6 Answers to the Most Asked Questions About Humanitarian Engineering and Innovation

What is Humanitarian Engineering?

The Humanitarian Engineering Center at the Ohio State University states that “Humanitarian engineering is the creation of technologies that help people” while the University of Warwick defines it as “ the use of science and engineering to invent, create, design, develop, or improve technologies which promote the well-being of communities which are facing grand humanitarian challenges”.

In essence, humanitarian engineering is research, design, and implementation of technology to directly improve the well-being of poor, marginalised, under-served, or disaster-hit communities, who often lack the means to address pressing problems. It’s often a complementary skill to an existing engineering discipline.


What has caused the recent rise in Humanitarian Engineering?

Since the early 1980s, many organisations have arisen that seek to utilise engineering and innovation to address humanitarian and development challenges. This has contributed to the growth of humanitarian engineering education programs in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In 2017, the University of Sydney launched a humanitarian major for undergraduate engineers, the first of its kind in Australia. Today you can find humanitarian engineering taught at some of Australia’s best universities, and young people are finding themselves drawn to use their future engineering careers for good.


Is it only young people involved in Humanitarian Engineering?

Absolutely not; humanitarian engineering and innovation does not have a generational divide. In fact, it is because of the rise of established organisations including Engineering for Change, Engineers for Overseas Development, Engineers without Borders and RedR, that universities are now starting programs dedicated to this field. Previously, engineers went into humanitarian work using other disciplines. What we can expect to see in the future is more young engineers using their intellect and creativity to solve the problems of the world, as this field is specifically being taught on a larger scale.


What are some examples of Humanitarian Engineering projects?

Humanitarian engineering and innovation can come in projects both big and small. One biomedical engineering student used the skills he learned in his degree to create clever ways to help children with cerebral palsy in rural Bangladesh. His goal was to design walkers for children that could be built for under $10. Walkers available in Australia can cost around $700 – $800, which is just not something people from poorer countries can afford.

In 2014, The Warren Centre and Dr. Julia Vonwiller sought to create a portable device for first-line emergency personnel in field areas where they may not have the means to communicate with the locals in the disaster zone. The result, a device called Douglas, can be set-up on any smartphone. It allows emergency personal to communicate by speaking into the device and then immediately translates their words to the other user’s language. This allows the emergency personal ask the first critical questions, such as how many people are in the area, what resources are needed, or how the emergency task force can help.


What are the biggest challenges of humanitarian engineering and innovation?

A lack of time and resources will always be a primary challenge in this field, but as more experience is gained, so will the lessons from choices about where to allocate time and resources most effectively. Not truly understanding the problems at hand is another difficult challenge to overcome in this field. This challenge causes inappropriate solutions, in addition to wasted time and resources. Addressing the right problem is an essential prerequisite for humanitarian innovation: without a solid understanding of the problem there is a real risk that solutions are not useful — or worse — do real harm, in which case they are highly unlikely to achieve positive impact.

Innovation offers another difficulty that does not only affect humanitarian innovation. Occasionally someone already has a solution in mind before they begin a project  — these are solutions in search of a problem, rather than the reverse. The issue of “solutions in search of a problem” can be more difficult than the others. In these cases, someone may have come up with an innovative idea and been inspired to develop it further because he or she believes it to be a great idea. It is the solution that is inspiring them to act, not the problem. This can lead to a waste of time and resources; not to mention inappropriate solutions.

Despite increased investment in the area, scaling humanitarian innovation is still an ongoing challenge. Projects are often designed to a specific challenge or a particular disaster in a certain region. This results in designs and technology to solve immediate needs but does little to solve a multitude of similar – though not identical challenges elsewhere. To overcome this challenge, field operators and their headquarters need to work together to solve the immediate issues on the ground while also working with senior managers who job it is to understand the needs of scaling.


What is a WaSH Program?

WaSH stands for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. In short, this program includes access to safe water, adequate sanitation and hygiene education. This type of program is used by the United Nations and their partners including RedR Australia. It is believed that paying attention to WaSH can not only improve one’s health and life expectancy but other important development issues such as student learning and gender equality.

WaSH programs are not only thought to be effective in developing parts of the world but they can also be scalable. Today, these projects have set up all over the developing world – and engineers play a vital role setting-up these programs. This included Australia Assists deployee and civil engineer, Camilla Bachet, to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cox’s Bazar, for a three-month deployment. In her role as a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Officer, Camilla assisted in the design of a new water reservoir to store water for the people of the settlement throughout the Bangladeshi dry season and beyond. She supplemented this with the development of temporary dams, to assist in ensuring the people in the settlement have sufficient access to water year-round.


Whether you are an experienced engineering or a future one, humanitarian engineering and innovation is a vital component to help developing countries and people. And who knows, maybe you will be the next person to create cutting-edge solutions that could save lives and make a positive impact on people around the world.












This story is featured in the 26 April 2019 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.

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