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Mark Bladwell

Outcomes vs output: Why engineers should ask ‘why’ more often

If you feel like you’re reinventing the wheel, maybe you need to take a step back, take a deep breath and make sure you’re solving the right problem.

To ensure your company is fit for the future, you must focus on outcomes, not output. This is the advice of Maureen Thurston, Global Director, Design to Innovate, at engineering and infrastructure consultancy Aurecon, and Chair of Good Design Australia.

“You can’t change any organisation and prepare it for the future if you only focus in on the process,” she said.

“I spend a lot of my time encouraging people to ask the question ‘why’. If you don’t ask ‘why’ upfront, you’re probably going to get what you always got.”

An industrial designer and adjunct professor, design, at University of Technology Sydney, Thurston has spent the past three decades working at what she describes as the intersection between business, creativity and culture.

In short, she helps companies use design as a catalyst for change. She will be speaking about change and transformation at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference (AEC) in September when she joins the panel discussion ‘Progressing from Project Leadership to Business Leader’.

Designing change

Prior to joining Aurecon in 2015, Thurston worked at Deloitte, where she implemented design methods to help transform the organisation from a traditional professional services company into what she describes as a “bold innovator”.  

“I looked at the way they interacted and delivered their services of accounting and auditing,” she said.

“How do you make that a good experience? How do you deliver a better service? Everything can be designed.”

While ‘design thinking’ is a popular expression among business circles, Thurston believes it is commonly misused to merely describe a method.

“If you’re trying to actually create transformation or change in a product or an organisation, you can’t dull design thinking down to a process,” she said.

“It’s about paying attention to who your audience is and working backwards from them. It’s about going in with an open mind and ensuring that you’re focusing in on changing people’s mindsets, at the same time as looking at the methodologies.”

More ‘why’, less ‘what’

In her role at Aurecon, Thurston is charged with embedding design as an element of the company’s Future Ready strategy, which focuses on innovation, digital technologies and ‘technical mastery’.

“This is about becoming world-class in your chosen field,” she said.

How is Thurston changing mindsets at Aurecon, an organisation with origins dating back more than 80 years?

“I start the conversation by not talking about design at all but by moving the focus to the question ‘why?’,” she said.

“Most organisations that are being disrupted have spent much of their time focusing in on the ‘what’. I remember doing work for Eastman Kodak about the importance of digital technologies and how creative industries were using it. They looked at me, they took the report and they still couldn’t get past the fact that the people would not want a perfect film image.”

Thurston said design thinkers strive to understand problems from multiple angles and stakeholder perspectives.

“Where a designer’s mindset comes into play is we’re constantly pushing back against the status quo,” Thurston said.

“Just because someone asks for something, how robust was the thinking in the first place? Are we actually solving the right problem? Or, worse yet, is the problem even worth solving? We have to position ourselves as the thinking partners, not just trusted advisers or consultants.”

The challenge, says Thurston, is that time dedicated to thinking is too often viewed as a luxury. “We need time to think about things but we’re all too busy doing the doing,” she said.

“It is a struggle in every organisation. We still have clients who are hell-bent on getting their projects done on time and on budget — and I can certainly understand why. But those clients who can see that they get a better outcome at the back end when they don’t purely focus on that ‘what’ word, or the output — they are the ones who see the value in spending the time and the thinking upfront.”

Transforming the engineer

Thurston believes education is crucial for engineers transforming their careers from leading projects to leading organisations.

“Engineers are not necessarily taught about business acumen inside their schooling,” she said.

“Yes, you have to teach them the engineering, but what if they decide to change midway in their career and get into management?

“Universities are not really preparing students to have more choices as they evolve,” adds Thurston, who will be sharing her thoughts on this at the AEC 2018. “It’s a completely different knowledge set that they’re going to need, and you’re going to be pretty much behind the eight ball if you haven’t learnt those management skills and good old-fashioned entrepreneurship.”  

Maureen Thurston will be part of a panel discussion about how engineers can progress from project leadership to business leadership at the Australian Engineering Conference. To register, click here.

Is there too much focus on high-speed rail at the expense of better urban networks?

rail networks

“When thinking about building another rail line, or another road, or another piece of the electricity grid, you need to consider what it means for the networks. Individual pieces of the network must work for one another,” says Sir Rod Eddington, a keynote speaker at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference.   

