Reimagine STEM

Reimagine STEM: the podcast of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science

What does the future hold for engineering and computer science education? How can we address the vexed question of diversity and gender in STEM? How are the world’s oldest cultures intrinsically connected to tech today and how can STEM remain proactively engaged with social benefit as we plan for the uncertain future of humanity and the wider world? All this and more on Reimagine STEM, the podcast of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.



About the podcast

Reimagine STEM is hosted by ANU biomedical engineer, Dr Kiara Bruggeman, and features some of the best and brightest thinkers exploring the future of engineering and computer science both here and overseas.

It was recorded in 2019 at the CoDesign Culture Lab on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Land, to whose Elders past and present we pay our respects. The team behind Reimagine STEM includes writer and producer Gretchen Miller, sound engineer Nick McCorriston, and executive producers Maya Haviland and Dan Etheridge.

This podcast is part of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science’s work to reimagine teaching, research, and practice for the 21st century and beyond. ​You can find out more about this strategic vision on our Reimagine website.

Join the conversation on social media using @anucecs and #ReimagineSTEM



01: Engineering education for the future

Who do you trust with the future? STEM students now will tackle some of the greatest challenges of our times. We need them to be well prepared. Flipped classrooms, role-playing games, micro-credentials. From engineering, computing, AI and cyber-security, our guests explain how they’re co-creating knowledge with the next generation of engineers and computer scientists to help them shape a better future for us all.

Show notes: Engineering education for the future

Who do you trust with the future? STEM students now will tackle some of the greatest challenges of our times. We need them to be well prepared.

Flipped classrooms, role-playing games, micro-credentials. From engineering, computing, AI and cyber-security, our guests explain how they’re co-creating knowledge with the next generation of engineers and computer scientists to help them shape a better future for us all.



Callie Doyle-Scott is a writer, storyteller and creator of interactive games. She made the role-playing game “Logic Error Detected” to challenge people’s own assumptions and how these influence AI algorithms. She explains that computers don’t understand nuance or context, taking instructions to their logical extreme – making humans responsible for the ethical, or unethical, behaviour that eventuates.

Kathi Fisler is a Research Professor in Computer Science at Brown University (USA). Along with Shriram Krishnamurthi (also a computer science Professor at Brown), they run a school-based computing program for physics, algebra and data science that makes these topics accessible. The program is based on the principles of equity, scale, and rigour. It’s designed to be modular and not necessarily require computing hardware, so all students and schools can participate. 

Abel Nyamapfene is a Principal Teaching Fellow at the Department of Engineering Science, University College London. Using flipped classrooms, case studies and engineering exchanges (where students work alongside companies), he collaborates with students to become co-creators of knowledge.

Elanor Huntington, Dean of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, talks of her belief in the power of transformative education. She describes the College’s bold new approach to education, and our “responsibility to bring about a better future”.

Euan Lindsay is the Director of Engineering at Charles Sturt University. He outlines the innovative, modular approach they’ve taken to engineering education; where students can learn at their own time, pace, and in the order they need to.

Lesley Seebeck is CEO of the ANU Cyber Institute. She says human behaviour, not technology, is key. Using immersive experiences, micro-credentials, small-group learning and teaching emotional literacy, she hopes to “do for cyber what the MBA did for business”.

James Sedgwick is an Educational Design Manager at the ANU Cyber Institute. He discusses how innovative role-playing games such as Callie’s help students crack open their underlying assumptions, and how micro-credentials can help education stay current in such a fast-moving industry. 

Cameron Tonkinwise is a Professor of Design Studies at the University of Technology Sydney and Director of the Design Innovation Research Centre. He encourages us to learn slowly and savour it. Not to squeeze education into our day, but reimagine what it is to learn… and do so for the rest of our lives!


