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

The future of engineering is uncertain – and full of possibilities

Elanor Huntington on the future of engineering

By the time current first-year engineering students graduate, the world will be a different place than when they started university. What skills will they need to solve problems and do jobs that don’t even exist yet?

Elanor Huntington, Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the Australian National University, has thought a lot about what the term ‘engineer’ will mean in 10, 20, 50 years’ time.

We caught up with her before her appearance at this year’s Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney to get some predictions about where the industry is headed and what engineering students have to look forward to.

What role will engineers play in the future? Hear from experts and discuss ideas at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference 17-19 September in Sydney. To learn more and to register, click here

Confessions from engineers who have made it in the business world

business leadership

It is not hard to name engineers who have built their ideas into a prosperous business. What does it take to do this?

From Henry Ford to Bill Gates to Elon Musk and, closer to home, Atlassian founders Mike Cannon-Brooks and Scott Farquhar, there are ample cases to suggest that engineers and technologists can make super-successful company founders and leaders.

So, do engineers make good entrepreneurs? Anyone can make a good entrepreneur, said Professor (Emeritus) and University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Innovation Adviser Roy Green. The essential element is a viable product, based on good research, and which can be commercialised.

“An engineer or technologist has a head start in that respect because they understand product development,” said Green, who will moderate a panel discussion titled ‘The Genius of Naivety’ on 19 September at the Australian Engineering Conference in Sydney.

“But in order to translate a product into a market opportunity, other skills are also necessary.”

Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin is the Founder and CEO of startup accelerator BlueChilli and has won the EY Entrepreneur of The Year (Emerging category). His resume includes 10 years as a weapons engineer in the Royal Australian Navy.

BlueChilli founder and CEO Sebastian Eckersley-Maslin.

Asked if members of his profession make good entrepreneurs, he tells create: “I think engineers do make really strong, good leaders, but that’s only one of the characteristics that they require to be a successful entrepreneur.

“Also, engineers are fantastic problem solvers, and it’s that active problem solving which I think can make them amazing entrepreneurs.”

Without guidance, however, they can sometimes suffer from ‘The Developer’s Dilemma’. They might be in love with their idea though without an understanding of their end user. Building things to solve problems is in their DNA, and when there are problems they might just keep adding technology.

“Their instinct is to go back to what they know, which is to build, and they add more features or tweak the services or whatever,” Eckersley-Maslin said.

“You end up in this horrible loop, where you just keep adding more stuff. And you end up building massive, monolithic structures that no one is buying.”

He advocates the well-known Lean Startup methodology to avoid this possible trap.


Need for speed


Byron Kennedy, CEO and co-founder of SPEE3D, is commercialising an additive manufacturing method using robotics to spray metal powders at supersonic speeds to build parts. It officially launched at Formnext in Germany last November and has received orders within Australia and from the US, Germany and Singapore.

SPEE3D is combining robotics and 3D printing.

He and co-founder Steve Camilleri previously spun out In Motion electric motors from Charles Darwin University, selling this to a division of Regal Beloit. He believes entrepreneurship is “just chasing your dream or your passion” and an entrepreneur can come from any disciplinary background.

“However, what engineering does is give you the skillset to solve technical challenge. What we do on a day-to-day basis is to have a particular engineering challenge,” he explains, adding that his and Camilleri’s profession helps in systematically breaking a project into smaller problems.

“When we started on the printer, for instance, we broke it into 10 separate elements and we ran Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) on each of those and you could ultimately see where you had to spend your time. One was already a four – happy with it. But is that one a zero? We’ve got to put a bit more time into that zero, at least get it up to a one or something like that. We put a lot of process thinking into solving these problems.”

Engineering skills give the founders the ability to understand a range of possible solutions. Other, entrepreneurial skills, says Kennedy, allow them to pick out the most realistic solution based on constraints (financial, technological and other) and risks, before proceeding.


Robo rehab


UTS students Rowan Smith and Thirunisha Thirumurugan are at an earlier stage in their entrepreneurial journey.

Smith picked a ‘Robotic Rehabilitation’ option during the Summer Studio program. He did so following his grandmother suffering a stroke in late-2017, and rehab being “a pretty crap process”.