Transportation is one of the big-ticket items in Australia’s $100 billion public infrastructure pipeline. Data from industry research and forecasting consultancy Macromonitor predicts the annual spend on road and rail projects alone will reach $16 billion by 2020, and the Federal Government’s latest budget included a $75 billion allocation for significant transport infrastructure projects over the next decade.

This is all welcome news for Sir Rod Eddington, former chairman of government body Infrastructure Australia, who believes the liveability of our cities rests upon smart transport infrastructure. Eddington will share his views on the future of our cities at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference, where he will be interviewed by WA Scientist of the Year Peter Newman, whom he worked with at Infrastructure Australia.

“Cities are seen as more attractive places to live for a whole series of reasons, despite the challenges that living in them brings: the cost of housing, congestion, availability of services, commutability,” Eddington said.

“The bottom line is, we didn’t invest in our rail networks for a long time. As the cities get bigger and more congested, the best way to move large numbers of people down narrow corridors is rail.”

Eddington is considered a leading expert in infrastructure. A non-executive chairman at J.P. Morgan, he studied engineering at the University of Western Australia and completed a Rhodes Scholarship before beginning a career in transport and aviation in 1979. He went on to become CEO of Cathay Pacific, Ansett Airlines and British Airways.

When it comes to transport infrastructure, Eddington stresses a need to be “modally agnostic”. In 2006, he completed a study for the British Government on the links between transport and the economy. He wrote a similar independent report for the Victorian Government in 2008, which identified a need for a major city road tunnel, an underground rail link and a new western suburbs rail line for Melbourne.

“I’m not suggesting road is a better solution than rail, but in terms of relieving congestion in big cities, investment in the right rail networks is fundamental,” he said.

“As the motor car arrived, rail patronage either stalled or fell a bit and, as a result, we took our eye off the rail ball particularly. Roads are an important part of the jigsaw too, but inner cities only work if you have the right rail network as well as the right road network. When cities get to about the size of where Melbourne is now, you need an urban rail network to compliment the suburban rail network. The state of Victoria is beginning to build the first of what it calls its metro lines.”

A reason for high-speed rail?

While rail infrastructure was a significant feature of the latest Federal Budget, including $1.1 billion for Perth’s Metronet, $475 million for Melbourne’s Monash rail connection and $220 million for Adelaide’s Gawler rail line electrification, Australia is yet to get on track with the high-speed variety. Indeed, Eddington questions the role of high-speed rail between centres such as Sydney and Melbourne.

“What would that do to help people to get into work in Melbourne or Sydney from the suburbs any quicker?,” he asked.

“How much would it cost and what else could you do with rail networks for the money? If the major challenges are around city congestion and getting people to move freely and easily around the city, then that’s where the spend should go.

“There might be different rail projects that have merit [and] you have to look at all of them and then decide where you’re going to allocate capital. Are you going to invest in all the rail networks in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane? What about improved rural and regional rail?

“What about better rail networks to our ports and our airports? You just can’t jump on a solution [such as] a high-speed rail between Sydney and Melbourne and think that’s a good idea, because you need to look at the alternative spends and the alternative needs. Nobody says they can’t get from Sydney to Melbourne, but what they do say is ‘I can’t get on a train from the suburbs of Melbourne into work in the morning’.”

This topic is sure to make for interesting conversation at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference, when Eddington takes to the stage with Newman, a proponent of high-speed rail. Eddington is certainly up for the debate.

“You need to think about infrastructure in the context of networks, not in the context of single pieces of the jigsaw,” he said.

“When thinking about building another rail line, or another road, or another piece of the electricity grid, you need to consider what it means for the networks. Individual pieces of the network must work for one another.”  

Sir Rod Eddington will be speaking about advancing Australia’s urban liveability, workability and sustainability at the Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To register, click here

“Go out and solve somebody’s problem”: Leadership lessons from the world of engineering

leadership lessons from engineering

Leadership isn’t always easy, but if you understand the business and the people working within it, you’re on the right path.

Rob Sindel was not born a leader. The Chief Executive Officer of building products group CSR believes that, like all leaders, his skills were developed through vital career lessons, most of which were learned through missteps rather than successes.

“Once you put your hand in the fire, you go, ‘Oh, that wasn’t very sensible; I’m not going to do that again’,” he said.

Sindel has learned a lot through his 30-year career in the construction industry and will be sharing his leadership journey at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference (AEC) in September. His first leadership lesson came shortly after graduating from the University of Queensland with a degree in mechanical engineering in the 1980s, and he said even the most experienced leaders must be open to learning from those around them.

