Society change for climate change with Phil Wilkinson
Phil Wilkinson is a mechanical engineer who fell into the HVAC&R industry.
“I fell into the air conditioning refrigeration industry, which is just the story of everybody that’s in it”
After reading Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown, Phil is now on a mission to change society, “one fridge at a time”.
Through the group “Humans of HVAC&R 2.0” Phil is on a mission to reverse global warming in one generation.
“let’s work with social scientists, behaviour expert storytellers, as well as the engineers to get the planet back in a decent shape“
Discussed during the episode
Paul Hawken’s book possibly changed the direction of Phil’s life.
“Paul Hawken, had written this book and identified through quite an amazing process that the top 100 actions through reverse global warming, and there it was number one was refrigerant management“
Mel’s 2nd favourite show!
Phil Likes the Forth Rail & Road bridge
“come to appreciate a whole lot more about engineering when it’s put in the context of people”
Admires Bruce Pascol, author of Dark Emu
“he’s a phenomenal storyteller about the engineering of the First People and how they used to adapt to climate”
“I would recommend all engineers read Dark Emu”
About Phil Wilkinson
Phil is a Mechanical Engineer having studied at INSA Lyon and the University of Sheffield before moving to Australia.
For the past 17 years Phil has been involved with AIRAH, working in a range of roles such as Business Manager, Chief Executive Office and most recently Executive Manager and Government Relations and Technical Services.
During this time Phil has also been a mental health advocate volunteering with Beyond Blue, founded Wilkinsons Wheels which is a community business focused on recycling bikes and founded Humans of HVACR which looks to reverse climate change by looking at refrigeration in completely different light.
He is currently taking a break from the industry to take on the role as the Chief Dogwalker…. but watch this space! There is more coming.
This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during the Podcast, Season 2 Episode 8.
It is not 100% accurate.
The guest was Phil Wilkinson
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Welcome to Season 2, Episode 8 of Engineering Heroes. A podcast presenting the incredible engineers that are shaping our society and battling our challenging issues.
My name is Mel. And I’m joined every week by Dom, my co-host and our podcast’s resident innovative engineer, speaking to us from the trenches.
This week we are speaking to a man who is currently calling himself the Chief Dogwalker. But we – and everyone else who knows him – knows that he is so much more and he is just taking a breather from the industry. He turned what some would call his weekness into his most solid strength and found his true calling in life.
Our guest this week fell into HVAC&R, just like he fell into a few other things in life.
But during all that falling, he built a masterpiece.
He rose through the ranks to be the CEO of AIRAH, the peak body for Air Conditioning and Refrigeration. But his personal struggles saw him morph into the position of Government Relations and Technical Services a role he called “chief mischief maker”. A role he has very recently left.
As he transitions into a new role that draws on his skills of advocacy and perhaps a little of that mischief making, our guest tonight is determined to change the world, one refigerator at a time.
Our guest tonight is Phil Wilkinson.
Phil’s engineering story began because he was good at maths, physics & chemistry. A traditional mixture for most engineers. He grew up in an area where he was expected to go to university instead of doing something vocational – he had friends and family in the engineering industry.
But straight engineering wasn’t enough for Phil Wilkinson. Similar to a previous guest on our podcast – Rob Bell from Season 1 Episode 47 – Phil decided to participate in a new course that offered engineering along with a modern language….
Sounds like well, rather than just who you know straight engineering, why don’t I just make it a little bit hard and do it with French as well. So yeah, when I lived in France for yesterday, mechanical engineering, one of the things I do remember is been shell shocked going into my first lecture that was four hours long. So my lectures at university and Sheffield were about 40 minutes. Didn’t understand the thing. There’s all
Do you speak French at all?
Well done it through school, but that’s kinda like, you know, it’s kinda like ABC. And then this was thrown into the deep end, not only was it school French, plus the stuff you’d forgotten plus the technical because it’s a really old discipline. So it’s got completely different vocab, and the slang and the accents all thrown in together. And they speak really quickly. And the only way that I actually got through struggled through those the first three months were the hardest three months of probably anything I’ve ever done. But the one thing that got me through that was that on the whiteboard, things like torsion, and stress and tension, have all got the same Greek symbols. So I’ve been a, really valued the power of the visual language of communicating with engineering. Yeah, ever since then, because it kind of got me through a really tough time.
Just goes to show that true universal language is maths. Yeah, No matter where we go, the formulas are the same, and the outcomes are the same.
So you’ve done your degree, I can’t believe you gotten through the the French side things as well like that. That would be amazing. What was your first project that you worked on as an engineer?