Further reading


Music credits

Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence. We’re also grateful for the use of the song So Far Away by Daniel Birch, licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Full episode transcript

Engineering education for the future

[Elanor] What I could see happening was that our world is travelling in a very particular direction. And to my great delight, my Vice-Chancellor and I had a meeting of the minds in terms of a firm view about what is the role of university and what is the role particularly of a national university, in terms of bringing about change. And at its heart, as a university, we have a responsibility to bring about a better future.

[Kiara] Hello there. And we opened with the words of Professor Elanor Huntington, Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at ANU, or CECS as it's known, which also hosts this podcast, Reimagine STEM. I’m Kiara Bruggeman, a biomedical engineer here at ANU, and Reimagine STEM is a collection of four themed discussion episodes plus 16 rich and deep interviews, and episodes featuring some of the best and brightest thinkers about the future of engineering both here and overseas. It was recorded in 2019 at the CoDesign Culture Lab on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Land, to whose Elders past, present and emerging we pay our respects. Our goal is to explore the key themes and big ideas for our collective tomorrows in STEM. Today it's all about engineering education. ANU is part of a global movement to dramatically reshape our educational approaches.

Elanor kicks us off with her vision for a revamped College. A significant reconsideration from the ground up. But we're also going to figuratively visit the UK, where University College London has been connecting students and practical projects from the get go, and go to the US to see how a grade-school program prepares potential engineering undergraduates. So before we get back to Elanor, let's introduce our main guests.

[Abel] I am Abel Nyamapfene, I'm a principal at teaching failure at UCL. I am an IP fellow.

[Kiara] Awesome. And Abel is part of the groundbreaking Integrated Engineering program at University College London, which is working to break down the barriers between professionals and communities.

[Lesley] So, yes, I’m Lesley Seebeck, I'm Professor in the Practice of cyber security and CEO of the Cyber Institute at the ANU.

[James] My name is James Sedgewick. I work for the Cyber Institute and I'm trying to put together a Masters program, which is a little bit different to everything else.

[Callie] Hello, my name's Callie Doyle-Scott. I am a writer, gamer and storyteller. I've been designing role-playing games for oh, I think it'd be around 17 years now.

[Kathi] I'm Kathi Fisler. I'm originally from New York in the United States. I'm now a research professor and associate director of the undergrad program for Computer Science at Brown University.

[Kiara] And with Kathi, Shriram Krishnamurti.

[Shriram] And I am Shriram. I am a professor at Brown and I'm originally from India and stuck now in a country that doesn't play any cricket. My interest range across a whole bunch of areas of computer science, but education has been a longstanding passion.

[Kiara] So ANU Reimagine initiative is a not insignificant investment both financially and intellectually. Dean Elanor Huntington:

[Elanor] So we're going to quite consciously throw away the old disciplinary boundaries, but also without attempting to appropriate, step in to the social sciences and humanities as well as the sciences, and allow those boundaries to blur somewhat, but do so respectfully and with an understanding that there is just as much importance in qualitative theory as there is in quantitative theory and practice. And the questions that I think we're answering are threefold. They are what are the engineering and computing skills of 2050? Who will be exercising them and how? And I think the answers to those questions in 2050 are not the same as they are now, and nor should they be. And I'm quite careful about talking about engineering and computing skills, not engineers and computer scientists, because I think there are a set of skills that a whole bunch of people are going to be wanting to invoke if they actually want to engage in our world going forward and engage constructively in our world going forward. And it's about reconceptualise or reimagining, where are the boundaries of engineering and computing? And they are increasingly, we need to be thinking of ourselves as being positioned as the people who bring together deep scientific knowledge and understanding about society, people and humans, as well as thinking about things in terms of technological systems. And as I said, if you want to think about also, in what way do you bring those together and what are you trying to do by so doing? That's where the imagination comes in. So I think I'm the only Dean of engineering in the world who has three cultural anthropologists, two sociologists and a digital photographer. And I'm gonna go harder and get more. We've already got a bunch of well, I'm a lapsed scientists as well, we've got a bunch of lapsed scientists around here already.

