporting the person. And that’s quite a fundamental shift.
[Kiara] Actively pursuing diversity in your team is one way to do this. There’s no getting around the fact that the engineering profession is dominated massively by men. White men.In 2017, just 15 percent of the graduates were women, according to figures from Engineers Australia. Now diversity is another of the topics we explore in Reimagine STEM. So when you’re finished here, do check that out as well.
But it’s not surprising that the field of social benefit engineering is one of just two approaching gender parity. And my field biomedical engineering is the other. That matters. Why?
[Sam]I think it also goes beyond just women. It hasn’t been great at creating or attracting and retaining diversity. To us, that is essential because cognitive diversity is essential for developing the creative and novel solutions that we require when starting to engage with these wicked and complex problems, like climate change or looking at the sustainable development goals as this incredibly complex and interrelated system. Again, if we go back to humans and putting humans at the centre, unless we are able to represent all of the humans in the room, we’re going to struggle to develop appropriate solutions.
[Kiara]And can you just explain what you mean by wicked problems? Are these evil things?
[Sam]No, I don’t see them as wicked from an evil perspective. Wicked in their complexity. They’re wicked because they are just difficult to understand. They’re difficult to understand what they are, let alone what the solutions to them might be. And I think the wicked is just a, an interesting framing. It’s not intended to be a negative connotation, although a lot of the root causes behind a lot of these complex problems are grounded in the way we’ve developed as a society.
[Kiara]So let’s say we do rethink engineering around social benefit. Is that mutually exclusive from for-profit engineering? Can something as exploitative as extractive mining say, be improved by considering it through this lens and how? Jeremy:
[Jeremy]I haven’t done any work in extractive mining, so I’m being very careful how I kind of respond because I’m certainly not an expert in that. But I think conceptually we certainly could, certainly looking at, you know, traditional ownership rights, I’m looking at where those flows of money go, you know, requires you to look through the entire lifecycle. So what’s the extraction look like? What are the resources being abstracted? How are they being used? What happens to them over their whole lifecycle? Looking at emissions and that’s most kinds of environmental atmospheric emissions, but potentially water emissions and other waste emissions and mapping that out over a whole product lifecycle and started to look at, well, what are the negative consequences of those? Well, what are the positives gonna be? So how might that generate new economic livelihood or economic sustainability or economic independence through those various channels? How can you run,how can you do training and education programs around that as well? So building local skills and local capacity, not just kind of shipping in expertise, as required for short amounts of time. So I think it’s certainly possible, but it just requires that kind of a much more holistic lifecycle systems view as well.
[Sam] I think there’s a really interesting framing of how does the private sector create profit through being purposeful, and I believe that’s increasingly possible. I also think there are a number of for-profit organisations that are realising that the self-perpetuation of profit to whatever end is not sustainable and that a reasonable amount of profit is required to support growth and innovation and research and understanding where these organisations need to position themselves for the future. But underpinning that needs to be a purposeful contribution to the broader society in which they are placed.
[Kiara] The elephant in the room for this episode is a big one for engineers. The climate crisis will affect everyone from developing countries to the developed world, and there will be an increasing need for our work. But should that be focused on geo-engineering?
[Jeremy]I hope not, is my short answer. I hope we can get organised so that we don’t need to start doing that. Again, that just comes back to the unintended consequences. I mean, as a complex systems that we can’t model accurately at all, and to kind of start to introduce such a large intervention thinking through all those unintended consequences, we won’t be able to do that. So the flip side of that, though, is if we don’t get ourselves organised, some of the consequences of climate change are obviously incredibly serious. But I think my worry is starting to put efforts into geoengineering almost gives us that kind of safety blanket that we can then treat the symptom without really treating the underlying cause. And we do need to focus on the underlying cause, which as you are saying is coming back to some of that kind of, you know, just using resources because they’re there and they’ve been given to us and let’s keep doing that. So we really start addressing the underlying cause rather than keep addressing the symptoms.
[Kiara] The ‘Engineers Declare’ climate and biodiversity emergency statements are a powerful indicator of the new thinking that we are embracing and of which Engineers Without Borders was a signatory.