Building a career

Before commencing his university degree, Sindel wasn’t sure what an engineer actually did, but he’d enjoyed maths and physics at school and thought that engineering would allow him to create something of value.

“I liked the tangibility of engineering,” he said.

leadership

Rob Sindel, CEO of CSR, said his leadership skills were honed by his background in engineering.

Sindel’s career in the construction industry began when he joined Pioneer’s graduate program in 1989. He described it as a wonderful opportunity for “hands-on training”.

“You’d do concrete work with a customer for a week and you’d go out on trucks and then learn how to dispatch the trucks,” Sindel said.

“They also gave you a concrete plant to run, and I loved that. All the team worked for you, so you were suddenly in a leadership role. It was not a huge team, but there were seven owner-drivers, and if you didn’t find sales of concrete to keep the plant busy, then those guys didn’t eat. There was a great motivator for me: both wanting the business to run well and not wanting to disappoint those seven individuals.”

While running the plant, Sindel would calculate how much concrete he had sold each fortnight. He’d also look at his transport costs and work out his profit and loss.

“It was my real introduction into business and I loved it,” he said.

Sindel said this early experience made him feel like an entrepreneur.

“The plant that I was given was losing money, and I thought, ‘How am I going to turn this around?’,” he said.

“I have absolute respect for entrepreneurs who start with a clean sheet of paper and say, ‘Right, how do I generate my first dollar of revenue? And what does that cost me to do it? And how do I go from there?’.”

Watch and listen

Sindel joined CSR in April 2008 and has been Chief Executive Officer, Managing Director and Executive Director since 2011. For the year ending 31 March 2018, CSR had a trading revenue of $2.6 billion — up 6 per cent from the previous year — and employed more than 4200 people.

Prior to CSR, Sindel was Managing Director of Hanson’s slag cement business in the United Kingdom, a subsidiary of the global building materials company Heidelberg Cement Group.

He said he has learned a lot by watching how others operate, and that one of his greatest lessons occurred early in his career while running a Pioneer joint venture with self-contractors in Cannes.

“One was a front-end loader driver and the other was a dozer driver, but they understood what leadership looked like,” he said.

“They had about 400 [people] working for them and they knew every one of their names. It was a much more ‘family’ and holistic approach to leadership.”

Another important lesson he has learned is to adapt his approach to different situations.

“There’s nothing wrong with being directive and assertive and controlling when the people working in your team want that sort of guidance,” he said.

“But by the time you get to a development level where the individual is competent and really wants to excel, you have to give them responsibility and accountability and let them run with it. You have to be able to change your leadership style depending on the development of the individual.”

Learning on the job

Sindel believes leaders must set a clear vision for an organisation.

“You must look at how you develop a culture and how you continually reinforce it,” he said, adding that many organisations get it wrong.

“Look what the banking royal commission has come out with,” he said.

“People get too focused on incentives. You have to reinforce good behaviours so that the reputation of the organisation is first and foremost.”

Sindel also has words of advice for other engineers looking to move into leadership roles and will share these during his session at the AEC.

“Have a try at all the different functional roles,” he said.

“Even though you’re in engineering, spend some time with the marketing people, the finance people and spend some time on the road selling. A lot of engineers say they don’t know how to sell but selling is actually easy. It’s just going out and solving somebody’s problem.”  

Rob Sindel will be speaking about the leadership journey and how to successfully change careers at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference. To learn more and to register, click here

The promises and perils of AI that’s ‘smarter’ than us

the promises and perils of artificial intelligence (AI)

Working with artificial intelligence (AI) has positives and negatives, but how we approach it will determine which side is felt more, says inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil.

Ray Kurzweil is arguably one of the great inventors of his time. During his teen years in the 1960s, he developed pattern recognition software that could write music in the vein of famous composers.

In 1976, it was the Kurzweil Reading Machine, which used optical character recognition for any font, charge coupled device flatbed scanner, and a text-to-voice synthesiser (all three new inventions) to allow the blind to enjoy printed material.

This was followed by the first synthesiser able to emulate orchestral instruments, all of which earned Kurzweil entry into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002. His current role is Director of Engineering at Google.

At age 70, he has earned a reputation as a formidable futurist as well as an inventor (and author of multiple best-sellers).

“In order to create technology, you have to be able to anticipate the future; you have to know where technology is going,” he told an Academy of Achievement audience in 2000.

“There’s no point solving problems that wouldn’t be problems and wouldn’t have applications by the time the project got finished.”

