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

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.

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