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.
[CC]Well, people forget that we’ve been managing an entire continent for over 80,000 years. I think that’s a feat. And I think that people should be proud of that. I think the first thing is, first, that we have a spectrum of people who are experts, Indigenous people who are experts and, you know, they’re coding and that they’re developers in building web sites and technologists and roboticists. And then our other end of the spectrum is where people haven’t even been exposed to technology. So it’s about bridging that gap and looking for the opportunities to work with our communities and just open up the door for them and just give them more possibilities and pathways, ‘cause right now we’re being left out.
[Angie]We need a shift in how we’re approaching all things. And of course, understanding our role and then individually, personally and professionally and how we live and what sort of work we’re engaged in, is critical. Everybody has to start acting and working out different ways that we can create the solutions to the really complex problems we’re facing right now. We’re at a crossroads. We need to start working together, in that two–way learning where Indigenous knowledges and knowledge systems and Western ways of engineering and computer science is an incredibly valuable collaboration.
[Kiara]Hello there. I’m Kiara Bruggeman,and in this episode of Reimagine STEM here at ANU, we’re asking how can we learn to acknowledge and connect with the contribution of some of the world’s earliest innovators,the traditional custodians of our land, Australian Indigenous people. Reimagine STEM is the podcast of ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, and it was 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 STEM futures. With us today, some significant Indigenous thinkers and some non-Indigenous allies contributing their bit to a big and ongoing conversation, which traverses remote, rural and urban areas, access to technology, access to information, traditional technology development through caring for Country, methods of collaboration and so on.The fact is, the way engineering and computer science have been traditionally practised at universities around Australia, including this one, has not served the needs of Indigenous Australians. So in this episode, we drop in on some other ways we might bring about new intersections and integrations of Indigenous culture and practice with engineering and computer science.
[Angie]Hi, my name is Angie Abdilla, I’m a Palawa woman from the northern parts of Tasmania and I live and work in Sydney.
[Peter] My name’s Peter Renehan, I’m a Central Arrentre man, a fellow from Alice Springs. Born and bred and grown up in Alice Springs, and I’ve been the chairman of the Centre for Appropriate Technology for 10 years.
[Andre] I’m Andre Grant. I work for CfAT in the Queensland office out of Cairns. And most of our work over there focuses on the Torres Straits and Cape York in particular.
[CC] So, hey, I’m CC
[Kiara] That’s Celeste Carnegie.
[CC] I’m a Birrigubba South Sea Islander woman from Far NorthQueensland. And I live on Gadigal Country in Sydney. And I’ve been there for five years now. I’m in the tech space, I’ve been there for about three years. And I’m really passionate about digital technologies in our communities with First Nations women and young people, but also capability building. And how can our communities use technology their own way.
[Karl] Yeah Kia Ora, I’m Karl Kane, I’m a Senior Lecturer at Massey University and the director of the Design and Democracy Project, which is funded a research unit we’ve set up at the university to explore New Zealanders’ relationship with 21st century citizenship.
[Kiara] Today, we want to try out how Indigenous thinking intersects with STEM. Our Indigenous audience are likely across these approaches, but possibly not all of our non-indigenous listeners have thought about them as deeply as they might. Angie Abdilla is CEO of consultancy Old Ways, New, which works using Indigenous cultural knowledge to assist service design, placemaking and development of new technologies. And I asked Angie to introduce how we as STEM practitioners might start to understand the intricate, culturally-embedded idea of pattern thinking that is tens of thousands of years old.
[Angie] So I guess it’s kind of helpful to think about what Indigenous knowledge systems are not and what we understand from a Western perspective. Over time, knowledge has evolved from the arts, sciences and philosophies in silos. They’ve evolved over time in quite insular ways. What we know of from, I guess conversely, is an Indigenous knowledge system is the interconnection of all things, science, arts, philosophy, spirituality, religion, and it’s also more importantly lore, as in lore, L-O-R-E or The Dreaming is more like an action guide to living. So an Indigenous knowledge system is a much more complex way of understanding the world. It’s a different way of seeing, being and knowing, it’s a different paradigm, I guess.
