Sheena Ong

7 August 2014 — Is engineering fundamentally a humanitarian profession? That’s the question that took graduate mechanical engineer Sheena Ong on an eight-month journey of interviews and filmmaking throughout 2013 while participating in the Engineers Without Borders Australia’s Mickey Sampson Leadership program.

A volunteer with EWB since 2008, Ong explored two different aspects to the topic in The Humanitarian Engineer. The first is what she describes as “normal humanitarian engineering which serves disadvantaged people with science and technology”. The second is the type of engineering she says is essentially also serving humanity through providing water, buildings, transport, power, technology and communications systems.

“The central question I had was, ‘How does engineering inherently serve humanitarian ends?’” Ong told The Fifth Estate.

“I wondered, ‘Why don’t we generally see regular engineering as humanitarian?’”

Team members stand on the barge designed to house a sustainable garden fertilised by by-products of a biodigester, which also generates methane gas to fuel cooking. Photo: Max Shapira

Ong interviewed a diverse range of engineers, including founder of EWB Danny Almagor, lead software engineer for Cochlear David Thambiratnam, and founder of the DreamFit Foundation Darren Lomman, who designs and builds recreational equipment for people with disabilities including modified hovercraft, recreational vehicles and abseiling towers.

She also spoke with the immediate past president of Engineers Australia, Dr Marlene Kanga, Year of Humanitarian Engineering spokesman and retired Colonel Neil Greet, and Rob Hughes, an EWB volunteer and water engineer who worked on an innovative biodigester and integrated garden project for a floating village in Cambodia.

The Cambodian project was a partnership between EWB and Cambodian-based environmental education organisation Live and Learn. The floating village had a number of major issues – untreated human waste was being disposed of directly into the river, cooking required hazardous kerosene or charcoal stoves on the boats, and residents had no means of producing their own fresh vegetables.

Hughes designed and built a simple, floating biodigester that processes human waste to create methane for cooking and high-quality fertiliser that is being used for a vegetable garden on a barge.

The biodigester and sustainable garden fertilised by its products was installed in the floating village of Lake Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Photo: Rob Hughes

“Sustainability is inherent in this kind of development project,” Ong says. “In applying the concept of appropriate technology, a huge component of that is environmental appropriateness, also utilising local skills and technology and ensuring minimum impact.

“Engineering needs to re-embrace the appropriate technology concept. It’s also important to awaken this humanitarian aspect and look at downstream impacts.

“Neil Greet said, ‘If we don’t think of ourselves as humanitarians we’ll end up with unsustainable outcomes.’

“I hope the documentary will stimulate dialogue or a shift in industry self-perception – perhaps even a shift towards a culture of pro bono engineering.”

Since completing the documentary, Ong has begun her own professional work as an engineer in the solar energy field, with a graduate position at Enigin in Perth.

“I saw engineering as a practical thing to do, because I wanted to help people. Humans have needs that need to be met, and engineers deliver that,” she said.

Ong crowd-funded the documentary, which was launched in Perth in May 2014 and screened at the EWB National Council meeting in Gippsland and the launch of EWB in Singapore in July.

The Humanitarian Engineer is currently being screened at a range of events around Australia to promote the work of Engineers Without Borders and the Sustainable Engineering Society, a division of Engineers Australia. A screening is also being held at the Engineers Australia National Conference at the end of the year.

See here for dates and times of screenings.