At the Australian Engineering Conference, Kurzweil will deliver the keynote ‘Thinking Machines – the Promise and the Peril’, discussing the vast implications of progress in artificial intelligence.  

Ray Kurzweil at South by Southwest in 2017.

The possibility of AI ‘smarter’ than us offers both promise and peril. The promise involves better tools to combat issues such as disease, poverty and global warming. The peril is something that might escape our control, whatever that looks like. We’ll be okay though, believes Kurzweil, if we can approach the issue the way we did biotechnology.

“A meeting called the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA was organised in 1975 to assess its potential dangers and devise a strategy to keep the field safe,” he wrote in 2014, adding that the resulting guidelines had been adopted and no significant problems had emerged since.

“We have the opportunity in the decades ahead to make major strides in addressing the grand challenges of humanity. AI will be the pivotal technology in achieving this progress. We have a moral imperative to realise this promise while controlling the peril.”   

Ray Kurzweil will deliver a keynote address at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To learn more and to register, click here.

How can engineers help make innovation more than just a buzzword?

Where are the real opportunities to make a difference? What are the things that we can do that have never been done before? These are the questions engineers should be asking themselves.

If you’re planning to talk about innovation with Admiral Chris Barrie, you’d better know what it actually means. The former Australian Defence Force Chief says the term has been added to an ever-growing pile of business and political buzzwords. Innovation, he believes, has become heavy on talk and light on action.

Barrie will go beyond buzzwords at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference in Sydney when he joins a panel of speakers to discuss some of the big ideas that could pave the way for our prosperous nation.

“Most people I speak to who use the word ‘innovation’ have no real understanding of what that means,” he said.

Chris Barrie Australian Defence Force

Admiral Chris Barrie AC, RAM.

“I’ve quizzed bureaucrats and I’ve quizzed ministers and others, and nearly everybody has said that, in this country, it’s about a building with ‘innovation’ over the front door. When you go to Silicon Valley, though, or to other places in the United States, it’s about what people are doing in the garage. They’re building things; they’re trying new things because they had a bright idea and they got a little bit of money together, so they’re giving it a go. That’s what innovation really means.”

Australia is not short of big ideas, said Barrie. However, he believes our innovative thinkers can be stymied by restrictive laws that prevent them from putting ideas into action.

“I think Australia needs to change its bankruptcy law,” said Barrie, citing US bankruptcy legislation as a better alternative for encouraging entrepreneurship.

“I think one of the consequences of our bankruptcy law is the government has to fund everything,” he said.

“I do think a fundamental building block of our society would change if bankruptcy law changed and there would be more encouragement for venture capital to seed new ideas. Industry and even governments would be more accepting of risk and trying new things. We’re so risk-averse that we won’t try anything that hasn’t been done somewhere else before.

“There’s much less likelihood we would ever have a Silicon Valley in this country, because we don’t have the capital to take the risk of experimentation,” adds Barrie. “I think there’s a real case for us to change because, frankly, at the moment, brain drain means all our best and most talented people go to the United States. I’d love to keep them here.”

Barrie also said more big ideas should be directed to the north of the country.

“We need to look at the possibilities in Northern Australia, as I think there is a lot on offer in terms of new agriculture and new research,” he said.

Barrie believes engineers play a vital role in the future of an “innovation nation”.

“When I think about innovation and about kids in their garages building all sorts of things, I think of engineers,” he said.

“I think of people that can look at technology, look at materials and solve some of the rather persistent causes of problems. I would like to think that their imaginations would be lit up by questions such as, ‘Where are the real opportunities to make a difference here? What are the things that we can do that have never been done before?’. That’s the kind of society I think we should be trying to aim for in the 21st century.” 

Admiral Chris barrie AC, RAN, former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, will be speaking about Australia’s grand plan for the future and how engineers fit in at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To register, click here

This shuttle is helping pave the way for autonomous vehicles

autonomous vehicle engineering

Autonomous vehicles are one of the biggest engineering challenges of the 21st century. What does it take to make them roadworthy?

In Sydney, a project is under way to answer that question. Go behind the scenes and learn more about how developers are building and testing driverless tech to create transport of the future.

Take a ride in this autonomous shuttle and learn more about the engineering challenges of autonomous cars at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference. To learn more, click here.

One engineer’s mission to share how the world’s favourite structures came to be

structural engineer Roma Agrawal tell the stories behind our structures

In a profession short of superstars, British structural engineer Roma Agrawal is finding ways to explain her work to non-engineers.

