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.