[Kiara] And what about the pattern thinking?
[Angie] Pattern thinking exists as a way of being able to understand the interrelationships and interconnection of all things. So from an Indigenous perspective, what we understand is that all things have an interrelational context. And so all things animate, inanimate, human, non-human, have interconnection, and so if I’m on Country right now, as I am, even though we’re in this particular room right now, I’m still on Country and my relationship to all things has meaning. And so pattern thinking is a way of understanding that relational dynamic that we have with Country because we are part of it and it is part of us. And that’s a very different way that I guess Western ways of seeing the world and Western ways of existing is kind of more existential, you live on top of Country, and so we understand the world not from a sort of clocked, lineal time perspective, but from cycles and seasons and how we exist within time and place in Country. So if you’re thinking about the concepts of pattern thinking and pattern recognition from an Indigenous perspective, of course, is an incredible opportunity to explore how those really sophisticated knowledges and knowledge systems that have existed in Country and in our people for thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of years over, what our people say since time immemorial. That relationship that we’ve had with Country and that one of observation and scientific observation and exploration and innovation. So that intimate relationship with Country, of course, can inform the way in which we see the field of robotics and all its various different jump-off points.
[Kiara] So how might this acknowledgement of pattern thinking play out on the ground? The Centre for Appropriate Technology, or CfAT or CAT, is an Indigenous-run organisation that works directly with communities and has an inherent understanding of the practicalities of working laterally in this way.Peter Renehan and Andre Grant:
[Peter] The Centre for Appropriate Technology is actually a science and technology organisation. We were founded in Alice Springs back in 1980. We’ve developed systems and products mainly that were appropriate for Aboriginal people who were gaining access back to their lands in the Northern Territory through the Land Rights Act in 1976. Traditionally, people had been living in other areas and it provided them with an opportunity to get back to the Country where they belong, where their spiritual connection is, and where they have to provide maintenance to that Country that they belong to as well. So early founding director Dr Bruce Walker was an engineer and he understood from travels around the world that there were elements of appropriate technology that could be included into remote areas. And he wanted to trial and test to see whether that would be applicable in Aboriginal communities in Australia. And that was really the, the founding element for our organisation. And it’s provided a niche for us that is a little bit different to most Aboriginal organisations based in Alice Springs.
[Andre] Critical to that, and on the ground, you know, when we’re working in the field, is to have impact as an organisation, to stick around and to, to have impacted these long, slow processes that involve participation, process, engagement, real understanding of community developments, not just a technical process, that technology is only one part of it, but that approach. And for anybody studying in this area, you’ve really got to look at this social development process and community development process and participation and empowerment and capacity building are absolutely critical to having an impact, and then being able to stay around as an organisation because you’re effective.
[Kiara] As you can hear, I’m not Australian by birth. So bearing that in mind that I’m an absolute newcomer, can you explain to me the word appropriate? What does appropriate mean here?
[Peter] Appropriate in the context that we’ve utilised it within the Centre for Appropriate Technology, is something that is applicable to the people that you’re working with, is applicable to the environment surrounding the people that you’re working with. It provides a specific need for that organisation or that community and understand around how people can appropriate technologies to help them or to support them to live on the Country. And the work that we’ve done, it’s always been an engagement model of really finding out and understanding the context of the situation and then finding technology solutions that’ll help them to live there on that area sustainably. So that’s really how we’ve used the term appropriate for our organisation.
[Kiara]And can you speak a bit to where environmental sustainability and caring for Country comes into the work that you do?
[Andre]Well, we talk about CfAT as the Centre for Appropriate Technology. So, you know, that normally makes you think of water supply, solar power systems, building design, sanitation and W.A.S.H. and other engineering projects. The other side to that is, well, CAT’s olk moniker used to be ‘a sustainable livelihood through appropriate technology’, so the sustainable livelihoods piece of that is, we’re helping people to be on Country and how we also help them to do whatever they need to do on the Country itself. So a lot of the work that we do would end up supporting Indigenous ranger programs who are doing conservation, land management, environmental sustainability, if that sustainability isn’t built into the technology itself.