Tall buildings are celebrities. From the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was the tallest structure in the world for nearly 4000 years, to today’s record holder, the Burj Khalifa, people are drawn to these structures, gazing up at them in awe.

On the south side of the River Thames in London stands The Shard, a 310 m skyscraper which was the tallest building in Europe when completed in 2012. Roma Agrawal was a structural engineer on The Shard and started receiving invitations to talk about the structure after it was completed, invitations that would ultimately take her down a parallel career path.

“I think the tower really captured the imagination of a lot of people,” said Agrawal.

“That’s really where I started, just telling people about my work on The Shard, about my job and about the structures that I’ve created and what a day in my life might look like. On the surface, it looks quite simple, but what’s important, a little bit deeper, is how one should communicate that message.”

Engineer and author Roma Agrawal.

She found many people were fascinated by her stories but surprisingly ignorant of what engineers actually do. She realised she had an opportunity to spread the word on engineering to a wider audience. The problem for many engineers, she feels, is that in their day-to-day jobs they use a lot of technical jargon. Their colleagues understand that language so they get used to communicating their work in those terms.

“But when you’re going out there and talking to people who aren’t engineers and you’re trying to inspire them, then you have to focus on stories,” she said.

“And that’s really important.”

Her talks evolved into newspaper articles and television interviews. Before long, a publisher approached her to write a book on the subject. She could have kept it to The Shard but she decided to think big, like a true structural engineer on tall buildings, and write a broader story encompassing many structures throughout history and the engineering behind them. The result is Built: The hidden stories behind our structures.

The book

One of the main stories in Built is her own; from one of her earliest memories as a toddler gazing up at the skyscrapers of Manhattan, through her childhood in Mumbai to university at Oxford and her career as an engineer. She described her favourite project, which is not The Shard but a footbridge at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, England. It was her first ever project.

“I started working on that project on my 22nd birthday, which was a very memorable moment for me,” she told create.

“I basically designed almost every aspect of that structure with the help of my boss. We were a very small team that worked on that structure. So it was really satisfying to have designed the steel cables, the steel decks, the concrete foundations.

“I did analysis on the dynamics. How does the bridge actually move? Are we in danger of wobbling? And then within 18 months of starting, I was then standing on it when it was nearly finished. And that’s really I guess what the job’s about. It’s being able to experience structures once you’ve finished them, and they become part of other people’s lives.”

She also introduces us to other people’s stories including that of Emily Roebling who oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. The bridge was designed by Emily’s father-in-law John Roebling, a German-American civil engineer who died of tetanus after an accident in the early days of construction.

His son Washington Roebling took over as chief engineer but became ill from the bends while working in the pressurised caissons being used to construct the bridge’s foundations. While caring for him, Emily took on the task of acting as go between for Washington and the people on site.

“But then she clearly starts studying the technical engineering, the maths, the cable theory, the material science. And then she starts actually managing the project,” Agrawal said.

“So for 11 years she’s out on site, speaking to labourers, solving their issues, negotiating with the politicians and the funders that are paying for the actual bridge. And I just love her story because we’re going all the way back to the 1800s. And people generally believed at the time that women were less intelligent than men; that our brains were not capable of understanding that level of mathematics. But she smashed all those assumptions about women and just delivered the project because she had to.”

Another favourite is Bangladeshi civil engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan who developed the concept of using exoskeletons to support a building’s structure.

“In a technical engineering sense, he completely revolutionised the stability of skyscrapers. And it’s really because of his ideas of those stability systems that we can now build the really tall towers that we see going up in places like the Middle East and China,”Agrawal said.

“But I think what I really admire about him as an engineer, was that he blurred the line between what architects do and what engineers do. And he just had a different kind of philosophy about what design is. We now separate these two professions which wasn’t the case a couple of thousand years ago when you look back to the Romans for example. And he tried to kind of bring that back together a bit in the work he did.”

The Shard

The genesis of London’s tallest tower came in the late 1990s when the British Government began encouraging high-density development next to transport hubs. Developer Irvine Sellar had recently purchased a tower block adjacent to London Bridge railway station, one of London’s oldest and busiest stations serving both Underground lines and mainline destinations outside of London.

Sellar approached noted architect Renzo Piano who reportedly came up with the basic design (a very steep glass pyramid) on the back of a menu while lunching with Sellar. Piano has said the design was inspired by the idea of building a mixed-use environment containing commercial space, a hotel, residential space and public viewing galleries, each requiring less floor space than the previous, so the taper was obvious. Construction began in 2008 and was completed four years later.