[Sam] I think we took a stand for the same reasons as everybody else, that we are dealing with an unprecedented situation that is incredibly complex in nature, that engineers have a role to play, and that’s not something that I think can be questioned. There are a range of questions that sit within the emergency space because of its complexity. The reason we signed up was because we acknowledge that something needs to be done, that needs to be done now, and it’s not something you can take on on your own. It’s not something you can take on in silo. And so being a part of a movement, a collective, among other collectives of engineers who recognise the importance and the urgency of us as a sector to get together, to work out what role we need to play in mitigating the impending risks of climate change is, is essential. We have an obligation to do so as an organisation. I think there is a really interesting example of this where there was a nice gathering at the World Engineering Convention of those who had signed up to Engineers Declare and I think the photo that was taken around that will speak a thousand words as to the momentum that’s developing around them. And as you sign up or look at the Engineers Declare website, there are more and more signatories.
[Kiara] So where is this leading? Cameron Tonkenwise points out that it won’t be long, hard as it might be to imagine or to come to grips, with that the wicked problem of climate change is going to call on everything our profession has to offer. And for all sectors of our society. He reminds us that large proportions of most of our major cities, and indeed the wealthiest portions of the same, are likely to have to move. Our love of living on the coast is under threat.
[Cameron] It’s not easy to kind of imagine that the very thing we’ve dwelt with – actually, not for very long, I mean if you just take any kind of Indigenous dwelling on this continent – the extent to which we’ve had concreted cities right up to the coastline is quite recent. But for all the people currently sort of working and voting in this country who love to get a glimpse of the sea and love to live as close as possible. It’s part of a certain type of Australian identity. Certainly not everybody’s one. And I think it’s always important, remember that the actual people who are going to bear the brunt of a rising tide are the wealthiest people in Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane. And everybody else doesn’t actually live right on the coast. But a lot of our major businesses, a lot of our major CEOs of those businesses, definitely live in a region that is going to be subject to some kind of relocation or some kind of large scale Dutch dike system to kind of protect us. And it’s always alarmist to talk like this. But I think it’s important to contemplate that within 50 years we need really major either construction activity or incredible amounts of relocation. Now, I think one of the things that does sort of point to just how challenging this is, is that if you said to ANU:‘okay, we have to move cities. We basically have to move half the population of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and we have to move them inland’. What discipline could answer that question? So engineers hopefully could imagine the kind of logistics, like just how many bits of things are going to need to be moved and people. I’m not sure sociology or political theory would know how to convince people of that. I’m not sure that a whole bunch of other disciplines would understand the consequences of that.
[Kiara] So where to from here?Cameron has a radical, almost counter-engineering answer to the big picture issues, and in a sense this will take all the cunning engineers have to design solutions to make us slow down enough to re-engage and find value, rather than adding complexity and speeding us through life. To answer the problem of what do we need in the future? Less, we need more of less.
[Cameron]So we really need urgent change and we need urgent change in which we massively reduce our energy footprints and massively reduce our materials footprints. So we definitely need to be using less and that to some extent means doing less. And one way to do less is to take longer to do it. So generally, if the world were slower and more local, then we would make much bigger gains with respect to climate change than we would with any predictions about new technologies that might enable us to be more efficient. So the odd thing is that slowing down and being local and doing less would allow us to move faster to the conditions we need to get to. But now you’re in this paradox that we need to very quickly slow down and we need to, on a global scale, become local. So this is a paradox and it’s a real danger, because I think a lot of people now will have an engineering mindset about climate change and say we need planetary moonshot scale, massive types of technological infrastructure to re-engineer the Anthropocene so that we can handle carbon in our atmosphere, etc. So this is a great time to be an old-school engineer, but I think that’s acompletely wrong-headed way of responding to the kind of crisis we’re in.
[Kiara] So taking this further, can the economic systems we operate within genuinely value and support this work? Can capitalism specifically ever really support people, businesses, institutions?