[Kiara] Across the Ditch in New Zealand, an entirely different political and cultural will has meant that intercultural relationships around STEM and STEM-focussed design have been handled quite differently. And there’s no doubt New Zealand is well ahead of Australia on the journey to reconciliation, cultural acceptance and cooperation. One of Karl Kane’s big interests is user-focussed design and how that plays out in partnerships with Indigenous organisations and communities.
[Karl]What we’re talking about is getting away from the ‘designer is hero’. So what used to happen is a designer would sit in a studio and use their genius to come up with some amazing thing that they would then pitch to the client and that was an exclusive process. The only person doing the design work and shaping the thing was the designer, and they tended to be who designers are, straight white men and European, you know, European-minded. So the idea that design is situated in the context of use. So where is it gonna be used, by whom? And that person has a before and an after. So to not think about design in isolation in any way forces us to think about its use and context. Now cultural context is as important as any other context, but in New Zealand, what we’re finding is engaging with what we could call te ao Māori, the Māori world, the epistemological framework of, the world view of Māori, has only given us new levers to pull, new colours on our palette, if you like. It’s, it’s made design a richer, stronger thing. It was also done as showing those communities that we care, that they see themselves in the process. So I think there’s a really important thing which we’ve learned, which goes back to design humility, which is ensuring that that process, that engagement piece, happens at the beginning. And I think that’s where design really needs a degree of confidence to do that, to engage in those spaces and within those communities right at the start, because that’s when we do that ethnographic work, when we do the shaping of the problem. Now, if you’ve shaped the problem through a particular consumer-capitalist Western lens, then the response to that problem is going to be reflective of those things. So if you start to think about the values of a different cultural context, you’re going to get a different result at the other end. So it’s exciting, but it’s again, it’s humble, it‘s kind. It’s what we should be doing. If you’re designing in New Zealand for a world with 20 per cent of New Zealand as Māori, you can’t ignore 20 per cent of the people who you are designing for. That’s just bad manners.
[Kiara]CfAT’s Bushlight program is now a few decades old, but it’s a remarkable model of the successful tech development that is exactly as Karl describes, designed and adapted around the particular users’ needs.
[Peter] This was an interesting case where through the work that we’d been doing in a remote outstation area called Utopia, north east of Alice Springs, is a group of discrete small outstations with a larger service centre in a hub-spoke model, I guess you could call it. So the situation arose that Aboriginal ladies, elderly ladies who were living in a small outstation, might only be one or two houses and a clinic, an Aboriginal clinic that provided health services to the community. One of the issues the ladies needed some support and advice and some help in, was how they were going to access the health centre, particularly at all hours of night when it’s dark in very remote locations. So there was a real issue there around how services could be provided to those remote women. And that really started the story about how we could come up with some way of providing a light or some intervention in between their home and the health clinic to help them to safely get from one place to the other to access to the services. So out of that, we started thinking about how energy service could be developed for remote communities.
[Andre] A critical component of that program when it was running was the community energy planning process, which is really that social dimension of the technology, to spend the time and do that engagement, the community to do a co-design process, in a sense, we didn’t call it co-design in those days but that’s definitely what it was, because it was a micro-grid system, which is a centralised power production, multiple dwellings. So how do you get energy equity across those households to stop conflict arising, which would be a nasty unintended consequence of putting in a solar system, and there’s no controls and one family uses all the power and then they start a pitch battle between families‘turn off all that power!’ So there’s a lot of technology that had to be built in to manage the social dimensions of it. And then the participatory processes to actually design and let the community have autonomy in deciding energy allocations to each family in each household. That’s critical part of the engineering the human dimension and the work that had to be done face-to-face, talking to people.
[Kiara] And one word you used a lot is communities, plural.
[Kiara] So I notice on your website, you’ve got over 30 different case studies of using this solar panel system, Bushlight, in different communities. What are the challenges or rewards actually of working with these communities as separate individual communities?