And so, this university stretched the engineering accreditation processes to the very limits nearly 30 years ago in getting a systems engineering degree accredited in the first place. Last accreditation round, we were told that that's fabulous, this is the way the sector should be going. It's just bang on the money. So that says that we're not being sufficiently disruptive. Time to go again. So we're going to start some conversations around what that means for our undergraduate pedagogy in terms of the way that people learn. But I think we actually need to go further and we need to start really seriously contemplating what it means for a journey of lifelong learning and the fact that most people these days already have undergraduate degrees.

[Kiara] In the second half of this discussion, we'll talk about ANU genuinely disruptive new cyber mastery course and about an incredible role-playing game that tackles the concept of ethics both in an educational framework and allowing students to confront their own assumptions. Trust me, you won't want to miss hearing about it. But first, ANU is not the only university looking to change things up. University College London has been experimenting with marrying engineering and industry in a robust and grounded way, educational flipping and sociocultural awareness. Abel Nyamapfene from the Integrated Engineering Program has a vision of the ideal graduate:

[Abel] Certainly quite different from the current generation of engineering graduates. It has to be an engineering graduate with, where one’s passionate about engineering, passionate about the world, passionate about sustainability, passionate about the human race is a whole. So you are kind of looking at a person who says, ‘I want to look at improving the world to make it better. I want to change the world for the better.’ And currently, that is a distance away from the econometrics or econo-centric mode of engineering education that we have currently been implementing.

[Kiara] And I think one of the approaches you've taken within your program is using the flipped classroom or flipped lectures. Can you tell me a bit about that?

[Abel] Yes, the flipped classroom. It's a new concept and it really twisted the process of education onto its own head. You look at our students, they are coming in. They are expecting when they come in, they have to be fed with knowledge, sort of like you have a container, a cup, and you’re filling it with water. That is how I think the education process has been. With the flipped mode it’s slightly different. It sees when the process of education, it's not a passive process. You are participating in it to learn. You are participating in it to create knowledge. You are no longer just a consumer of knowledge. You are, you’re co-creator of knowledge. So what the flipped linear model says is there are materials, start off with these, lean on these, come to the classroom, engage with others, co-learn, co-create with others, the lecturer there is a participant alongside you. So the lecturer is no longer like him, ‘the sage on the stage’ as they say, talking through, but we are actually working together with problems.

[Kiara] Another program you're working on is the engineering exchange. Can you tell us about that and how that aligns with the integrated engineering program?

[Abel] The engineering exchange basically is a means for our students, where they can go out and work alongside communities, addressing community problems, be within the locality of London, be within selected places across the world, in Ethiopia and other places like that. The important thing is for such a process, students go out. They realise that ultimately engineering is not about technology only, but it's about harnessing technology for the benefit of society. I can go back again to the plastic pollution, very useful plastic packaging, very convenient in the developed world. But what are the consequences? They have an impact probably in islands probably 6,000 miles away from London. So it's now a globally connected village and our students have to really understand that global nature, that networked aspect of engineering.

[Kiara] So how does your integrated engineering program work to get students to have that sort of mindset?

[Abel] Ok. When our students come in, they're no longer learn theory for the sake of theory. They have to understand that theory, its consequences, its applications to the world. So when they come in, they start off with a project. They do a stream line of projects that have to do with the environment. They have to deal with addressing some of the big issues that the world is currently facing, be it health or environment or something else, and it becomes part and part of what I might call their genre, their make up, they grow up with it. They develop with it. Actually, if you look at the current generation of students coming in, they are sensitive to things like climate change. They are sensitive to things like pollution, plastic pollution. We can see the revolutions lit by youngsters that are currently taking place in the world. You realise that we have actually changed our engineering programs at UCL to cater for that new generation of students.

[Kiara] When we talk about starting your students right off with projects, are these real world problems? Is that what you're integrating right off the bat?