[Cameron]No, no, no, no. It definitely can’t. So the problem is capitalism. The problem is corporate capitalism. The problem is getting our identities from feeling like we have a profession as a worker in a corporation that is serving the increase in shareholder value, which is capitalist accumulation by some, and not by all. So not it’s structurally impossible. The good news is we don’t actually live in capitalism. So this is an argument that’s been made by Katherine Gibson Graham, feminist post-capitalist theorist, currently the Western Sydney University and numerous of her colleagues out there. And we actually just did a research project together recently called Cooling the Commons, in which we looked at shared approaches to cooling off on hot days rather than retreating to private air conditioning. Her argument is that, it’s the same argument I made before about the slow, if you were to do a time budget analysis of your life right now, you spend very little of it formally engaged in kind of retail capitalism, in paying somebody literally for a good. You probably spend many hours working, but even in that work, a large number of those hours you’re doing labour which isn’t directly in your job description. It’s emotional labour. It’s a whole bunch of other kinds of making the organisation work and keeping it together. It’s culture building. It’s innovating in ways that you’re not necessarily paid to do, but you do it because it gives you purpose and meaning. So if you just considered all this, if you considered anytime you’ve ever done that neighbour a favour. If you’ve done, you know, the whole kind of women raising children and domestic duties under unpaid regimes. If you look at soccer on the weekend. If you look at all these things right now, you know, volunteer firemen going out dealing with negligence around climate change. All these people are engaged in activities that don‘t fit within the conventional ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ version of capitalism. So we are already dwelling in a whole bunch of mixed economies, a whole bunch of socially-embedded economies, a whole bunch of gift economies, bartering systems, exchanges that don’t have quantified value. If I go round to your house for dinner, I would feel obligated to have you round at my house for dinner. But I would not calculate how much you spent on that dinner and make sure that I only spent exactly the same amount. Or in fact, a little bit more so that you then owe me back again. We don’t dwell like that. So capitalism sort of been successful in convincing us it’s the only thing, but it’s actually not been successful in being the only thing. So we already have post-capitalist futures in amongst us right now, and it’s a matter of attending to them and valuing them. It’s a matter of drawing attention to them.
[Kiara] Jeremy’s answer to the future of our discipline is to get skilled, talented and most of all socially-aware students before they even make it to university and ensure they’re coming to engineering for the right reasons.
[Jeremy Smith] So going back into the schools and it is starting to change. And there’s some great teachers that we’ve worked with who view engineering in a lot of the programs in different ways, but kind of going back into school and if the broad advice is you’re good at maths, therefore do engineering, you know, we need to start shifting the message at that point as well. So one question we would encourage our students and our practitioners to always ask is, you know, should I be here doing this work? Could someone else be doing this work? So a local member of a community or an individual if you’re working overseas, for example? Asking yourself, is this piece of engineering technology going to disrupt some of their traditional values or traditional knowledge systems that have been in place for a long time? And is that really what I should be doing or not? So really kind of making sure that we are very cognisant and always asking ourselves those kinds of bigger questions, you know, should I be here? Is this the right thing to be doing?
[Sam] The way I would summarise it is recognise that the soft skills that we’ve previously referred to are core. And those core skills are not only essential for engineers emerging into the future of our workforce, but they’re core for engineers to be able to apply themselves in complex environments, whether that be complex environments around tackling the likes of climate change or working with communities in the Asia-Pacific.
[Andre]I’m a Whitefella in this organisation, too, and that’s really important not to come in as the expert from outside, and I think that goes to the heart of that word play around appropriate technology that CfAT often plays with it, which is,is it appropriate technology as a noun, since going what is appropriate technology, or is about assisting communities to appropriate technology for their own ends, to grab and steal it from our culture and reverse that cultural appropriation that’s always been going on, you know? These technologies from the wider world. Let’s sit down, have a yarn with you and you can figure out ‘hey, that one works, that one works’, rather than ‘we’ve got the solution for you. We’ve got a bunch of things, got toys. Well, it’s gonna work for you’. What’s going to help me?
[Kiara] And that’s all for this episode. But wait, there’s more on our website and our show notes, where all of our guests’ details, as well as complete interviews can be found. So you can hear more about Florence, robotics and languages, provocations around share economies and educational approaches to these big picture ideas.
[Kiara]So get back to Reimagine STEM and dip into a bunch of engineering and computer science treasures. And of course, share them with your friends. This podcast is a resource that won’t run out no matter how many people listen. Thanks to the team executive producers Maya Havilland and Dan Etheridge, writer and producer Gretchen Miller, and sound engineer Nick McCorriston. I’m Kiara Bruggeman. We’ll see you next time.