Engines of change: OPINION
27 February 2012 at 9:38 am
Australia needs a more socially responsible engineering profession, according to Tim McMinn, a Structural Engineer and human rights activist who is the West Australian State Committee Chair of Oxfam Australia.
OPINION: In the summer of 1858, the “Great Stink” overwhelmed London. The stench of raw sewerage festering in the Thames nearly forced Parliament to abandon Westminster. In the previous decade, tens of thousands of Londoners had died of cholera caused by the contaminated water.
Two men, Dr John Snow and an engineer named Joseph Bazalgette, ended the cholera epidemics with the life-saving discovery that hand-washing with soap prevents the spread of the disease, and by developing an innovative sewerage system that rid the streets of shit.
The network of sewers built by Bazalgette is still used by Londoners today. Yet 2.5 billion people around the world still don’t have access to basic sanitation, and every day 4000 children under the age of 5 die of diarrhoea.
“The single most important reason why prosperity spreads,” says Jeffrey Sachs, author of “The End of Poverty” is by “the transmission of technologies and the ideas underlying them”. The Industrial Revolution was driven by a transformational technology – burning coal. Upon this countless other innovations compounded – mass production, steam power, railways, and sewer networks – fueling economic growth. Rural people flooded from farms to cities to access higher incomes and climb slowly out of poverty.
Engineers like Joseph Bazalgette have been central to this story of improvement. At every step engineering minds were innovating and creating new technologies.
The problem with humanity’s increase in prosperity following the Industrial Revolution is that it was (and still is) so patchy.
At a global level, industrial power gave Europeans an enormous military advantage, which was used to forcefully exploit Africa, Asia and Latin America. The result was stunted economic growth and prosperity in these regions for centuries.
These gaping inequalities still exist today. About one sixth of the world’s population remains extremely poor.
Paul Collier refers to this section of the world’s population as the “bottom billion”. In his book of the same name, he details how they face enormous obstacles to climbing the development ladder, including hunger, disease, and limited access to education and markets. Basic technologies such as roads, clean water and safe latrines lower these hurdles, freeing people to pursue opportunities for advancement.
Engineers must again find ways to increase access to these technologies. To illustrate how, take two examples where engineers can and are making a real difference: diarrhoea and digital technology.
Diarrhoea is unglamorous, so the fact that 4000 children die every day from the disease doesn’t get much media attention. But it’s a problem engineers know how to solve, and the solutions are essentially the same as those used in 19th century London.
In developing countries, the combination of clean water, basic sanitation and hygiene promotion can cut diarrhoeal mortality by about 65 per cent. Inventive solutions that are tailored to communities, like the Engineers Without Borders “floating latrine”, relieve people of the burden of illness. This system was developed specifically for river villages in Southeast Asia, and works by keeping human waste out of water bodies until it is disease-free.
Digital technology will play a role in solving many of today’s development challenges. Many emerging digital technologies are increasing access to basic services in developing communities.
A great example is mw4d, a research initiative within the Oxford Water Futures Programme. The team (which includes Australians) is attempting to solve the elusive challenge of maintaining water pumps in Africa.
To tackle the problem, mw4d started the Smart Handpumps project. They are developing a low-cost and replicable pump monitoring and response system, supported through local mobile networks. Maintenance workers are notified of defects in water supplies in real time, allowing them to respond quickly to get clean water supplies back up and running.
These examples show engineers acting as agents of change, providing solutions to problems plaguing the developing world. However most engineers don’t believe their role includes addressing issues of poverty, disease and hunger.
Unlike other professions, engineering has no common culture of Corporate Social Responsibility and pro-bono work. In law and medicine for example, professionals are encouraged to use their skills and knowledge to benefit individuals and organisations that can’t normally afford them. They do this from a sense of responsibility to give back to society, and to serve ethical ideals such as access to justice and humanitarianism.
Engineers must develop a similar culture of contributing their knowledge of applied technology to the public benefit. An engineering qualification is a ticket to work anywhere in the world, and as such the entire world is our public. Engineers need to find ways to make technology work for the world’s underprivileged in ways that build real equality of opportunity for everyone.
I also believe engineers should overcome their tendency to shy away from engaging with the world of ideas and public debates. Many engineers define themselves as facilitators, solving problems within boundaries defined by someone else. Engineering should contribute more leaders to society whose valuable knowledge of science and applied technology can help define the parameters of solutions to the challenges the world faces. Last year Engineers Australia held the first ever conference on humanitarian engineering, which showed that we have ideas, and that leaders are emerging – we need to build on this.
About the author: Tim McMinn is a structural engineer and a development and human rights advocate based in Perth. While studying at UWA he was a founding member of the Amnesty International and Engineers Without Borders campus groups. After graduating from engineering with a first class honours in engineering in 2007, he commenced work as a consultant engineer. In 2008 after traveling through the Middle East, he returned with renewed determination to contribute to the global cause to rid the world of poverty. Since then he has become the Chair of Oxfam Australia’s WA State Committee. In this role over three years he has coordinated a large number of fundraising and advocacy events and programs, and facilitated volunteer contributions to Oxfam. His current projects include organizing a series of public events for Oxfam to encourage fundraising and active citizenship in Western Australia, and the introduction of a Corporate Social Responsibility policy and budget at BG&E Consulting Engineers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org