Engineering for Humanity: What Does It Mean to Be a Humanitarian Engineer?

Guest post by Sheena Ong. There are certain associations that come with the word “engineer”. Call yourself an engineer and, depending on who you’re talking to, you may be saddled with a range of assumed attributes: good at maths, technically-minded, practical, esoteric, handy, scientific, slightly nerdy perhaps, hopefully creative, and probably good at making things work. 

These are all fair enough as far as sweeping generalisations go; after all, engineering has a natural resonance with the physical world problem solving, and making things better. Why, then, do our thoughts rarely snap to another image alongside all those: the engineer as humanitarian?

When it comes to the "infrastructure" of our lives, the fingerprints of engineers are everywhere yet are so often overlooked. Our basic needs - shelter, warmth, clothing and so on - are met through the ingenuity of those who have harnessed science to creatively solve the problem of humans (7 billion of us!) having needs and desires. Engineers design and deliver the systems, processes, devices and structures that fulfil them, enabling us to live the way we do or move towards how we'd wish to. 

Engineering is central to our lives, and when I say it provides “infrastructure” I don’t just mean it in the roads-and-bridges sense. When I talk about the infrastructure of our lives, I mean the whole shell that encloses what it means to be me, to lead the life I do. I mean the surroundings, the settings, the devices and the objects that define my condition – identity, experience – in the world. Engineers are responsible for so much of this. 

I’ll never forget road-tripping down south with uni friends, and I’m pretty sure those halcyon days weren’t half as magical without The Verve blaring through our open windows. Sound systems! Cars! Walkie-talkies between vehicles! And nothing refreshed me like a hot shower – hydraulics! – after reaching home as dusk settled – streetlights! – safe and tired after the weekend.

My best memories are sprinkled with the works of engineering. My fondest moments are framed by the infrastructure of human civilisation – physical, but with a beyond-physical significance. Fundamentally, engineers serve humanity. 

But what does it mean to call engineers “humanitarian”? What does it take to deserve such a title? Even though engineers serve humanity, in our common language we tend to imagine that a humanitarian is someone who goes beyond service in a general sense: someone who strives for equality, who addresses disadvantage.

"Humanitarians" work for the good of humanity at large, and that means elevating those with the least.

But here, too, engineers play a role. Biomedical technologies for disabled individuals; community-appropriate systems for developing communities; solutions for disaster relief; recreational vehicles to restore quality of life…

Engineers can be humanitarians indeed.

Engineering a Documentary: The Journey from Green to Screen

I began volunteering for Engineers Without Borders in 2008. In this time, I grew intrigued by a term used frequently in EWB circles: “humanitarian engineer”. Hearing it always thrilled and troubled me: thrilled me because it tapped into that idea of the engineer in connection to humans and society, and troubled me because I wondered who it was excluding. Why isn’t every engineer called a humanitarian engineer? Should they be?

In fact, what does it mean to be a “humanitarian engineer”? I felt sure it was worth asking for a proper definition, and to look for it using a medium that took others on that journey too. There was never much doubt in my mind that a documentary would be that perfect medium.

However, actually making one was just a musing fancy. I was an engineering/philosophy student with no experience in media, and stepping blindly into an unknown discipline was not priority one among my life plans, thank you very much!

But after graduating in mid-2013, a perfect storm of circumstances gave me pause to consider this mad possibility. With several months of limbo between university and employment, and encouraged to choose a project to fulfil EWB’s Mickey Sampson Leadership Program, I threw caution to the wind and decided, once and for all, to dive into those questions that had long held my fascination: What does it mean to be a humanitarian engineer?

My next question was: How the heck do you make a documentary?

What followed was one of the steepest, most enjoyable learning curves of my life. I sought guidance from film-savvy friends, family and the online film-making community whose altruism is an ongoing source of gratitude and bafflement to me.

Making the documentary was an adventure that spanned crowdfunding, researching, filming, interviewing, editing and promoting… and all the bits in between! Technically and conceptually I was learning new things every day, courting mistakes and minor triumphs at every turn: deleting tracks by accident, battling audio backgrounds, colour-correcting footage… I was spinach green!

My project attracted a group of followers on Facebook and continued to grow as I travelled across Australia interviewing the National President of Engineers Australia; CEOs and founders of humanitarian engineering organisations; an ex-army Colonel involved in crisis relief; field engineers; beneficiaries; and more.

It’s now eight months since the journey began. But it’s a quest that started much further back and I hope it’ll stretch further forward, because the idea of engineers as humanitarians is one that should be in every mind – at the front or at least the back of it.

People don’t think much about the connection between engineering and humanity. Shower-time is rarely a cause to extol the marvels of the engineers who built pipelines and valves, and conversely, thinking about engineering rarely conjures up “humanitarian” images.

It’s time to reframe the picture. It’s time to repaint the portrait of the engineer, to reclaim our identity as a profession that wields the powers of science, innovation, analysis and practical knowledge to benefit humanity. Every one of us.

Find out more about The Humanitarian Engineer at www.the-humanitarian-engineer.com or follow the project page on Facebook.

Sheena Ong is a recently graduated mechanical engineer and EWB member who has always been fascinated by the idea of engineers as humanitarians, believing that engineers have the power to improve lives and create social change. She grew up in Perth and currently works for renewable energy firm Enigin while volunteering as EWB's WA Regional Vice President. Her favourite taste is peppermint.