What do engineers have to do with human rights anyway?

Eleanor Loudon

18 Oct, 2018

CEO of ACFID’s member, Engineers Without Borders Australia, Eleanor Loudon, makes her picks for day two of ACFID’s conference and explains why ‘People first’ engineers are vital to the fulfillment of human rights.

On Day Two of the ACFID Conference I will be exercising my right to drink copious amounts of coffee to cope with my inevitable jet lag  as I detour to the conference on my return from the 2018 Global Engineering Congress (GEC) in London. 

The GEC is focusing on mobilising the global engineering community to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals - a global agreement that is essentially a framework for human rights.  Since joining Engineers Without Borders Australia five months ago, this has been my world – the global future, the SDGs, human rights… and engineers - or more specifically what I like to call ‘people-first’ engineers.

We have been asking “What role can ‘people first’ engineers play in delivering the SDG’s?”  A really big role as it happens. ‘People first’ engineers understand that all people have a right to essential services such as drinking water and clean energy, even if they live in challenging, remote and rural environments.  ‘People first’ engineers also know that the solutions we develop with communities must represent everyone , including those whose voices are seldom heard. 

‘People first’ engineers also understand that solutions developed in partnership with communities not only help to provide equity of access to essential services and infrastructure, but that involvement in their own solution design actually creates other benefits, like improved health, and greater economic participation.

Day Two of the ACFID conference will help round out these discussions from GEC 2018, with so many expert perspectives including Dr Robert Glasser highlighting the continued importance of rights-led approaches in humanitarian response, to Joan Carling on the interrelationship between human rights, indigenous peoples’ symbiosis with their land, and the impact on the environment when that is disrupted.

I had a tough choice deciding between a multitude of fascinating sessions, but given that EWB Australia heads into 2025 strategic planning next year, I chose sessions that would push my thinking.

In the morning, I almost opted for the session on designing societies that enable and promote rights,  which is so relevant to our work with people with disabilities. Ultimately though I decided to evolve my thinking with the session on Gender Responses to Climate Change. (10.45 Gender Responsive Alternatives to Climate Change – Rm G1, CivEng Building).  As engineers, we have a responsibility to put climate change front and centre in our strategic planning process, especially as we are developing EWB Australia’s programs in the Pacific region. We are also expanding our “Women in Engineering” program beyond Timor Leste into the Pacific, so this session will help me understand how we might couple the two.

If the choice between the morning sessions wasn’t hard enough, the afternoon’s options really had me scratching my head.  I love the idea of human-centred design (HCD) as a disrupter because we champion HCD.  Plus the session on economic progress and rights is part of our raison d’etre – how do we create appropriate solutions for that context, at the right scale and the right price so that no community is left behind?

However in the end I have chosen the session on emerging tech and humanity (13.10 Exploring the Intersection of Emerging Technologies and Humanity – Rm 102, CivEng Building) because it segues so well with the conversations I’ll be having at the GEC 2018. 

EWB Australia certainly has a role to play as the new future dawns.  We produce ‘people first’ engineers who have the skills to listen deeply and to partner with communities.  As engineering skills are replicated and most probably bettered by new technology, having engineers who can interface between that tech and the people it serves will be absolutely critical. 

It is ‘people first’ engineers who will advocate for everyone to have a voice in shaping technical solutions to their needs. And I see this as our contribution to human rights and humanity, in a future that is much closer than most of us imagine.

  • Eleanor Loudon
    Eleanor Loudon

    With a Masters of Management in Community, Ms. Loudon is an advocate of applying smart business principles to strengthen the for-purpose sector and increase its impact. She is also part of the emerging movement in Australia for a community-led, collaborative approach to tackling our most complex issues.
    Eleanor has over 25 years experience in community development in Australia and overseas, and has held program management and leadership roles with Australian Volunteers International, EarthWatch Institute, and United Way Australia, and served as National Director Sri Lanka with ChildFund International for three years.


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