The top of The Shard.

While the above ground building is striking, one of its most innovative elements is its foundations which were excavated at the same time as the tower’s core was being built up, the first time this technique had been tried in Britain. Agrawal was part of the team working on the foundations.

“We didn’t really have any precedent as to how this might work because it was a new technique that we were trying,” she said.

“So that was such an amazing experience to have actually been a part of a relatively new way of constructing a basement and the core of the tower.”

Rather than digging a deep hole the size of the future basement then drilling piles to support the entire structure, piles were drilled at the ground level then covered with the ground floor slab, while leaving a hole for the future excavation.

“While digging continued downward, a special rig was attached to the newly exposed steel plunge columns, this rig could build the central concrete core,” wrote Agrawal in her book.

“At one point, 20 floors of the huge concrete spine were being held up just by the steel columns – there was no foundation in place. It was a structure on stilts.”

western Europe's tallest buildingsAfter the foundations were completed, she also worked on the spire at the top of the tower which includes the viewing gallery for the building and a lot of mechanical plant.

“What’s really interesting about that piece of structure is that the steel is all completely exposed,” she told create.

“So there’s no hiding the welds, the bolts, the way we’re connecting up the different pieces of steel. The architects wanted it to look absolutely beautiful because millions of visitors would be coming to look at it, and we also needed it to be designed in a way that was actually safe to build. So that was a balance my team had to achieve when we were doing the design of that piece.”

She described the first time she ascended to the top floor of the tower, fighting back her queasiness for heights which was compounded by the fact that no glass had been installed yet and the tapering tower meant the floor space was quite small

“Even standing at the staircase, which ran through the centre of the floor, I seemed close to the edge,” she wrote in Built.

“I was at the intersection of the sky and humanity. After months of making models, doing calculations and creating drawings, I was finally seeing the project made real. It felt so much larger and more tangible than the sketches on a piece of paper or drawings on a computer screen. This phase of construction is a thrill.”

From spires to inspiring

Last year, Agrawal took on a new role as Associate Director (Structural Engineering) at AECOM. She described it as different to anything she’s done before; meeting with clients at the beginning of projects and shaping the design at a very early stage.

Roma Agrawal, with The Shard in the background.

But she still dabbles in her alternate communications career. Earlier this year she teamed up with AECOM’s Senior Vice President of Global Talent, Susan Dumond, to propose a skills manifesto for creating the engineer of the future.

“What’s the spark that will inspire the next generation?” they asked.

“What, together, do we need to change? How do we create and encourage innovation?”

The pair spoke to engineers from around the globe, including Engineers Australia CEO Peter McIntyre who felt that the profession needed to work harder at getting its success stories into the mainstream media.

“I think that’s where we can start to change the hearts and minds of young students, parents and teachers,” McIntyre said.

Agrawal and Dumond agreed, with their first conclusion being they needed to fire up the next generation of engineers. Their other recommendations were creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce, training engineers to work on the infrastructure of the future, embracing what makes us human as certain tasks become automated, and rebooting the industry so that as new people come into the profession, its structures and leadership evolve with it.

On this last point, McIntyre told Agrawal and Dumond there is a key role for associations to play to ensure more rational, informed and honest debate about the big future infrastructure questions shaping people’s worlds.

And, as part of her personal goal to inspire the next generation of engineers, Agrawal is working on a new book about structural engineering, this time for children.

“We don’t have a title or anything yet,” she said.

“But there are going to be exciting structures in there with information about the materials we’ve built from, some people’s stories and some fun experiments that kids can also try out at home.”

The future of the engineering profession might yet be safe.

Roma Agrawal will be speaking at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To learn more and to register, click here.

Agents of change: How engineers can make a difference in the world

Satisfaction, skills and the improvement of society all result when engineers – and the organisations that employ them – lend their talent to nations in need.

Having just stepped off a flight at Darwin Airport, civil engineer Tara Bartnik is reflecting on the work she has done over the past 10 months.

She’s on a small break from an 18-month assignment in East Timor for Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Australia and WaterAid, where she is helping to develop local Timorese capabilities around water, sanitation and hygiene. During her discussion with create, it quickly becomes clear that this young engineer is thrilled to have the opportunity to do such work.

“The job satisfaction is amazing. In the organisation for which I work, there is only one other foreign employee. Everyone else is Timorese, and it’s very satisfying to see their skills improving,” Bartnik said.