Okay, so I actually had a summer job in a friend of my dad’s fabrication factory. And that was like work experience. So that was a very, very deep learning experience in working out that I didn’t want to work in a factory, burning myself with welding kits and setting myself on fire with grinded discs, I kind of worked out I actually wasn’t a very good hands on engineer, so
good to learn.
So that was my first, that was my holiday job. So worked out I didn’t want to, you know, I valued are nearly lost a thumb as well, when I put it in the wrong place
No, you need to stay away from the factories
definitely. So it’s probably a good idea to go into a more vocational type of engineering. When I came to Australia, I fell into the air conditioning refrigeration industry, which is just the story of everybody that’s in it. So it seems to be this safe industry that is hidden, that quiet achievers get into. But it was actually I just when I was stayed with relatives on the Gold Coast, went door knocking with my resume. And it was a guy from Leeds that actually took me on and he still to this day is one of my absolute inspirations and role models who’s considered, continues to do quite amazing, global things. So first project I worked on that I remember would have been probably the Legends Hotel on the Gold Coast. And the reason I remember that I was taken on as a design draughtsman. And we did all the electrical and mechanical joins found the mechanical joins a lot more interesting because, you know, the pipes and electricity, electrical symbols are pretty, pretty uninteresting. But I was always asking questions about what I was drawing. And so the engineers would get the catalogues out and show me and then take me to site meetings that get involved in meeting. And the job on Legends, I actually was sent out with a mate of my bosses to do the commissioning. So commissioning became part of my mantra from my bosses experience, which basically meant you should start designing with commissioning in mind from day one to make sure you get a good outcome. So I got to spend a couple of weeks staring up the shorts of a commissioning guy on a on a step ladder, and getting wobbly arms from trying to hold up a commissioning hood. So gave me great insight into making sure you design good commissioning. And from day one, so I kind of described myself as an accidental kind of accidentally done all this like crazy stuff, because I never had a big plan to go to France or end up on the other side of the world or be a CEO in an industry that I’d never even heard of when I was in the north of England. So kinda Yeah, I’ve kind of always just put my hand up gonna, that sounds like it will be all right and learned a lot of things the hard way, including managing my own mental health, which has been a bit of a cycle through my journey. So yeah, I never set out to do what I did, I just kept putting really one front in front of in front of another and learned early on that you don’t necessarily have to take the path that everyone else takes. And that was that was a great piece of advice from a lecturer when I went to see one of my mates in Sheffield, and just burst into tears in front of him. But he was brilliant. He said, what’s what’s the matter, and I burst into tears. And I told him that I didn’t know if I really want to be an engineer. And everyone else at my degree was applying for all these these great jobs in the UK. And he just said, Look, if it’s not the right path for you, it doesn’t matter. And that’s that’s a really great piece of advice has stuck with me ever since ever since University.
You know, I think most of the people we’ve spoken to on the podcast, they seem to not have to say that feel into where they are is probably not right. But it’s almost as though the path just sort of presents itself along the way. So a really nice opportunity just kind of pops up. And it’s just a case of whether or not you go, Yeah, that looks interesting, I’ll go down that path. And before you know it, you end up somewhere you never thought you would be in the first place. It’s your, your path is laid out in front of you without you even knowing when it’s when it’s coming along.
I think I’d agree with that. And I think now that I’m at this stage where I’ve been reflecting back on my career as I go into a career change, it’s very much I think, what aligns with your values. So I think when you look back at that path you go, oh yeah, I can see now why I took that particular path through the through the journey.
So why are you still an engineer? Like how do you recover from that?
Recover from from being an engineer?
You never can’t be an engineer.
I’m wondering, like, how do you turn around a thing like, why am I doing this? Like in tears and everything, why? What made you stay?
the people, people.
So, and again, reflecting and been doing quite a lot of thinking about this, as I as I come to the changeover that I’ll have just gone through when this goes to air. And it’s all about engineering is all about people and about solving problems. And the bit I actually love is the people that I get to listen to and learn their stories. And, and that was a bit that was a bit I always loved about the role was the people, the clients that the client meetings and the listening and the learning. When I got to that stage, it was a couple of when I was in that that place in uni was that was that was really a weight off my shoulders when the lecturer said this. France, it opened my eyes up to travelling and a lot more than what the north of England had to offer. One of my great mates have just come back from Australia, and it had this absolute ball. So I kinda went Actually, I’m going to go go to Australia, try and get some work experience.
So you got your degree and you thought I’ll just come to Australia and see what there was. And that’s when that Leeds guy took you on.
