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Danny Almagor is an engineer without borders
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Danny Almagor is an engineer without borders
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"Instead of ten 100 kilogram missiles, it could be ten 100 kilogram bags of rice."
Conversations
29 November 2006

Danny Almagor is an engineer without borders

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Angelo Kehagias

Kate Bezar on Danny Almagor

While studying engineering, Danny Almagor saw an opportunity—an opportunity generated by frustration—as so many good ideas are.

Danny was frustrated at the focus of his degree and couldn’t understand why he and his fellow students weren’t being given problems to solve that were about having a positive impact on the world around them, even if they were hypothetical.

In fact as far as he was concerned ‘impact’ didn’t factor into the equation nearly enough… it seemed to be all about finding an answer to an engineering dilemma without considering the repercussions for society or the environment. So when Danny graduated, rather than ticking off the ‘must-see’ tourist attractions on an overseas trip, he wanted to experience the world by giving something back.

But there was no organisation to facilitate him doing so. So he started one; the Australian arm of Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Their mission is to “work with disadvantaged communities to improve their quality of life through the education and implementation of sustainable engineering projects.” Now three years on Danny is also beginning to realise his dream of changing the engineering curriculum and dozens of engineers have been sent on overseas postings through EWB.

This story originally ran in issue #9 of Dumbo Feather

DUMBO FEATHER: So how big is your ‘baby’, Engineering Without Borders (EWB) now?

DANNY ALMAGOR: We’ve got about 2,000 members and there are three main areas we work in now.

There’s Programmes which really looks at sending engineers around Australia and the world to do development work. They might go to an indigenous community somewhere in the Northern Territory, or East Timor, or India and do whatever it is in engineering – from energy systems like photovoltaics or wind, to water and sanitation, to ICT and computer systems.

Then there’s Advocacy & Campaigns which links us into bigger-picture, international development-type campaigns like Make Poverty History, Fairtrade and things like that. Fairtrade is what we’re trying to focus on this year in the hope that we can get each one of our members to be an advocate for Fairtrade and get involved in that debate and hopefully make a difference.

The third area is Education, and the intention there is to make an impact locally on ‘us’, the engineers who are intending to volunteer rather than the recipients. There we want to get into Engineering courses at universities to change the paradigm of Engineering completely.

If engineers once asked, ‘What is the answer?’ to a problem, our intention is to change that to ‘What is the impact?’ In the current paradigm the answer might be a dam, but the impact is the displacement of 1,000 people in a village. It doesn’t matter that a dam is the most efficient, elegant solution to the engineering problem, the impact is not the one that we want.

This story originally ran in issue #9 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #9 of Dumbo Feather

Impact looks not just at the financial impact, but at the social impact, at the environmental impact. For me, the concept of impact is lacking in Engineering.

Has your focus on changing the engineering paradigm through education been there right from the beginning?

It was. One of the key reasons that drove me to do EWB was that in my final year of Engineering everyone in the course had to do a design project. It was a year-long, huge subject and in groups of ten we had to solve a design problem. We had to design an airplane with a short take-off and landing, a certain sized wingspan, it had to travel 6,000 miles return and drop ten, big, 100 kilo missiles.

I went to my lecturer and said, ‘You know, I’m not so into this, it’s not quite what I want to be designing.’ He replied, ‘Come on Danny, it’s a uni assignment, stop being so annoying, just do it, I’m not going to rewrite an assignment for you.’ But it really bugged me, and perhaps the reason I was telling him I didn’t want to do it was because I wanted to get out of the work, but it got me thinking. I started thinking why he couldn’t reframe the question and instead of saying, ‘There’s a war in Iraq and an aircraft bomber…’ saying, ‘There’s a flood in Mozambique and the runway’s been damaged so there’s a short take-off and landing, and it’s got to go 6,000 miles because you’ve had to take off from Southern India’. And instead of ten, 100 kilogram missiles, it could be ten, 100 kilogram bags of rice.

Everything about the problem is the same – like you still need a deployment system – but the context is different and therefore the impact is different. Engineers would then start thinking, ‘What are the opportunities? What can my engineering bring to the world?’, rather than, ‘What can it destroy?’ So the education side has always been something I wanted to change.

Was that a one-off instance or pretty representative of the whole Engineering syllabus?

The problems we were asked to solve weren’t necessarily always around the military, but it’s not what they were around, it’s what they weren’t. They weren’t around really positive solutions for society. You’ve got this resource, students, who are solving problems for free. Why don’t we give them developing community examples?