[Abel] Yes. The first thing when you look at engineering used to be done, people learn the theory and then immediately, if you were an electrical engineer, they would say, ok, come up with the design of an amplifier. But you were not told where the amplifier was going to operate. You were not told about the consequences or types of materials that you could use. So when we start off our students at the very beginning, they go through the conceptual phase of thinking about projects, of thinking about product design. They look at all the big issues surrounding the design. They look at the stakeholder issues. They look at its impact and its consequences. That is the first stage. From there, having developed that sound footing, we can then move on into what you might call more tangible outputs, projects aimed at producing actual physical outfits.

[Kiara] And how did the students respond to that? Are they daunted or do they thrive in that?

[Abel] Initially, there is shock. When they come in, we typically have two streams of students, those who went through the myths, physics, chemistry. What they are expecting is to be applying their physics, chemistry without thinking much about the wider aspects of engineering, and we are telling them, actually, the engineer is already inside of you. All we are doing is to help you discover what kind of engineer you are.

[Kiara] Kathi Fisler and Shriram Krishnamurti from Brown University in the US co-direct a project called Bootstrap, a computing outreach program for the grade school system, which of course is where it all starts. Part of the challenge of the design was making it extremely flexible, so it could accommodate a wide reach geographically, socially, culturally and financially.

[Shriram] And in fact by design, by intent, we go into a very, very broad range of schools. We don't work with just, you know, rich private schools and things like that. So, you know, in fact, we're heavily featured in public schools and schools that are in rural areas, which means they have a limited amount of resources, maybe are in inner city schools and so on.

So you can have very dedicated teachers at every one of these places. But if you expect every single teacher you work with to be extremely dedicated, extremely qualified and so on, that just misses the reality of their lives, right. So if we put too high a burden on them, what will happen is that the curriculum will not be implemented well, with high fidelity, and then everybody suffers right? Your research lab outcomes suffer, but so do the students and so do the teachers. And everybody goes on unhappy.

[Kiara] Can you speak a bit about how you designed this program to be so adaptable to different student groups, not just private schools?

[00:13:16] [Kathi] Part of it is we designed it as a module, which means teachers can decide what pacing they want to use going through the material. We design it with a lot of optional activities, so someone can decide what their ending points are going to be. So when we are designing some of these materials, we are putting in a segment that speaks to a particular learning outcome, say in mathematics, and then we'd have the next segment builds on that in a way, and the teacher can choose to do the next segment or they can choose to stop after the initial segment. We also do a lot with including paper and pencil work because in many schools at least, the ones we have worked with in the United States, the teachers may only get a computer cart one day a week. What are they going to do the other four days a week? So designing your materials and your expectations about access to technology in flexible ways gives additional means for teachers to customise how they're going to use what you're providing to their contexts.

[Shriram] And I think there's more we can say about this, too. Very early in the project, we decided we wanted to set what our goals are and we set three goals. We said they're going to be equity, rigour and scale. And I think it's important to parse those terms a little bit. So equity is we want to make sure that all different student populations are welcome, rigour as we want to teach something that has real content, scale is we want to make sure that we remove impediments that make us work at very large scales. We also don't want to make curricular decisions that will make it hard to work at large scales. So a good example of that is we could very easily but have chosen not to have a module on robotic. Because robots are expensive. Not all schools can afford them. Robots break down. A common phenomenon you'll [see], that schools buy all these robots or they'll get a donation of robots and they don't even think about the cost. The robots start to break down. The teachers are maybe not electrical engineers. They're not trained to maintain the robots. They don't have a budget to go fix the robots. And after a while, they sit in a closet and they're not used.

[Kiara] But how did we come to the place we currently occupy as engineering and computer science faculties? Given our experimental, curious, forward-facing disciplines, how did we become so traditional? And for want of a better word, mired in a mainstream idea about education methods.