As Tech Gym, the two students are developing two solutions, one to assist rebuilding upper body strength and the other involving musical games to recover hand and finger strength.

“We are definitely still in the stage of looking for a mentor on a start-up level: we haven’t quite found that yet,” Smith said.

Robotic assistance to help manipulate a patient’s arms also addresses physical issues for physiotherapists. Smith says they train five years for a job that they leave after seven years on average, due to work injuries.

One of the first steps in developing Smith’s and Thirumurugan’s ideas was to hear what the UTS physiotherapy researchers’ problems were. Though the venture is a promising one – the pair won a recent university pitching competition and will present at the Virginia Tech Global Entrepreneur Challenge Competition in August – they are always looking to potential end users for guidance.

Roy Green says engineers understand product development, and therefore make excellent business leaders.

“The big part that we need is mentors to push us in the right direction of the medical field, because both Nisha and I are mechanical and mechatronic engineers, so our medical understanding is quite limited,” he said.

“We just want to build robots.”

Asked if engineering students should be exposed to entrepreneurial thinking before graduation, Eckersley-Maslin said yes, though he added every engineer should be an entrepreneur or vice versa.

“But I do think a healthy understanding of the two worlds is important for people to make an informed decision if that pathway is for them, or they want to go and work for a high-tech, high-growth company,” he said.

According to a survey by Smith’s university, a significant proportion of students (40 per cent) are seeking an entrepreneurial element to be taught through their degree. As featured in the March 2017 issue of create magazine, the university began offering an MBA in Entrepreneurship (MBAe) with other Australian universities also offering new post-grad degrees with an entrepreneurial bent.

As with Eckersley-Maslin, Green believes students, including those in engineering, should be exposed to entrepreneurial ideas as a matter of course.

“Not all of them of course will necessarily end up creating a business. But even if they didn’t, wherever they work they’ll take an entrepreneurial mindset with them,” says Green.

“And not just a technological mindset or managerial mindset. They would have a much broader approach to whatever problems and challenges might be facing them.”

What are the skills young engineers need to succeed in business? What can existing businesses do to stay on top of current trends? Roy Green will share his insights at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference in Sydney 17-19 September. To learn more and to register, click here

“Find problems worth solving”: One medtech engineer shares the secrets to his success

Dr Chris Jeffery is a medtech entrepreneur with several innovations under his belt.

As CEO and co-founder of innovative medtech company Field Orthopaedics, Dr Chris Jeffery has worn a number of different hats. But his focus on pulling apart and solving problems is a constant.

Wanting to broaden his expertise with a bionics PhD on the way to a role as an orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Chris Jeffery was told by a mentor to “go find problems worth solving” and make a real impact.

“They sent me back out in the world to hospitals, and that was really the catalyst for change,” the CEO and co-founder of Field Orthopaedics told create.

Finding and tackling problems is life for Jeffery, who at just 31 years has achieved a surprising amount. His line from graduating in electrical and computer engineering (with an honours thesis that won the JH Curtis Award) to medical innovator has not been a straight one.

Dr Chris Jeffery, founder and CEO of Field Orthopaedics, is a medtech innovation juggernaut.

Jeffery with a Baxter collaborative robot.

He served as a Royal Corps of Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME) officer after graduation, receiving an Army Capability Development award for developing an AI platform to speed up deployment in the field. He was then deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“You’re like the COO of the company, where the CEO or the commanding officer in the army sets the plan and the adjutant enforces and implements the plan,” he said of his service as an adjutant.


Bionics knowledge


Time spent with doctors in the Middle East inspired Jeffery to change career tack and pursue medicine. He qualified as one of five to earn a full scholarship – including a concurrent MBA during medical school – through University of Queensland’s Medical Leadership Program.

“With my engineering, doctor, business and emerging bionics knowledge, I ended up
coming back with a whole bunch of business ideas,” he said.

The first of these emerged as an answer to a serious problem he experienced on placement as a junior doctor at a children’s clinic at Ipswich General Hospital.

“The average patient was five years of age, referred because they were missing developmental milestones, withdrawing from family or friends, or having behavioural issues,” Jeffery said.

“And the question was, ‘Is it that they can’t hear, they have another medical issue, or is it behavioural?’.”