If I’m doing Engineering I can look at turbines for Boeing for a new aeroplane or I can look at a wind turbine for electricity generation for a poor community in the mountains in Nepal. The same aerodynamics apply. If you’re studying structures, you could look at the next big Eureka Tower in Melbourne, or you could look at earthquake-resistant structures in Pakistan. The same engineering principles apply in every case, it’s the context and the impact that’s different.

So that’s the vision for Education, to get students thinking about these types of problems. Then when they get out into the real world and an employer pays them to design the Eureka Tower, they’ll still design it, that’s not going to change, but at least in their minds they’ll be thinking about the alternatives, what the opportunities are, what they can do with their engineering that will affect not just the sphere of people around them but everyone.

So when you were in your final year were you questioning whether or not you really wanted to do Engineering at all?

I was. Not so much because of that particular design problem, but because in my third year I had this sort of epiphany on a Friday afternoon… I was listening to a lecture on propulsion and I had this panic attack inside that said, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’

I started writing, expressing myself on a piece of paper which I’m guessing isn’t something engineers would do often. The paper had a lot of swear words and questions; ‘What’s going on?’, and ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’. Then I just started writing whatever came to mind, all the words I was passionate about and believed in – the environment, travelling, people, relationships, teaching, learning – all these words came up. I was looking at the words on the page, then looked up at the board, then looked at the words on the page and they were quite different.

It was a Friday afternoon, the sun was shining, and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing in here, inside, doing sums? I should be with people outside.’ So that was the first time I wasn’t sure about doing Engineering. I guess it started me thinking that if I was to do Engineering, how could I make it fulfill the passions I’d written on the page as opposed to working where I saw a lot of my friends working which was for a lot of the large corporate firms – engineering and non-engineering – and getting gobbled up by the system.

Do you still have that piece of paper?

I think I do, but I don’t know where it is. I know I haven’t thrown it out because at the time I knew it was momentous, I knew there was something serious going on. Straight after that I went to the office and deferred [my degree] for a year.

I'd had such a 'holy shit' moment I knew I had to take some time off to absorb it so I took the year off and travelled.

Was that when you went to India?

No. India came a bit later. That was when I first thought of what I’m doing now – development engineering, for lack of a better term for it. I said to my lecturers, ‘I’m taking a year off and I want to do my work experience. Is it possible to go and work somewhere like Cambodia, or Africa, or I don’t know where?’ They didn’t have any place for me to go, and I thought it would be great to have an organisation to go to which would help me sign up and go overseas to learn more about the possibilities of using my engineering skills for communities in need.

It seems like such a logical thing in retrospect. Students doing work experience is free, skilled willing labour.

Exactly, and everything that goes along with it is so important for them to experience; the ethical issues, the leadership and teamwork issues that are involved in working in a developing community.

Rather than making coffee in a large organisation for a more important engineer you’re out there, you’re meeting people, using your communication, leadership, and problem-solving skills… In these communities, and when you’re working on development, little things are the big problems and you have to come up with creative ways around them. It could be a problem like there’s not enough piping to get the water from A to B because there’s simply not enough piping in the community hardware store. So how do you do that, what tricks do you use? Perhaps it’s a natural waterway system that will take the water part of the way.

I was in Thailand doing a project and we were trying to put in a water filter system. Where the water comes out of the ground from a spring you try to create a container around it called a spring box to protect it from animals getting in and mosquitos breeding. The design was a square box but we got to the site, after 2km of trekking through the jungle, and there were heaps of tree-trunks and rocks. There was no way we could dig into the spring to create the nice square we’d drawn up in the village – no chance in the world. Suddenly it needed to be an organic, kidney-shaped pool. We’d ordered bricks for a square thing but instead we had to build a wall that would curve…

What better experience is there for a student or young engineer than to be thrown into problems like that whether they actually went to Thailand and did it, or whether it’s theoretical as a class assignment. But, in my year away I didn’t get to do anything like that because there was no-one to facilitate me getting on to a development project, so I sort of forgot about it and came back and finished uni.

So what did you do during that year off?

I travelled. I did a little bit of work, but not really related to engineering. One thing that really struck me, although this was a couple of years after my year off, was when I was travelling through India. I was on a train going from Bombay [Mumbai] up north through Gujarat into Rajasthan. About half-way the train started shaking a lot but, because it was India, I assumed it was just really bad train tracks and fell back to sleep again.