Yes, a I pitched up at my relatives on the Gold Coast that I didn’t really know. And they weren’t there, they just left. I remember ringing them up and saying Can I speak to my Uncle Jim, it was my cousin. And she goes he’s gone out to breakfast. And I was like, out for breakfast like this is bringing from borders of Scotland at the time was like who goes out for breakfast. So it was just I mean, that was when the culture shock started when that first phone call. Well anyway I wanted to stay for a couple of weeks with them when I landed. And they basically said, oh, we’re not going to be there. We’ll be back in the UK visiting relatives. There’s a car for you to use, please let the cleaner in let the pool cleaner in.
And yeah, yeah, there’s Yeah. So I ended up staying with them for a year. So that’s quite amazing.
So where are you working now?
So the role, the role I’ve just finished at AIRAH, when this goes to air is the executive manager of government relations and technical services. And what, the board created that role for me when I stepped down with a lot of dignity actually from the CEO role when I felt like at the time I was felt like a complete failure. So they created this role that plays to my strengths of engagement with people, which is the government relations side. And also the my ability to bring people together to look at problems and bring technical solutions to them. What I’ve come to realise over the years, the government relations bit is actually about just telling that story in a way that government can understand it as well. So it’s really played to a lot of my skills. Once I actually finally worked out what advocacy was that it’s actually just a really good story with evidence and an ask for change at the end. It’s able, it’s enabled me now to leave AIRAH with a with a great framework for a globally contextualised advocacy framework for Australia, that AIRAH can play a really big role.
What would the world be like without refrigerators or air conditioners ? As Phil transitions out of his role at AIRAH he’s moving into determining how the future this whole industry could look like. He speaks about he’s Humans of HVACR. Now for us non engineering types HVACR is an acronym for Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration, you will be able to discover more about Phil and his journey into advocacy to save the environment on our website, www.engineeringheroes.com.au. There’s even a link to Phil’s Humans of HVACR on the show notes page for this episode, if you’d like to know more about that movement. Now, I’ll let you get back to Phil as he explains a little about the history of refrigeration, and how when engineers solved one problem, they introduced somebody to society that is even bigger problem to solve.
And then even the refrigeration story is quite fascinating as well, it actually didn’t start with the invention of mechanical refrigeration, which was in Geelong by a guy called James Harrison. Because when you go back through history, there used to be an ice trade, which was cutting out water. So it was a natural, low impact way of preserving food because it’s all about preserving food. And when you think about preserving food, it’s all about the health of the people eating it. As engineers, we were always there solving problems. And what we also accidentally did, we had this really perverse outcome of enabling the global supply chain, so taking grapes from one continent, packaging them up, giving them to people and other continents that they might not eat, and then they’re wasted. There’s also really fascinating look, from a social science point of view, where through the use of residential air conditioning, what we’ve enabled is builders to build real crap houses. And they just use the air conditioners like a band aid and it’s never it’s never really stuck with me personally.
I think the good thing is that people are starting to realise that and I know that through some of the documentaries and actually I think it was on 99% Invisible. There’s a lot of people are looking at the way buildings used to be before air conditioning, and saying why aren’t we doing that? Why aren’t we still doing that?
It’s like what Phil said, it’s like air con was a band aid and they and now they can make boxes that feel comfortable, but it’s not good for the environment.
No that’s right, whereas they had they had systems that were natural systems that harness the natural environment
verandahs, big windows, air flow, positioning all these sort of things.
Yeah. And the bit when you start unpacking that a little bit more is, not only if we’re not got the verandah’s for the shade, but we used to sit under the verandah’s and be connected to nature outside. Yeah. Which is really important for people’s, again, your mental health. But you also used to see your neighbour next door, which was that physical connection with people again, which is really important. So through the through the use of this wonderful technology that as engineers, we we invented, we’ve actually enabled a massive unpicking a social capital. So it’s much more than engineering problem that we’ve we’ve got now to solve that we you know, so we’ve helped created so now I’m saying let’s work with social scientists, behaviour expert storytellers, as well as the engineers to get the planet back in a decent shape. This global challenge that we’ve got I’ve talked about the the emissions impact, this gang of humans that were hanging out in the plant room with looking at this global issue, but want to take it down to a very single personal, you know, the power of one person to change, we talked about changing the world, one fridge at a time, about how, how can we take that behavioural science and turn that into a message to drive that miniscule change at every single person’s level? And some of the thinking is, is actually what would it look like if we didn’t have fridges? And but we had just-in-time-health, which is when you think about what refrigeration is for its for is for health and food preservation. Also, the body, different aspects of the body needs to be called different times. And if you’re older you need different requirements, and what would that look like on an individual level rather than trying to cool off whole building which is just senseless? Really?