[Peter] Generally it starts from a phone call or a word-of-mouth or contact from the community to Centre for Appropriate Technology and then we would respond. So we’ve always been a responsive organisation. But while you’re developing these sort of systems and programs, there is a lot of word-of-mouth out in the remote communities and they say, oh, those guys are talking about Bushlight. We’ve seen the benefits that come for our neighbours or our friends or our family who are living in other areas. We want to be a part of something like that as well, you know, so then we started seeing a real roll-out and a growing program for Bushlight right across the north of Australia.
[Kiara] Do you think that there’s maybe an issue with some engineering professionals thinking that good intentions are enough, that if you come into it with good intentions, that’s the first step. And so obviously you can’t do anything wrong if you don’t mean to do anything wrong and don’t realise the importance of that understanding, communicating, getting information going both ways.
[Angie] Yeah. There’s no way we can see anything progressing beyond the status quo with engineers and computer scientists expect that they’re doing good for good’s sake. Aboriginal people have had a 200 year history of having to deal with the ramifications of that paternalistic relationship.
[Kiara] And looking at the Western belief system and the sort of Silicon Valley mindset, that techno-utopian ideal, what are the dangers or potential risks with having just that belief system and working just on that?
[Angie] Well, I think we’re starting to see all sorts of examples play out now, and I don’t think there’s any shortage of those dystopian futures that we’re all prophesying about. They’re well known, I think. But the one that I think we should probably think about is an example that happened a number of years ago now, but is still felt very much so here today and on this continent is the story of Maralinga and, not sure if you know about the story being from Canada, but what happened a number of decades ago now, was a bunch of British scientists were placed in isolation, in a serious isolation chamber, with no ability to connect with community or the Country in which they were in. And they were plonked on this dry, arid country, desert environment in South Australia to develop a nuclear weapon. And that testing of that nuclear weapon happened on that Country and that place is called Maralinga, and that testing happened on Aboriginal people, on Aboriginal people, on Aboriginal Country and on all the Country on which they were living on. I still ask the question, you know, how could that have happened? How could people, humans, how could there be such a incredible loss of humanity and dignity in their responsibility as scientists and technologists to follow through with the act of testing a nuclear weapon on people? There are people still suffering the intergenerational effects of that nuclear testing, still today. That’s what we can expect if we continue to develop technologies in isolation without any understanding of the ramifications that, that these technologies could have on people and on Country.
[Kiara]It can be difficult when you’re full of ideas and enthusiasm for change, to embrace a mindset that might slow you down. But humility is key to not making terrible mistakes.Designer Karl Kane:
[Karl] And I think it’s great be able to ask dumb questions. I think we’re just really, really good at them, to have someone go in and go sit down, have a cup of tea, eat with these people, like, like spend time with these people, listen to these people, and then frame the outcome with these stakeholders. I think that changes everything. But that ability to ask dumb questions, I think is truly our superpower that, to go in and go, I don’t know what you need, the end result we’re trying to obtain better health outcomes for your community, what do you reckon a good place to start is, do you wanna show me around what’s going on, and having them frame the problem at the very outset can help with anyone, but I think we’re really good at asking them. I don’t think engineers and scientists are, they’re really clever people who are really good at doing a certain thing, and not very good at being dumb. And we’re brilliant at it, you know, like design is an exercise in failure. I failed 99 times and then I got the types right. You know, I finally got the colour right, the user experience was starting to click. You know, design’s an exercise in failure. We’re really, really good at it. And there is a humility in design, which I think can benefit all of us. And we’re happy to play that role. You know, we’ll come in and ask all the dumb questions because we’re good at it. We don’t mind.
[Kiara] What are the difficulties in that, especially if you are a Western white man to go into a culture that isn’t your own, and in this environment of, as you say, Twitter and everyone being woke and not wanting to set a foot wrong, how, how challenging can it be to admit ignorance to, to say, ‘I really don’t know these things that I think I probably should know.’
[Karl] I think it’s liberating, once you get used to it, it’s liberating, like...and again, we’re not as dumb as the questions we ask, but I think what I’m trying to say is going in and to learn, not going into guide, not going and for the illusion of inclusion, not going in terms of some tick-boxing, so I’d like authentically, earnestly going and to learn and to frame and, and it’s really hard and we’re not set up for it.