When I woke up the next day we were in Ahmedabad and when I got off the train I immediately heard that there’d been an earthquake. I was going to get a rickshaw to a hotel but people said there were no telephones, the internet was out and that the best thing to do would be to get on a bus and continue up to Rajasthan. So I did because I was meant to be meeting a friend and there was no way I’d have been able to email him or get in touch. At the time I also didn’t know how bad the earthquake was, but by the time I got out of the bus, 12 hours later in Rajasthan, news of how bad the quake was, was coming through. The death toll started at 1,000, then 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 until they were talking about tens of thousands who had died.

I was there thinking, ‘I’ve thought about this before. Here I am this engineer, I’m fit and I’m healthy and I’ve got my first aid certificate – all this great stuff – what can I do?’ The answer was nothing. As an individual there was nothing, but had there been some sort of framework with more experienced people directing me, there would have been something I could have helped with.

So there were a lot of times in my life that drew me to forming this organisation, EWB. Then once I’d finished my Engineering degree I didn’t really know what to do, took another year off, lived in the outdoors, did a course in outdoor recreation – whitewater-rafting, rock-climbing. It was the antithesis of classroom engineering, computer-type work. It was outdoors, the brain switches off, it’s all about muscle-memory and using your hands and feet. I also took school camps and professional groups rock-climbing and white-water rafting. After 18 months doing that I decided to come back to Melbourne.

My parents were always saying, ‘I told you, you should have done Law but you’ve got this Engineering degree, why don’t you use it?’ I started brainstorming what could be done to change the landscape for young engineers. I knew I wasn’t the only one who thought it’d be great to put on a backpack and not just travel but actually do something more serious and connected like volunteering in a community.

What were the first steps you took? Often they’re the hardest…

It was December 2002 and I wrote up a business plan. I grabbed together a small group of friends who I’d studied with. We called ourselves the ‘back-of-the-class guys’ because we were always at the back sleeping or playing games. In hindsight, maybe I should have grabbed the front-of-the-class guys to start an organisation like this!

We went to a café and I pitched the idea to them and said, ‘We can’t be the only ones who want to do stuff with sustainability and do stuff about poverty and want to use our engineering for much bigger things. We need to find a way to bring everyone together and pool resources and then use their expertise.

With the younger engineers it'd be their passion and fire, with the older ones it'd be their wisdom and direction.

That marriage could change the world.’ They got all excited and we started meeting every couple of weeks at my parents’ place, bought a whiteboard… We’d sit around the dining-room table and decide on what the mission statement should be… ‘We work with disadvantaged communities to improve their quality of life through engineering.’ ‘No, we have to have ‘sustainability’ in there…’

It was literally that, meeting every couple of weeks and going over these ideas. I’d moved out of home so I turned my old bedroom, which still had a phone and internet connection, into the first EWB office. What was funny about that was that as people started to hear about what we were doing, they’d ring and offer to help.

I remember this one girl, Nicki, our first volunteer called and said, ‘I want to help’, and I said great, ‘Come over to my parents’ place’. We’d literally go up to my old bedroom, which sounds really dodgy, and work on EWB stuff. I’d have to go out for a meeting and leave her there with my mum who’d make her juice and bring it upstairs… It was really weird and embarrassing. It was all okay until the phone bills started to get pretty serious with calls to America, India, Nepal and my parents sort of said, ‘Danny, what’s going on?’

And how long was it before you had your first project up and running?

Well December 2002 was the first meeting in the café and early on I applied for a grant, a Churchill Fellowship. The Churchill Fellowship supports you to travel around the world to further your understanding of a particular cause, whether it’s in social work or engineering or policework… I won it to explore the idea of Engineers Without Borders, so in September 2003 I went to meet with people in the US, Canada, the UK to talk about the idea, and then to India and Nepal to see things on the ground.

While I was in Nepal I had organised to meet with an Australian who’d gone there and was lecturing in Electrical Engineering at the University of Kathmandu. What’s interesting about this story is that particularly as an aerospace engineer you wonder how you could get involved in development. The lecturer was using some of his Nepalese graduate engineers to design an energy system, a micro-wind turbine, to produce a little bit of electricity for a village. They were focussed on the electrical side, the generator, but there’s no aerospace school at the University of Kathmandu. So one of the students was on the internet trying to find a blade design for a wind turbine. He didn’t really know what to do or where to go and when I got there I saw his struggle and thought, ‘That’s our first project!’ Not only was it our first project, but it was an aerospace project.