Yeah, well, I think Ashak talks a bit about that moving to the personal comfort. Yeah, so Ashak’s working in thermal comfort. So I’m talking to thermal comfort is just about only one part of comfort. So when you start again, when I started doing some reading, you’ve got that this concept of comfort, that what comfort used to mean, which was about feeling cosy and at home and cared for and loved. And so the thermal comfort that is just looking at the physiological side, which Ashak and his team are doing a great job with. But now starting to understand the social sciences and the health aspect is it comes right down to energy. How can we look after the the energy in the body say that you’re healthy? So it’s that brainwaves stuff for the mental health? Yeah, sort your heart side, and also your gut as well. Some of the reading I’ve been done lately, so and they’re all interlinked with neuro pathways.
So they did this just in time health concept is not just looking at temperature, but looking at your, your brain activity, as well as your nutrition aspects as well. So looking at spirit, heart and mind is another way of thinking about it.
Well, everything you do in engineering always comes back to equilibrium. Like it’s always about states trying to come back to a central plane, and it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it is, you know, a human being or a room that you’re trying to get to a certain temperature if you’ve got everything, all the various components all working together and all sitting in a natural state and everything works. Yeah.
Which is which is which is what humans are all about. My latest narrative is the party in the plant room with the basically disruptors that are going to tackle this number one action to reverse global warming, which we find out a bit late was refrigerant management. So there was a piece of work done by Paul Hawken called Project Drawdown. I’d vaguely heard of a couple of years ago. And then someone actually tagged me into a comment on LinkedIn saying oh yeah, this Phil Wilkinson’s done leading work in refrigerants in Australia, and Paul Hawken’s coming in, didn’t even know the person who tagged me, which was bizarre. So I kind of followed this, like this bread trail, and found out that Paul Hawken, had written this book and identified through quite an amazing process that the top 100 actions through reverse global warming, and there it was number one was refrigerant management. what we’re doing is putting a basically a fearless bunch of party animals in the plant room to create a movement, a global democratic movement to tackle tackle this massive issue. And we’re just about start working with them again, on these next project, which called Project Regeneration. And how we tackle a climate crisis within one generation. It’s actually really, really exciting. And that’s what as we go to air with this, that’s what we’ll be actively working on. So the gang of is called The Humans of HVAC & R 2.0. So it’s very much focused around the service the industry provides people not not about dots and pipe work.
No, definitely something to watch, I’ll make sure that’s included in the show notes
Ah, tremendous. Thank you. So one of the great opportunities having finished up at AIRAH, they they’ve kind of I’ve been lucky enough to work on that as a pet project. Now, it’s freeing up some of my some our headspace as my energy to be able to work out how we can can make that happen.
So are you trying to create new products, like for refrigeration and all that stuff that aren’t harmful for the environment. Is that what the goal is?
Yeah. So the goal is really to ensure we’ve got healthy, safe and regenerative environments and the role that our sector can play in achieving that in within a generation. So it’s, it’s not, it’s, as much as people like to talk about the tech, it’s more is actually more about the people.
So. So what do you see as the future? What is the future going to look like?
We’re basically got this whole purpose of about creating this healthy, safe, regenerative futures, we’ve got to align a global set of thinking with that. And if we think of fridge, refrigeration and air conditioning, that actually constrains a lot of thinking because
you almost need to think of it as refrigeration as a service.
Well, that’s exactly right. And that’s what it is. But the refrigeration narrative and refrigerant narrative is actually owned by the companies that make a lot of money out of selling refrigeration equipment and refrigerant gas, people always talking about different refrigerants. refrigerants isn’t the game, the game is get rid of the need in the first place as much for like, do your Passive House. And then then look at what the most efficient type of system is for moving heat around. Because that’s what that’s what our industry is about, moving heat from one place to another. And it’s done with using electrons from the energy sector,
what’s the engineer’s role in this?
the engineers role, I think, is getting their, their nerd on all those sci fi, all that sci fi stuff that inspired us as kids, and is really about helping free up their mind to, as I say, collaborate globally, and really understand the social technical behavioural problem, get better at telling stories to each other and listen to the problems of society, in context, rather than just going our let’s just make a refrigeration machine because it’s better than trying to carve ice out in North America and ship it to Australia. And then all this other stuff happened. So the role of engineers I think, is to use their their basic one on one problem solving, which is context first, and recognising that every situation is different. So your situation about your fridge is very contextual. To you. Yeah. So that’s why we talked about how do we get right down to that grassroots level
I like what you were saying about the engineer’s roles is to actually they’re going to have to think about these things. And actually, you know,
reimagine the future. And by by doing that, we and doing it collectively, we can actually accelerate to that, that purpose a lot quicker, I believe in by doing it globally, collectively, and then right down to grassroots.
