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Much has been written about the EWB Challenge—our ground-breaking, first-year University program, now in its 13th year. Embedded into the curriculum of 28 Australian and New Zealand Universities (and adopted by EWB organisations around the world), the EWB Challenge inspires human-centred thinking on a real-world challenge. Less visible is the 12-month process, depth of thinking and engagement that builds out the design brief for this program, and which is key to successfully delivering a meaningful learning experience. This year, our Education team amplified this process, opening exciting new opportunities for impact.

Each year, the EWB Challenge collaborates with a different country and community partner, and in 2018/2019 we worked alongside valued, long-term partner WaterAid in Timor-Leste and local implementing partner Luta ba Futuru. Our strong relationship with WaterAid provided a foundation of confidence to expand our collective thinking on deepening the scoping process and creating opportunities beyond the EWB Challenge. 

The 2019 EWB Challenge design brief focused on WaterAid’s work with communities across Suco Holarua, in the Manufahi District of Timor-Leste. Suco Holarua, along with much of Timor-Leste, has recently seen significant improvements in areas such as energy access, water supply, and road networks. While coverage is not yet comprehensive, these initial infrastructure improvements are enabling an increase in community opportunity, sustainability and wellbeing.

Over two-and-half weeks, the team spent time in Dili, Same and Holarua, working with local partners and community organisations running workshops and interviews to explore community visions for future development, current local strengths and assets, and potential barriers. Individual interviews and group discussions additionally focused on the perceived strengths of past and current projects in the area, and important considerations for future proposals.

WaterAid EWB Field Professional in Timor-Leste, Tara Bartnik, was an essential link to building out unique elements of the design brief and our ability to connect with community, alongside guiding the overall process, through coordinating scoping visits and workshops delivered in English and Tetun   Through this process a number of theme areas were identified and incorporated into the student design brief, including included water access and quality, digital systems, sanitation, climate resilience, health and hygiene, community-led infrastructure and waste management.

It was, however, the community that provided the most potent insights and material. The process was entirely led by community, requiring our team to be comfortable with ambiguity and working without a tightly bound, predefined schedule. 

“It was really important to allow for a lot of time, to make sure we didn’t pack too much in and insist that people operate on our schedule. It is vital to be respectful of other people’s daily priorities—we were completely led by who was in the room, and we followed our partners’ lead about how they work with community,” reflected Alison Stoakley, EWB Australia’s Engineer Education Manager.

The process resulted in the most comprehensive suite of materials we have ever built, including a library of items – including photographs, videos, 360-degree film and interactive walk-throughs – which were quickly catalogued, processed and shared with community partners for feedback and approval, as well as their own communication and fundraising purposes.

We also more completely folded in our Research Program, with EWB Australia Research Lead, George Goddard, joining the scoping visit and process. For the first time we explicitly framed research projects around our findings, utilising the same insights and resources designed for the EWB Challenge. It helped to build out a briefing structure that supports multiple facets of our engagement with universities, to engage latter-year university research students who are tasked with going deeper to realise an appropriate solution  – and in turn providing a new level of support for our community partners. It resulted in the development of seven research topics specific to WASH, which include new areas of need and, at the community partners’ request, also built on ideas from previous EWB Challenge design responses. 

“Very often in research, the focus is on areas of interest that are important to the finder of research, rather than the opportunities identified as important by communities. As a result, a disproportionate amount of research outputs focus on technologies that utilise high-end construction materials, which are often inappropriate or unavailable in many of the communities we work in. This can increase inequity, rather than focus on areas that could have a considerable impact for communities that are being left behind. What we are doing is truly best-practice in community development, as it identifies research that will be important and useful to communities,” said George.

Moving forward, outcomes from these student  projects will now also feed into our new Technology Development department and the EWB Australia Timor-Leste country office, to explore and support iteration of the most viable propositions to be potentially implemented in-community.

EWB Australia CEO Eleanor Loudon, also joined the scoping trip. Having worked in international development for almost 20 years, Eleanor is cognisant of what best-practice looks like when it comes to community engagement.

“Alison and George understood their role, they held no agenda, and they were prepared to follow the breadcrumbs—you don’t know what is going to happen, and you need to be able to ‘hold’  ambiguity, and be prepared to be fully led. The way they were able to quickly build those important relationships and to be constantly recognising and calling out the great strengths in these communities was amazing. The community knew they were being ‘seen’ and were genuinely respected, which of course they were. It was an incredibly proud moment and a wonderful highlight of my year to see our small organisation (and even smaller team) be able to navigate this project with such deftness,” said Eleanor.

Immediate feedback from universities participating in this years’ EWB Challenge has been humbling, with many sharing how exciting it is for students, and the academics themselves, to be able to access such in-depth interactive resources. 

For all involved, this years’ scoping process reconfirmed the importance of a strength-based approach and the benefits of deep engagement with community—to ensure a loud community voice, in order to create the very best outcomes for all. 

Learn more about the EWB Challenge.

Image: Community representatives engage in a mapping exercise as part of a scoping workshop facilitated by EWB Australia, WaterAid and Luta ba Futuru staff.

This article appeared in the EWB Australia Annual Report FY2018-19.