A threshold-based audiogram was required for diagnosis, with a wait time of 18 months to see an audiologist. A wait to see Jeffery? 12 months.

A kid presenting with no test would just be put in a queue – “a travesty,” said Jeffery, given the simplicity of the test and children sometimes waiting two years “before you can know what’s wrong, let alone where to start to look at how to fix it.”

He wrote a logic-based program on a Raspberry Pi to emulate the screening, later starting Audera to commercialise this IP. A consumer element also became part of the company, which makes headphones that adjust to a user’s hearing profile.

“Three years down the track – literally thousands and thousands of audiograms – we’re yet to see a perfect audiogram,” Jeffery said.

“You can make the best headphones in the world, but until they can identify and adjust to your hearing they’re pretty pointless. We used the selling of those to fund the ongoing medical innovation and creation of my medtech company.”

Mentors asked Jeffery why he was devoting so much time to ear, nose and throat problems when he wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon. He began to focus on issues with upper limb extremity devices, where four out of 10 patients suffer complications.

The wrist is a hard joint to fix because of its complexity and range of motion.

The first problem was severe arthritis of the wrist, affecting one in six people over 60. There is no way to replace the complex joint, unlike with a hip or knee, and options range from painkilling drugs to fusing the wrist.

“Essentially two joints in one, it’s got a massive circumferential range of motion,” he said.

“Importantly, unlike the hip or the knee, when those joints are loaded the bones smoosh together to stabilise them; when the hand is loaded or the wrist is loaded, if you think about how you hold a phone, the force is normally orthogonal to the axis of the bones.”

This led to a total replacement method using magnets to stabilise the wrist, which Field Orthopaedics was formed to commercialise.


Engineering dilemma


Early this year the company made news with the cheapness and speed of development for the Field Micro Screw, taking 12 months and $600,000 (compared to an average of 31 months and $39 million). The device for treating small fractures is currently awaiting US FDA approval.

These two companies and another have incubated within RER Labs, which Jeffery co-founded. The company started working on outside projects, provided they are suitable and sufficiently problem-based, in the past two years.

“I call it the engineering dilemma,” Jeffery said of the wrong way of developing an idea.

“We often want to do a project that’s cool for coolness’ sake; so we might be trained in computer vision or we’ll be enthusiastic about drones, and that’s the solution. But that to me is always like trying to put a square peg in a round hole – it limits your creativity and the simplicity and elegance of what you’re going to give someone. We like to start with actually understanding the problem first.”

Asked about the difference between leading a project and leading a company, the entrepreneur said he doesn’t see a huge division between them. For both, it’s essential to understand the purpose and what problem is being solved. What is the essence statement, the barriers and the plan to overcome these?

Jeffery receiving the Young Business Person of the Year at the Brisbane Lord Mayor’s Business Awards in 2017.

“They’re both tricky, probably for the same reasons, and that’s managing human capital: so managing the people, the team, from the project point of view, or contractors that might not be as motivated or as invested or as effective as you; versus the company, which is how do you manage the people in your team. You need to all be as invested and driven to solve that,” he said.

Things like brand messaging are a concern for a company, though perhaps not for a project.

“The only difference between project and organisation is I suppose in an organisation there’s a few other elements, and you have to change your mindset: it’s not always a technical mindset,” he says.

How can you make the jump from project leader to business leader? Dr Chris Jeffery will share his insights at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference. To register, click here

The people’s engineer: Why you need to keep end users on the mind

humanitarian engineering

Engineers directly and indirectly impact the lives of people in the communities in which they work. Ahead of his session at the Australian Engineering Conference 2018, Gavin Blakey, Chair of the Board for Engineers Without Borders, says engineers need to think more about them when finding solutions to problems.

Engineering is a profession that produces technical solutions, but Gavin Blakey OAM believes a combination of people and technical skills is fundamental to being a successful engineer. The civil engineer’s career has been marked by a focus on the people side of engineering and openness to change and new ideas.

Born and raised in Cairns, Blakey attended James Cook University and started his working life with a Queensland consulting engineering firm before moving to Brisbane.