I knew I could go straight back to the guys in Melbourne, half of whom I’d studied Aerospace Engineering with and back to RMIT, where I’d studied. I pitched it to one of the RMIT lecturers, he loved it and took it on as supervisor to a final year student whose project it became. We also brought in a professional engineer who had been working in the industry for about 10 years and a young RMIT graduate. So that was the team of four. The graduate went over to Nepal for three months, the student ended up going over at the end of his year to see what they’d done, and in fact, the professional engineer even ended up taking a year off work to spend three months in Nepal helping lecture at the University in Aerospace Design. It was quite an incredible project.

Did you find that people ‘got it’ pretty quickly?

Some did and some didn’t. Early on I’d speak to anyone who would listen. I’d grab them, sit them down and say, ‘This is the idea. What do you think? How can you help? Where do we fit?’ We very much wanted to partner with other organisations so I spoke to anyone and everyone – the Institute of Engineers, architects, engineering firms, I even met with Vic Health.

In this non-profit space, the concept of competition is destructive, there's so much opportunity to work together, even within the same industry.

Mostly we’re all trying to do the same things whether it’s EWB or Oxfam or the International Women’s Development Agency… We’re all doing development work, we’re all pushing the idea of the Millennium Development Goals forward. We shouldn’t be working in silos, we should be working together. That’s always been the philosophy of EWB.

And how does your other company, Medivax, fit in?

After I’d quit working in the outdoors, I thought that as well as working on EWB in my old bedroom, I’d better start a money-making venture on the side. I was hanging out with a friend of mine Benjy, a doctor, one evening after work and he said, ‘Today I vaccinated some people against the flu and they each paid something like $25 a person – how cool is that, there’s a business.’ And I was sitting there going, ‘Yeah, there’s a business. Seriously, why don’t we make it into a business.’

Together we jumped on the net, had a quick Google and before we knew it we were ringing up companies going, ‘Hi, do you vaccinate your staff against influenza? Are you interested?’ In our very brief market research, ringing 25 or 30 companies, the majority of them – of course this was very scientific – said, ‘We’re interested.’ So he and I registered the name Medivax.

We had a few friends who were doctors and nurses so started vaccinating and it grew into a business very quickly. Quite early on we’d signed up Linfox – I don’t know how, but we did – and vaccinated them and they were really impressed. Then we signed up Sussan and Sportsgirl, and grew and grew, and a year in were vaccinating nationally with 100 or so vaccinators on our database and a few people in Melbourne helping run it. It’s now nearly four years on and doing really well, vaccinating some of the big boys in town.

Talking about burning out… I’d go from Medivax to EWB, from EWB to Medivax, both were pretty new and taking up all my time which I realised was completely unsustainable. So I brought in some people to help me with Medivax, to manage it, but my passion is EWB…

And I’d imagine a lot of your role now is to increase awareness of the work you do. I also imagine that a lot of people wouldn’t realise how all-pervasive engineering actually is in our society.

I give a lot of talks now which is fun, both to young people in schools and to older people in places like Rotary groups. I’ll often ask what they know about engineering and what engineers do. The obvious answers come back like, ‘they build bridges, and roads and buildings’ and I think that’s very much the perception of society, that we just do ‘stuff’ and it’s good.

Yet, when I go into university and I ask what type of Engineering students are doing, you get all these responses – Chemical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Software Engineering, Environmental Engineering, Aerospace Engineering, Mechanical. Even within these streams, there’s amazing diversity.

So when it comes to what engineers do, it's everything you see around you that makes our society work.

Generally the things we take for granted – that the water will come out of the tap, that the lights will turn on… Everything – transport, infrastructure, even manufacturing processes.

When you eat your peanut butter, someone designed the process and the machinery to make it. Then you might ask how we use engineering for the kind of work we do in development, and for some types of engineering it’s less obvious, like aerospace.

The other less obvious example is biomedical engineering – developing high-tech bionic ears and things like that. Yet one of the projects we’re doing with EWB is taking biomedical engineers from Australia and partnering them up with a group in Cambodia. With all the land mines they have big issues with lost limbs and so prosthetics and orthotics is a huge industry and a huge issue there. These biomedical engineers are going over to assist in the design and fitting, and even education of Cambodians to deal with a lot of their amputee issues. So engineering goes everywhere – IT and computer infrastructure, communication systems – there’s no shortage of work to do.

Do you ever feel daunted by the huge potential of what you’re doing?

I don’t know if I feel daunted by it, but definitely there are times when I feel a bit alone and uncertain about what I’m doing because I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t know exactly where we’re going. But I know that it’s right, and whenever I have those doubts I know that what we’re doing is important and I know that what we’re doing is making a positive impact. I guess that’s when you turn to your mentors… I’ve got some amazing people, particularly now, who I call on when I don’t know what to do with regards to a problem.