[Kiara]Let’s drill down a bit here into how Indigenous thinking might offer a different lens as we approach the way critical new technologies appear and develop. Angie Abdilla‘s considerations of computer science in a number of forums has led her to really look artificial intelligence in the eye as it barrels its way towards us. While we might think about it as entirely machine-based logic and therefore an absolute, we accept that notion at our peril.
Speaking of getting engineering and computer science onboard with this knowledge and the value that it really has for the fields, you in 2019 co-convened a pretty fascinating workshop in Hawaii with Concordia and Oxford Universities and M.I.T, which was around Indigenous protocols and AI, artificial intelligence. So one of the points made was about the idea of discrimination. We understand that turned to be about race, gender and othering, but AI always discriminates. Can you explain why?
[Angie] I guess because we have a legacy of content being designed and developed to represent the dominant masses. And so what we find when we’re, you know, the fuel that AI needs to operate, large datasets, and those large datasets often come from the net, which has a proliferation of white, middle class, middle-age men and women who represent a certain, particular part of the world. And so we also have a really seriously critical legacy issue, because the people that are at the heart of developing these algorithms in the first place are working in isolation in a bubble, which we otherwise know as Silicon Valley, where it shocks me, it horrifies me, to be told by many people that come from Silicon Valley and have lived and worked with inside that bubble, that there is no understanding of the unconscious bias that exists within these teams of people who are designing and developing these really critical core algorithms that power some of the most scaled platforms and other technologies that we’re seeing in our world.You know, so it is frightening, but there are solutions. We have to stay positive.
[Kiara]OK, that’s good to hear.So what kind of solutions, what do we need to do to make these AI systems more fair?
[Angie] So we have to allow the time and space and resources required for divergent voices and divergent ways of thinking to come to explore solutions for these problems. That’s the first step. And so Old Ways, New, in collaboration with M.I.T. and Oxford and Concordia University, all Indigenous-led, we all received funding support from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research to bring together 40 Indigenous technologists from around the globe to explore what are Indigenous protocols and how can those different protocols that represent us all, you know, from different sovereign states when I say sovereign states in that kind of international context, we had people from Australia, First Nations Canadians, from Turtle Island, Hawaiians, New Zealand Māori people and others, I think have named everybody, all coming together to share what are the core principles of their lore and the protocols that we could use to explore a different way of imagining how AI could exist into the future, one that essentially comes back to these core principles for us, from an Australian perspective, comes back to these two core principles, if you care for Country, it will care for you, otherwise known as social and environmental sustainability. Caring for Country, caring for kin, social-environmental sustainability.Everybody had a slightly different perspective, though, like the Hawaiians, there was this beautiful auntie who talked about the analogy of a fishing net and the protocols and the lore embedded within the fishing net itself, and how every single node within that net represented the various different protocols and different familial relationships within a kinship system. And so the fishing net itself was used as the analogy for a different network that could be the foundations for AI.
[Kiara] So there are all these spaces where Indigenous people are engaging from AI to the bush. Having demonstrated their ability with Bushlight, the Centre for Appropriate Technology has since branched out in several directions, one being working with other Indigenous communities, not just Australian. In southern India, they found the same approach of collaboration also worked, and they won the Sir William Hudson Engineering Excellence Award in 2011.
[Andre] In my bag right here, actually, I’ve got a little appropriate technology. One of the b-boxes, which is another technology that CAT developed. And this is for, not for Bushlight systems, which is a remote standalone solar, but for in communities where you might have people on reticulated normal power, utility supply and they’ve got a power card and, you know, the energy poverty that can arise from people not having any demand-management or user-interface as, as a little user interface, a clever little box with some pretty little lights on it that you can program to a daily energy budget. And so you do the engagement, they’re very easy to actually install on existing meters, and you do the engagement with residents that housing go‘What’s your kind of energy budget you’re breaking for the day? Are we $3 a day? Okay.’ So you can program that in and there’s a little display showing how much money you’re spending, each live-updated, with a little fuel tank with a a speedo on it. And so the speedo tells you how fast you’re using energy, what’s your, you know, your kilowatts you’re using right now and then you sort of fuel tank, which is progresses towards your financial target for the day for energy use is really cool, really cool little system.