“It’s been really good building relationships with the local staff. In terms of my career, it’s also excellent experience. Hopefully it will open doors to continue doing this kind of work. But, mainly, I can’t believe how lucky I am. It’s exciting and it’s constantly changing.”

humanitarian engineering Engineers Without Borders

Jimi Metcalfe (centre), an EWB field professional, and Piseth Kim (far right), an EWB sanitation engineer, talking with Phang Samoeurn, who runs a latrine construction business in Cambodia.

Few professionals speak of their jobs in such glowing terms. Perhaps it’s because ‘typical’ roles don’t involve working hand-in-hand, and hands-on, with the community that benefits from the project. Whatever the explanation, it is refreshing to know that engineers have the opportunity to recognise the real differences they’re making to the world.

Gavin Blakey is Chair of the Board of Directors of EWB Australia. At the 2018 Australian Engineering Conference, he will moderate a panel discussion about the ways engineers are changing the world.

Having the ability to recognise the change they make is vital as it leads to immense job satisfaction, he said. One of the best ways to truly appreciate the scale of change created by an engineer is to volunteer in a community that urgently requires it.

“Often, as engineers, we are down there in detail, doing analysis, identifying and solving the problems, creating the design,” said Blakey, a three-decade member of Engineers Australia.

“And if you’re down in the details all the time, it’s great to be able to lift your eyes to the horizon to see what a difference you’re making.

“To me, that’s what it’s about — the recognition that we are contributing and making a difference. So whether you’re designing a stormwater system or a building, whether you’re working with a remote community or in a high-density urban space, all aspects of engineering ultimately create positive change and make a difference in our communities.”

Seeing a need

EWB Australia was founded 15 years ago by aeronautical engineer Danny Almagor, who had previously wanted to take a year off to volunteer overseas. However, he could find no official way to do so. In 2003, with help from some engineer mates, he created the Australian arm of EWB.

Today, more than 100 projects have been undertaken by EWB Australia in eight countries, including East Timor, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Cambodia. From electricity solutions to smokeless stoves and fresh water systems, engineers have brought measurable improvements to the lives of people around the globe.

An EWB women in engineering workshop in Bobonaro, Timor-Leste.

A volunteer role with EWB Australia, Blakey said, offers the volunteer several professional and personal benefits.

“They gain great people skills in an environment that can be quite challenging, but which is also very supportive,” he said.

“We have employers who have told us that if they see job applicants who have listed ‘EWB Australia volunteer’ on their CV, they go straight to the short list. Those companies know that the experience gained by volunteering is incredibly useful for them in their career.”

There are now 20 full-time equivalent staff and more than 1000 volunteers, plus a range of corporate supporters under the umbrella of EWB Australia. In 2016-17 the organisation contributed approximately 33,360 volunteer hours in the service of local social impact and put more than 9000 engineering students at 28 universities through the EWB Challenge, an academic module that solves real-life challenges in developing countries.

EWB Australia volunteers typically have their travel and accommodation funded by the organisation and are provided with a stipend for living expenses.

Disaster response

While EWB Australia helps to create engineering capacity within developing territories, United Nations Standby Partner RedR Australia responds at all stages when disaster arises, such as the cyclone that hit Vanuatu in 2015.

The United Nations estimated that up to 90 per cent of buildings across the island nation were damaged by Tropical Cyclone Pam, with public infrastructure such as water supplies, schools and hospitals also seriously affected.

Civil engineer and RedR Australia deployee Ted McDonnell, whose role is supported through the Australia Assists Program, is leading the Public Building Recovery Program, co-funded by the Australian Government and implemented by the government of Vanuatu.

Ted McDonnell in Vanuatu.

“When I arrived in Vanuatu in January 2016, the effects of Tropical Cyclone Pam were still very visible on the streets of the capital Port Vila and on the island of Tanna in Tafea province,” McDonnell said.

“Many buildings were missing all or part of their roofs. There was damage to building structure and internal damage due to water getting into the buildings.”

McDonnell said the main aim was to repair or reconstruct the facilities to the original state while ensuring they met current building standards.

“We’re also seeking opportunities wherever possible to ‘build back better’ and improve the facilities to meet current or future requirements,” he said.

“I overheard one of the police officers state that the police houses in Tanna we built are now the best facilities in the country. He was speaking with pride. That’s an outcome worth celebrating!”

Like Bartnik, McDonnell knows his work makes a tangible difference.