“I joined Brisbane City Council as I wanted to work for a large and diverse organisation. I’ve had the opportunity to work in 12 or 15 different roles ranging from geotechnical engineering to business development to flood management to asset management, but I’ve always wanted to incorporate more the people part of engineering,” Blakey said.

Back in 2015, Blakey took leave from his job as the asset engineering manager for Brisbane City Council to work as the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Australia In-Country Manager for Cambodia and Vietnam for six months.

He was attracted by the opportunity to be exposed to different cultures and ways of doing things.

“I am inspired by young Cambodians wanting to make a difference in their community. I’m also very inspired working with young professionals in their 20s and 30s, and that motivates me to get out into the field and try out new areas I haven’t been exposed to before,” Blakey said.

Blakey said working with international NGOs, social entrepreneurs, EWB field volunteers and a variety of professionals “stimulates your thinking and you create more effective solutions by looking at things from a different angle”.

“The caliber and commitment of people working in this sector from all over the world is inspiring,” he said.


Big-picture thinking


Gavin Blakey Engineers Without Borders humanitarian engineering

Gavin Blakey holding a map of Tonle Sap lake’s unique hydrological system. During his time in Cambodia, he helped the Osmose eco-tourism team at Prek Toal floating village, located on the Tonle Sap lake in Siem Reap Province. (Photo: Alexandra Nash)

The journey from asset engineering manager to EWB In-Country Manager started when Blakey discovered EWB’s annual Link Festival (a conference about design, technology and social change) in 2013. He found the diversity of people in humanitarian engineering and more equitable gender balance compared to engineering in general very appealing.

After attending Link Festival, Blakey invited EWB Australia CEO Lizzie Brown to speak at Brisbane City Council and was amazed when 50 people from a range of ages and professions turned up.

“It really resonated with people from all backgrounds. I’m often asked, ‘Is humanitarian engineering only for engineers?’. The answer is no, we need people with a range of experiences, as sustainable change comes from people with a wide range of backgrounds and experience working together,” he said.

Blakey was invited to join the EWB board, where he is now helping develop strategies to make a difference through humanitarian engineering, including expanding opportunities for pro bono engineering in Australia.

This big-picture work with the EWB Board is in contrast to his current, hands-on role, where he is using his expertise to trial a new and innovative approach to facilitating sector-wide change in the emerging engineering sectors in Cambodia and Vietnam. If successful, the approach will be rolled out across Australia and internationally.

Traditionally, EWB placed engineers with community partner organisations to foster capacity building. The new approach promotes sector-wide change by working concurrently with EWB’s in-country and international partners to identify and implement the best solutions to improve the lives of some of the poorest communities in our region.

As Blakey explained: “If we can influence change at sector level, we can have a greater impact. We are helping to bring organisations together to share what works effectively, so they are using and sharing knowledge rather than each creating knowledge separately.”


Developing people skills


All three of EWB Australia’s current international programs – Professional Skills Development, Sanitation in Challenging Environments, and Assistive Technologies and Livelihoods – are using the new approach.

“If successful, we will use the model in Australia and other countries, and share it with other EWBs around the world,” Blakey said.

Blakey said the experience has already influenced how he will approach his job at Brisbane City Council.

“Being exposed to different cultures and environments will help me be more effective in my role as an engineering manager. One of the learnings for me is that I recognise the importance of involving people from the beginning of the process,” he said.

“I will think more about the people who are going to be using the service or infrastructure, and how they might be able to be involved in the process to achieve the best outcomes.”

The ability to work with communities and other professionals is something the certified workplace coach believes all engineers can foster. He advises young engineers “to develop your people skills, as you will be a much more effective engineer if you can work with clients, other professionals and fellow engineers. Employers recognise people skills complement technical skills and want people who take initiative and are willing to learn.”

He also recommended getting a mentor or working closely with people who have skills and abilities you would like to gain.

“Ask their advice; people are willing to share advice, it’s simply a matter of asking,” he said.

Experienced engineers also benefit from the mentoring process. Blakey encouraged more senior engineers to “take the time to work with younger engineers as they have passion and drive and are inspiring to work with.”

To foster connections, he advised being open and hands on.

“Share skills and experience in a way that works for them. This might be through conversations or guiding them through a project or working directly with younger engineers,” he said.