But in terms of the bigger picture, I don’t think I’ve ever thought, ‘Na, this is too big, I’m not ready to do this.’ Instead I think, ‘This is awesome, there’s so much scope for it.’

What has the response been like from the corporate sector?

They love it. I’m not sure what the motives behind them loving it are. It could be ‘greenwashing’, that it’s ‘the right thing to do’ because of corporate responsibility as much as the genuine passion of some individuals.

No doubt there are some passionate individuals, like one who came to me last week and said, ‘I’m getting a bonus for working at the company for 20 years, they buy us a present for $1,000. I’d like to donate that present to EWB.’ Then he said, ‘There are a couple of people who’ll receive it at the same time. If I get up there and donate mine, they’re going to be too embarrassed to take their presents and will probably donate theirs as well.’

At other times people come in and say, ‘I know this is really good for our company, and it’s attractive to our young people’, and that’s cool too. My philosophy is that you don’t want to throw out those people who are doing it because they think they will benefit, because if they start with that, by the end they’ll hopefully forget that’s why they’re doing it and realise there’s something deeper in it – that it makes them feel great and makes the world a better place – it becomes an internal thing for them. If not for them, maybe for their employees or their children, or whoever it is around them.

I don’t think you should make a big distinction between people who give for different reasons. If you start ruling out all the mining, and oil, and minerals firms – a lot of which have been involved in stuff in the past that hasn’t been all that wholesome – you lose out on most of the engineering community. As well as the fact that you lose out on the opportunity to have an impact in their organisations.

BP as an example has changed its entire image because somebody inside said either, ‘I really care about this and I need to make a change’, or ‘the public really care about this and we need to make a change.’ Either way, right now, BP is doing some good things in renewable energy and is a big supporter of sustainability. So if we can get in and be the catalyst for change inside the next company, that’s great too.

What you want is to empower the community to make the change themselves. You want to be a catalyst in the equation rather than the driving force.
Danny Almagor

Do you wake up every day raring to go?

I love it. Not only do I wake up every day ready, but I can’t sleep at night. I’ll often go to bed with my wife, she falls asleep and I’ll roll over, grab my computer, pull it into bed and work until 3am because all these ideas are running through my head. Burn-out’s definitely on the cards for me, but I can’t not pull out my computer and write these things, or record them on the recorder I also keep next to my bed, or else I can’t fall asleep.

In terms of the world’s awareness of development and sustainability, do you feel that you’ve come in at the right time?

Absolutely right place, right time. Bono, [Bob] Geldof, Tony Blair – everyone’s really pushing the cause.

When people go ‘what is this all about?’, it’s like, ‘don’t you hear the news or read the papers?’ This is big, and the whole world is getting on board. On that level it’s an opportune time. I also think, in terms of the philosophy behind it, that the world has really developed its idea of international aid and humanitarian relief and development in general, to a much more sophisticated perspective.

The traditional model was to donate, let’s give something, charity. Then there was the model of technology exchange. Instead of giving them the shit you don’t want, it became let’s think about what they need and give them that. That wasn’t so helpful either for a number of reasons. Firstly, do we really know what the community needs or do they know what they need? The answer is very obvious in my mind – they know what they need. You can guess what you think people want, and you can assist in helping the process of understanding the need, but in the end it is their decision.

You might think that a school is the most important thing for a community, but they might think that a fresh water source, a water well, is the most important thing… Or the reverse. Secondly, by giving, you’re not empowering. It’s that classic, teach a person how to fish rather than giving them a fish.

What you want is to empower the community to make the change themselves. You want to be a catalyst in the equation rather than the driving force. You’re the spark that changes the paradigm – like in education – we want there to be a subject, or a stream, on Engineering for the Developing World, or Engineering to Eliminate Poverty or whatever you want to call it, in every engineering course around the country. We want to be the catalyst that helps create that paradigm shift. It’s the same in developing communities. For example there’s a community in East Timor which is trying to create a fuel using coconut oil, basically like biodiesel. So what we’re doing is helping with the design of the concept and providing the support for the community to get themselves up and running. And we will be there until the community no longer asks for our support.

Once they’ve got that little bit of technical expertise to get them past the first hurdle – which might involve EWB, or sending someone from the community to study Engineering so they can come back and run the factory – that’ll be it. We’re at a really good time I think. There’s a sophisticated philosophy of development, and the world is getting on board and taking it seriously.

Put those together and I think we've got a chance to really make poverty history.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Angelo Kehagias

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