So what would you say to engineers who are just starting out?
So young engineers really inspire me. And I think we probably had a bit of this, when we’re all that age, you’re kind of fearless and you didn’t have mortgages and all the rest of it. So you, you’re able to do this brilliant sort of wild thinking and problem solving. And that kind of gets knocked out of us as, as we get older, we become less risk averse,
So yeah, I mean, look at you, man.
I’m the poster boy for jaded.
But what I would say so what would I say to a young engineer was Keep, keep the young mindset. And I asked, I’d suggest suggest that they don’t get a mentor, but they get a collaborator that’s wise, that they can inspire and share their new thinking with us just come out a leading edge research that they’ve had at school and help inspire the … the wiser engineers like you and me. And .. grow together. With with everything that you bring to the youth has got the energy, they’ve got this natural born way of collaborating and the next generation coming through is super ethical. And that’s where I believe we as as The Humans of HVACR need to focus on that leading edge of new thinkers to drive start to drive that change. So it’s not tapping into old buggers like me and you… unless they’ve got this young mindset, because they’re the ones that are the hardest to change, because one of the change management theory basically says everyone knows you need it. Everyone wants to do it, but no one wants it to be them first. Yeah. So I think the youth are the real change agents.
And it’s not until you’re forced to question it, that you actually take a step back and sort of think, ahh surely there’s a better way, we’ve been doing that for, you know, years and years and years, because everyone’s going that’s the way we do it. When in reality, we should be looking at it and saying, Well, is there a better way to do it? Why are we doing it?
Well, I think what Phil’s saying is actually really important, not just for the younger engineers, but also for the older engineers, because it’s a lot of them will go young person will say, why are you doing that way? Adn the older person will say it’s always the way it’s been. full stop. So your advice to keep the young mindset is really
Keep asking why Yeah, why? Why? Why?
Yeah, it’s not just the young person. It’s the old person,
And so what’s the piece of engineering that impresses you?
This is an easy one. So the Forth Rail & Road bridge in Edinburgh, and the thing I love about that is the really the beauty. Again, it’s a context thing that I remember looking down the Firth of Forth on a on a misty morning with the sun rising. So you had this amazing backdrop to, to the two bridges. one’s quite an old bridge, and then one was a big steel. ummm… I can’t remember the name. I’m not a civil engineer. So but it was just this old versus new across this beautiful setting, a stark piece of really solid engineering to do its job. Well, and simply. And that simplicity in engineer is absolutely key. Don’t overcomplicate things, which as engineers we do.
We’re just looking at the moment, it’s a gorgeous bridge
Yeah, it looks like a dinosaur!
With with the two, two arches. And bridges… And I think as Yeah, just come to appreciate a whole lot more about engineering when it’s putting context of people.
Just to wrap up, is there an engineer living or dead that you admire?
So I was gonna, I was actually gonna say James Harrison to this, who was the guy that invented mechanical refrigeration, but I having just read the book Dark Emu, about Aboriginal engineering. I don’t I haven’t got a name but Bruce Pascoe tells the story, he’s a phenomenal storyteller about the engineering of the first people and how they used to adapt to climate and you go, Oh my God, why, like, when do we stop learning to go back to the basics? Yeah, Bruce. Bruce Pascal was as a mouthpiece for for the engineers at the first people I think is, should be I would recommend all engineers read Dark Emu. Go and learn from your indigenous people. So yes, those from the Aboriginal. Yeah, our first people. And again, context about the stories and what what the basics were back in, back in the day before our type of engineers came. They were the engineers of nature, basically, so much for coming on today. Thanks. It’s been great. Thank you. Because it’s a it’s a really transformational time for me and very excited to be able to work on some of these passion pieces. I’m just looking for how I can give back to the to nature to mental health and all the rest of it. So thank you very much for letting me share some of your time and for having me on.
It’s great. And thank you you for tuning into episode eight of Engineering Heroes. If you want to know more about our podcast, your best port of call will always be our website, visit www.engineeringheroes.com.au. Take some time while you’re over there to check out everything else that’s going on. Maybe sign up for our newsletter. I hope you really enjoyed today’s show. The best thing you can do to show your support for engineers is going tell someone! Tell everyone you know about Engineering Heroes the podcast. We look forward to you joining us next week when we bring you another interview with one of our engineering champions.