“It is stimulating and you can discover other ways of doing things you might not have found out if you stayed in your comfort zone.”

Gavin Blakey Engineers Without Borders humanitarian engineering

Blakey leads a professional development workshop in Kampot with the EWB Cambodia and Vietnam volunteers. Here he is pictured with a member of the Osmose eco-tourism team (centre right), an EWB volunteer (far right), and the owner of the floating house.

His advice about being open to new ideas illustrates Blakey’s personal ethos that embracing change helps you grow and create a better

“One of the things I’ve discovered is making change requires making personal change,” he said.

“I discovered over time that any person can change, and that by changing ourselves, we can help to make positive change for others.”

How do engineers contribute to making the world a better place? Gavin Blakey will lead a panel discussion about this question at the upcoming Australian Engineering Conference 2018. To register, click here.

AI for kids: New book hopes to get young readers interested in the future of tech

With robotics and AI changing our world at a rate of knots, kids need to get a handle on these concepts as soon as possible, according to Professor Michael Milford.


Milford, a professor of robotics from Queensland University of Technology, said early education in AI and automation is important, as these will be dominant factors affecting the employment and adult lives of today’s children.

With this in mind, he penned a kid-friendly book to spark early interest and understanding of the concepts, titled The Complete Guide to Artificial Intelligence for Kids, for which he recently ran a successful crowdfunding campaign.

“Nobody’s going to work in the same job or career for 50 years. The people who will prosper and flourish will be those who can learn new skills and adapt,” he said.

And in order to adapt to their brave new world, children need to be able to understand the technology that will drive it – and their cars – in the not too distant future.

Milford has raised enough funds to produce 1500 to 2000 copies of his guide, and will give some away to schools in low socio-economic areas.

“[These kids] will be the ones who are most affected by technological advances, so it’s important they are informed,” he said.

Learning how to learn


While coding is often mentioned as the must-have skill for the emerging job market, Milford told create digital he believes an awareness and general understanding of AI and its applications is more important, as intelligent machines might eventually write their own code.

If this sounds like a big ask, Milford draws a comparison with the basic knowledge that most people have about cars. It isn’t difficult to work out what’s wrong when you come to a stop after passing one fuel station too many, or if there is a loud bang and your ride suddenly gets bumpy.

To help kids get up to speed, Milford said the earlier they get started, the better. He has aimed his guide at a primary school audience, although he has also received positive comments from older readers.

“Lots of adults say they really like it. Some are starting from nothing with their knowledge in the field,” he said.

Milford has designed the illustrated guide to gently introduce the concepts of AI to children, making sure they have fun in the process.

He has also given the material a test drive with younger readers (including his own preschool-aged children).

“Older kids will pick up everything, while younger kids might understand simple concepts, such as robots having brains, or being able to help doctors,” Milford said.

To help kids get up to speed on the wide range of developing technology, Milford has also created other STEM-based story books and guides. His upcoming offering, Rachel Rocketeer, is about a young, female version of Elon Musk who tests rockets and sends them to Mars.

Milford plans to open his Kickstarter campaign for Rachel Rocketeer in the next couple of months.

Keeping up with the rest of the world


The government is working to improve STEM education in the wake of reports that place Australia’s science and maths school performance for primary students below the top third of OECD nations.

According to Milford, although Australian STEM performance isn’t getting worse, we are being overtaken by other countries. And that makes it harder for us to compete in the global landscape.

Milford said a cultural shift is needed, where pride and awareness of our technological and academic achievements is ingrained into the national psyche.

“In Boston, everyone in the city knows what the great achievements of MIT and Harvard are. In Australia, it’s a very different cultural environment.”

Milford said demystifying technological concepts for children early, through resources like his guide, will help with cultural change.

“If we can get guides like this into the hands of young kids, they’ll be aware of these things and that’s half the battle. And gentle, fun education on key concepts will help them prepare for detailed education later,” Milford said.

Professor Michael Milford.

Nadine Cranenburgh

Nadine Cranenburgh is an electrical engineer with postgraduate qualifications in environmental engineering, and professional writing and editing. She works as a freelance writer and editor specialising in complex topics that draw on her experience in the engineering, local government, defence and environment industries.