“Hopefully Vanuatu will get to a point where local capacity has increased and the country will be able to manage the annual cycle of natural disasters,” he said.

“Until then, there is a place for organisations like RedR Australia to assist in risk reduction, response and recovery activities. It’s challenging work, but I’m glad I’m here.” 

Gavin Blakey will be leading a panel discussion about how engineers help make the world a better place at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To learn more and to register, click here

Creating an Industrial Internet of Things from space

Since she was a small child, Flavia Tata Nardini has been fascinated by space. Now, she is the co-founder and CEO of space startup Fleet, which is working to create a “digital nervous system” to connect remote industries using nano-satellites.

She imagines a future where everything can be connected through the Internet of Things. A farmer can track every cow, or a distributor can track how every piece of fruit is faring in a shipping container.

“We have an opportunity here to create technologies that are going to change people’s lives forever,” she said.

She sat down with us before her appearance at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference to talk about the ways we can improve life on Earth – from space.

To learn more about the Australian Engineering Conference and to register, click here

WA Scientist of the Year on cities, sustainability and how to get it right

scientist of the year

Peter Newman, a professor of sustainability at Curtin University, was recently named Western Australia Scientist of the Year 2018. In the lead-up to his appearance at the Australian Engineering Conference, he sat down with us to talk about sustainable urban design, transport practices and why more engineers should contribute to policy.

Engineers Australia: What was it like to be named Scientist of the Year?

Peter Newman: Fantastic. I have always been a scientist, but I realised early that having a science background could only really show what the problems were and help set a vision for the changes needed.

If I was to deliver this vision, I needed to understand how government systems like planning worked and also how politics worked. I was very fortunate to have been given experience working in government and in politics.

The combination of science, planning and politics has enabled me to not just imagine the future but to deliver it. I have applied this approach locally, nationally and globally, and I found I could make a contribution.

This recognition as WA Scientist of the Year suggests that others can now see how a scientist can cross into planning and politics and still be seen to have kept true to the fundamentals of being a scientist.

Engineers Australia: What are you most proud of in your career?

Professor Peter Newman.

PN: The work in resurrecting the railway in Perth over the past 40 years was a labour of love, as nearly every election we were able to win one more step along the journey. The last election was a $6 billion extension of five rail lines – that is a long way from bringing back the Fremantle line, which I led the campaign for in 1979-1983. I was able to write papers and books about the lessons I learned, and with Jeff Kenworthy providing data we helped spark a rail revival.

Now I am the coordinating lead author for transport with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). I was also involved in numerous local issues like stopping the logging of old growth forests, creating a new water future for Perth and the Roe 8 victory.

Engineers Australia: What is the importance of more scientists and engineers contributing to policy and planning?

PN: You must begin with a vision derived from science or engineering, but you can’t deliver this unless you can do policy. This requires a combination of planning in whatever part of government the issue is based and politics. You must bring together these three elements – science and engineering, planning and policy – and they are not something we get taught in the STEM disciplines.

Engineers AustraliaWhat does sustainability mean in terms of urban design? Is it just green spaces, or something more?

PN: It is much more and has become the major paradigm guiding all development. My work has been to apply the concept to cities. Sustainability in cities is when we can reduce the metabolism (resource consumption and waste) while simultaneously improving the liveability (jobs, community, green space, health).

This can be applied at any scale – from household to precinct and local government, through to whole metropolitan areas. We are now applying it to the three urban fabrics that are part of every city: the walking city, the transit city and the automobile city. These have different histories and metabolisms and need to be treated differently by planners and engineers who suggest there is only one type of fabric (automobile-based urban fabric) with manuals that detail how it should be managed.

Engineers Australia: How do you think Australian cities do when it comes to sustainability and things like transport or infrastructure?

PN: We have been a leader at times in some global sustainability issues and mostly do our bit in major global agreements. But our cities remain middle ground at best when it comes to metabolism.

The Economist rankings are good at showing we have cities that generally work well on their liveability scale. On metabolism we are not as good as European or wealthy Asian cities when it comes to transport and energy, and we can learn much from them.

However, we do have some signs that these changes are happening. The disruptive innovations of solar, batteries and blockchain are world leading, and our growth in public transport investment suggests some big changes are underway.

My next project is to see how trackless trams and local shared mobility will disrupt cars and oil. I hope these changes will all continue so that in five to 10 years I can say we led the world in removing both coal and oil from our cities.

Professor Peter Newman will be speaking about the future of sustainability and resilience at the Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To register, click here

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