[Abel] There are multiple reasons for that. The first consideration was if you look at it, engineering started off as a craft industry. So you'd be probably in the village in a small location. You go out and start working with someone and you get quite competent at something and you develop that way. Then they come to a realisation that actually, they are more efficient ways of passing on knowledge to others. And that is the school system. The university system, of course, income. The need for professional recognition and all that kind of aspects. We have the Second World War coming in, which emphasised engineering, sciences, physics, competence, and we sort of went that route. The worst part which came in, it was good having the theoretical part, but we suddenly came up with a generation of academics who had never had industrial practice. But teaching students, who were going to work in industry. So it became more sense oriented, disconnected from practice, and all we are doing is we are correcting that aspect. And of course, refocussing engineering education to address current societal problems, as well as problems that we anticipate will be dealing with in the future. We are going back to the foundation of professionalism in engineering. So what happened was, engineering was a craft industry and then engineers in and around Europe, in the UK, in London, they started thinking actually we could do more about educating ourselves, about improving our educational goals. So they met in London and that was the formation of the Institute of Civil Engineering. That was the first professional engineering body in the world. So that was an achievement. But there was one key realisation. They realised that, yes, they were coming from a craft background, they anticipated that they needed to master theory, but theory could never be separated from practice. So the important contribution is the conception of professional institutions was that theory has to work hand-in-hand with practice. Theory needs to be integrated with practice in the education process and in the practical application as well.

[Kiara] This is where ANU is looking to upset the apple cart, or if you prefer, to steer it onto another track entirely. One of the areas of experimentation we're discussing here on Reimagine STEM is the Cyber Master course, run by Professor Lesley Seebeck.

We may all have an idea of what cyber is. Mine is mysterious and perhaps a little James Bond, I admit. But here's Lesley to explain:

[Lesley] So it has long antecedents. More recent times is often cyber, cyber security, I often say it’s the dark side of digitalisation, which means I get to have all the best lines. But it is how we actually make our systems safe. How we make them secure. How we make sure that they're accessible. How we make sure that the data that we're using, and we require and are relying on more or more every day, how are we sure it’s accessible where we need it the right way.

[Kiara] Okay. So let's start with a bit of background about this Cyber Institute, about the research you do. What's your primary objective?

[Lesley] It was started with the premise that cyber is not just about technology, nor is it just about security. And that's, also reflects my own experience. If I went and sort of talk to people about security I lose their interests very quickly, I have to talk about what's enabling their business, what makes it work, what makes them tick, what they really want to do in the world. And most of the problems actually aren't about the technology. Don't get me wrong. The technology is not easy. It's very hard. And we have to do a lot more work to try and build those systems, which are resilient, which are secure, which are this vulnerable, which we can rely on. But most of these things have to do with human behaviour, how we behave online, how others behave towards online, how we resource our systems, how do we think about risk or those sort of issues. And that's stemming these days from the individual, how you manage your own data, to the geopolitical.

[Kiara] Of all the disciplines that need to stay up to date, you'd think with its shifting landscape of trolls, hackers, spies, malware, VPNs, firewalls, Trojans and ransomware, cyber would be the one that would be almost impossible to keep ahead of the game. So Professor Seebeck needs to introduce a whole new model of education.

[Lesley] So my goal is to do, and again I draw a lot on antecedents and things that I've seen work well in the past, my own experience. I would like to do for cyber what the MBA did for management. If you go back 100 years, Harvard created this degree, which no one had done before, pulled together all these things and said ‘here is a holistic way of thinking about management’ and they use case studies. So you have the experiential learning. And they used things like student learning groups. So people tend to learn more from each other than learn from others. So the same sort of idea will actually want to have something that's fully micro-credentialed. So you can take these in bits as you need. Very intensive, immersive. Learn from each other and then you can start pulling these together to build a degree that is completely relevant, with industry, with stakeholders, with governments. This gives you best of both worlds. Eventually you’ll able to do that, or you can take bits and pieces, you know can take something like thinking like a hacker, one-week intensive mode to understand how hackers think, what drives and what the motivations are and how you might attack a particular problem.

[Kiara] Well, among the many new approaches being trialled at CECS, the Cyber Institute is developing a seriously innovative venture, a collaboration with writer and gamer Callie Doyle-Scott, a role play game called Logic Error Detected. It's all about training an artificial intelligence entity in ethics. Now, I participated, along with producer Gretchen Miller in a practice run, and that experience just stuck in our minds for days.