[Kiara] It could be a piece of software that measures electricity use, an actual lighting system or the design of the communication that demonstrates to clients what constitutes excessive consumption or fair use within a community. Being flexible about the form of support, whether it be tech or software or social engineering. Being media agnostic is a part of a lateral thinking that is critical to success.
[Karl]But I think the idea of design being media-agnostic, so rather than going, hey, look, the answer is going to be a piece of furniture because I’m a furniture designer. The idea of being a user-centred designer means I have to be media-agnostic as a designer, so I can’t go in and determine the outcome. I can go in and ask lots of questions and follow the process and see what the outcome would be. So rather than going in, hey I’m gonna build a building for this group of people, there’s a problem with connectivity that needs to be solved. So I look at how we can connect this community. That might be a technological execution or an architectural execution or a social execution. We don’t know how we can manifest this idea of connectivity. I know that connectivity is what’s needed. So media-agnostic approach I think suits everyone better, including Indigenous communities. Rather than going and going‘We’re gonna build you a school,’ maybe going and asking questions‘Hey, how can we help you and your children on a learning journey? What do you need?’. Maybe it’s not a physical school. Maybe it’s a piece of technology. Maybe it’s some other kind of resource. So media-agnostic, user-centred design, I think, can help everyone and especially these types of communities.
[Kiara] Flexibility around the form of the solution, but also around how the technology works for a community, and in its engagement with others, can lead to some clever but simple solutions that are also self-determining.
[Peter] What we’ve also found in other technologies that we’ve developed around mobile phone hotspot as well is that Aboriginal people in remote areas are actually getting access to their own money through leasing arrangements or royalty payments and those sort of things. And they’re actually putting their own money into supporting and developing some of this infrastructure. And it’s a learning process for them as it is for us as an organisation. So when you develop that sort of relationship in a two-way system, people are willing to actually throw in in-kind to do things. And we’ve found that if we don’t have enough staff going out to work on some of the installations, that people are quite willing to pitch in with a shovel and, you know, fill up the car, the back of their car with creeksand from a creek that they know provides good, stable concrete, that they can be a part and take some ownership of those systems as well. So people are willing to, if you have a good relationship with them and provide options for people, they can buy into the development of all sorts of systems if they’re given a choice.
[Kiara] And the CfAT mobile hotspots projects, can you tell me a little bit about that?
[Peter] That was an exciting project for us. All of these programs, products, systems that we’ve installed, all comes out of a long, being stable as an organisation and understanding the situation and the context of where people are. And you don’t come up with a mobile phone hotspot just out of the blue. We’d been doing a lot of work around telecommunications within the Centre for Appropriate Technology for many years leading up to that point. We’d provided other solutions generally across Australia, pay phones in remote Australia, when they break down, it would take some time for them to get fixed. We were already working with communities around other ways to access communications for people and the mobile phone hotspot came out of work that an engineer that was working with us, Andrew Crouch, he’d been working with a community around a particular problem where a small outstation was located near a tourist site. Tourists from all around the world would travel down, drive past the house that the people lived in, go down to a place called Boggy Hole. And what they did while over there was get bogged in their vehicles and then they’d try and walk out. Because it was so far away, by the time they walked out, it would be three or four o’clock in the morning and they’d be knocking on the door of the community, waking them up, asking them to, you know, provide some access to the outside world. The day they came to CATand said, is there somewhere that we can provide telephone services here that aren’t payphones? And so Andrew, working through the system for a long time, had been trialling and testing a satellite. Well, it’s not a satellite dish. It’s a small dish that just magnifies the beams that are all flying across the sky
[Andre] It starts as an old 1.2 metre TV satellite dish you just pick up there, all over the rubbish tips of Central Australia.
[Peter] Yeah. And virtually place it on a metal pole. And what that did, you’d have to survey and find where those beams are, but what that did was actually magnify your phone, your mobile phone. If you only had one bar or no bars, sometimes you know, one and a half bars it would [be] magnified up to three or four bars, sometimes five. Then you’d have connection to the outside world. No moving parts, no power. All it does is magnify the signal onto your mobile phone. So we’ve now started seeing that the Northern Territory Government and others wanting to utilise these technologies right across the Northern Territory, all for safety reasons on all of their remote roads and also at tourism ventures as well located right across the Northern Territory. Now we currently have 45 systems in place and they work in very well. When we talk about appropriate, that’s very appropriate for remote areas. We’re now talking to other states around how we could roll out mobile phone hotspots to all of those areas in remote Australia, in other states who are faced with similar issues. It’s fantastic to see that transfer of knowledge from a need from an Aboriginal community that actually is transferable to anyone who’s travelling remotely in Australia.
[Kiara] So in terms of your business development, what role have partnerships played and do you think partnerships are really what all engineering projects need to have?
[Peter] Internally if we don’t have the expertise that people are seeking from us, we’ve always provided a conduit and link into other networks that we know and understand, such as universities in places like ANU and things like that, around how people who do have expertise and knowledge that we don’t currently have. Our board, one of the reasons around why we’re still operating and still doing what we do is that we know that we can’t do that work alone. We need to link into and, and engage a network with all sorts of agencies, including government, around how we can provide solutions for people.
[Kiara] And building those partnerships and bringing in more Indigenous men and women into the field, what can we do to enable that? And what are we doing wrong now? Are we asking the right questions?
[Peter] Really important questions. And one of the key elements where our organisation is how we can not just come in and provide a service and then go away again, you’ve got to maintain a system and processes to enable people to continue to engage and interact and continue to live on their Country, and to provide the services and the responsibilities that they have culturally to where they live.
[Andre]I believe it’s, it’s in a kind of provocative way, it’s not our job to achieve the social impact. It’s for people themselves on the ground to achieve their own social impact. We provide the technology that enables traditional owners and Aboriginal Mob to do what they need to do on Country to follow their aspirations, preserve culture, look after the land and improve their own conditions in the manner that they see fit.
[Kiara] We met Celeste Carnegie earlier in the program, a BirrigubbaSouth Sea Islander woman and a STEM communicator. Celeste’s concerns are around a consistent experience of being overlooked.
[CC]I think that’s currently, right now, Indigenous communities across Australia don’t have access to technology. And so that means that we’re missing out on those certain jobs of the future that people are talking about, which actually those jobs, the future, are right here and now. So I guess that I’m really passionate about it because that means that a whole lot of us won’t have access and that’s really important. Because everyone’s worried about their data and their KPIs, but no one’s actually worried about the individuals and the human beings that they’re working with.But I think that when it comes to those types of things, everything should be for us and by us,
[Kiara] And thinking laterally again, embracing different language can be a key to both a level of understanding, connection and inclusion, as well as an aide to actually listening differently. If Indigenous words are part of your palette, as Karl Kane points out, then they bring Indigenous thinking and understanding with them.
[Karl] We have these wonderful words, like kaitiakitanga is a beautiful word, and it’s this word which kind of in a Western view might mean guardianship, but it’s different from ownership. So if you saw a child in trouble, you would feel a sense of kaitiakitanga in trying to help that child, right. You don’t own the child. It’s not your child, but you still have this responsibility for it. Now, if you take an idea like, like kaitiaki and apply it to design, post-neo-liberal KPI-chasing, you know, world terms of how you measure things or how you give someone instructions, the idea that someone has a guardianship for something or someone. And if you start to embed that into a process, I’m no longer the professor talking at a student, I’m the kaitiaki for the student. I care about the emotional, psychological, spiritual, physical well-being, as well as the educational piece. You know, it changes my role in relationship to them. Just the change in the word. So having words like that and with wonderful words like manaakitanga, which is like in place of hospitality, doesn’t just mean make sure that they’re fed, that means make sure they’re lifted up, make sure they leave in a better place than they arrived. You know, that’s another lovely word to use. As a designer, these are just beautiful rich words, like adding colours to a palette. You know, it gives me so much more to lever. We have a multicultural reality and a bi-cultural framework. In this bi-cultural framework, it gives me two sets of levers to engage with and wonderful,if the Pākehā, the White European version isn’t working, see if the Māori version can help solve this. And again, as long as it’s done appropriately and early and with again, no one wants to have culture done at them, or see their culture leveraged in some kind of rhetorical way, then everyone seems to be happy so doesn’t feel like a burden to me. It feels like a privilege.
[Kiara] Do you have any thoughts on the differences of how Australia and New Zealand’s differ in terms of both respectfully and productively engaging Indigenous people in design and teaching and research?
[Karl] Yes, but I will leave my prejudices at the door. I think we’re just ahead for myriad reasons. We’re a smaller island with five million people. Just five million, I think this week we’ve reached five million. Woohoo! I think there’s what, 600-odd Aboriginal communities. We’ve got much smaller number of iwi, of tribal groups in New Zealand. We’re much more isolated. We’re much more...and we’ve a treaty which sort of binds them, the Crown, Pākehā European world with Māori. Lots of work to do. It’s gonna be a project that maybe my son will see the twilight of maybe, maybe not, but we’re working on it. And I think that I’d say the urgency is what’s different. It feels in the mainstream. In New Zealand, your average New Zealander sees a degree of urgency of building cultural literacy and working out how to deploy that in a meaningful, impactful, respectful way on the day-to-day.
[Kiara] This is what’s called two-way learning, listening on multiple levels, one group learning from another and back again.
[Peter] That knowledge is transferable. It is a two way thing. It’s not a dominant one side and a subservient on the other. And that’s what’s really rewarding around these sort of projects.
[Kiara] So does this loss that the community has already experienced make it difficult to engage with the rest of engineering? Is it difficult to establish trust?
[Angie]Absolutely. Yeah, there’s definitely, it’s a process that just takes time. And so the first step is, is understanding where that comes from. That distrust exists for a reason and then being able to acknowledge that and then work out, okay, well, what are the different ways in which we can build those meaningful working relationships so that we can have this two-way learning? And when I talk about two-way learning, what I’m really talking about is you give, I give and it’s an exchange. So it’s, it’s two different ways of seeing things and it’s being able to sit down and respectfully listen and hear, observe together and then work out different ways in which are combined. Different methodologies could come together to solve these complex, really complex post-colonial issues that we’re all facing today, like in particular, climate change. I think what’s really super important is to recognise the history that we’ve had of non-Indigenous peoples not understanding the amount that we’ve already lost through colonisation and the amount of important secret and sacred information that has been taken without consent. And so the processes and protocols around how we work together are really important in being able to develop meaningful, equitable working relationships and therefore then the process and the outcomes that we could potentially see through engineering and computer science.You can either be a passive participant in somebody else’s future or we can design the future that we want to be. And so from an Indigenous perspective we need to start thinking about and planning for, as we always have done with Country and our responsibilities to Country and community, we also need to start thinking about, well, how do we design the technologies that are going to be responsive, responsible, ethical and have a strong relationship with Country and community.
[CC] No one’s asking us. Everyone’s just making programs up and thinking that we’re going to go for it. And thinking that it’s gonna work and no one’s actually asking us what we need. They’re creating something and saying, this is what you need,now go for it. Now work it out. And that’s not how it works within Australia and within my culture, there are hundreds of cultures.I’ve never been to the same community. Everyone is different. Every community is different. I mean, every culture is different. So when all these programs are made for us, we can’t really identify with them. And that’s where the disconnect happens.No one’s asking us what we want or what we need.We’re not just saying that we need to do these things. Well, we’re not saying, you know, listen to us, that our cultural knowledge and our traditional and just land management system, just for the fun of it, we’re saying it because it actually will benefit all of us.
[Kiara] An open mind and taking time – critical factors in the continuing discussion. And you can hear more from Celeste Carnegie in our episode on diversity, and from Peter Renehan and Andre Grant in our episode on Social Benefit, as well as many interviews in full available on the Reimagine STEM website and podcast. From ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science. I’m Kiara Bruggeman. The team is Nick McCorriston sound engineer, Gretchen Miller, writer and producer and Maya Havilland and Dan Etheridge are executive producers. If you like what we’ve done, leave us a review and please do spread the word with your friends and colleagues. See you next time.