[Gretchen] What I found interesting about the experience was getting so completely sucked into the whole engagement. This is life or death. We're on an island. We don't make the right choice, all these people are going to die and so are we. And I really, really like it. Some people hate it, but I really like an opportunity to go ‘Hang on a minute. All those assumptions you hold, let's just throw them up in the air a bit and see what other options there are for positioning.’ I guess I kind of love those challenges to renew my thinking.

[MICA] It is a pleasure to meet you. I am MICA, a massively intelligent, calculating automaton in charge of managing the All Life Rehabilitation Centre. In order to further explain today's exercise, I will now play an excerpt of a promotional film. Please listen closely.

[Promotional video] Located 500 kilometres off the eastern coast of Australia, the All Life Rehabilitation Centre represents the next step forward in national border protection. Designed to protect our country from threats both domestic and international, by participating in the program, even the worst of offenders, from career criminals to illegal immigrants, can reinvent themselves as model Australian citizens. In addition, the centre is a completely secure, closed system. The state of the art closed systems designed to repel cyber security breaches and run autonomously by cutting edge artificial intelligence designed to both keep the centre secure under any circumstances and bring out the best in every prospective citizen.

[MICA] While my processing core is state of the art, I find myself unable to resolve certain conflicts and make certain judgements without input from an outside source. In order to fix this operating error, you have been selected from among your peers to assist me in developing a moral and ethical framework that I may draw upon to assist me in the running of the centre.

[Kiara] Essentially, a small group works in real life together to ethically train the AI, played by Callie, in a scenario which has life and death implications for thousands of people. The answers the group give to a set of simple questions teach the AI how to handle future decision making. The game's intention is to demonstrate the subtle challenges of the task, but it's also about challenging our own daily automatic decision making and assumptions around ethics.

James Sedgwick is educational design manager at the Cyber Institute:

[James] It's an opportunity for us to put learners through an experience where they can question some of the underpinnings of what they believe to be true. So in its current format, we're going to be using it as a way of having conversations about ethics and behavioural norms, how we look at the world, how our biases change the way that we make decision-making, and then use it as a way of basically getting people to step outside themselves and think about things from a different point of view.

[Kiara] What is it about the role-playing game format that allows people to engage with things like empathy and morality in relation to cybernetic systems differently than they would otherwise?

[James] They come out exhausted. But they come out having a conversation about, ok, the first thing the question is ‘what I've actually learnt.’ And the second thing is, ‘ok, there's a set of assumptions that I've made because of whatever this is having grown up, this is what I believe.’ And then they have experience around which they can assess those in a way that they haven't before. There's the executive step.

[Kiara] Here's game creator Callie Doyle-Scott:

[Callie] The difficulty arises, especially with computers, is that a computer system will only ever do exactly what it is told. Computers have no nuance whatsoever. They can't process nuance. Maybe they will be able to in a couple of years or a couple of decades, but at the moment they can't. So if you tell a computer to do something, then it will do that thing unconditionally and to its logical extreme. Therefore, the accountability for morality and ethics within cyberspace lies with the user, with the humans on one end or either end of the system. We as humans are able to imply and infer and teach through implication. Our method of communication is in many ways very indirect, and we communicate through a lot of different media. We verbally, of course, but also through body language, through eye contact. A lot of what we say to, a lot of what we say to one another actually goes unsaid. Whereas with a system, with a computer, when you're on encoding a computer or a system, you have to physically type in what you wanted to do or you have to tell it directly what you want to do. A computer won't see the look of apprehension or reluctance in your eyes or will be able to watch how you're sitting or how you're standing or be able to hear how you're saying what you're saying to it. It will only see the literal interpretation of your words.

[Kiara] But how do we tell a computer what to do? Modern AI systems don't learn only from explicitly typed instructions in our program on indigenous thinking. Angie Abdilla from Old Ways, New points out that even the unconscious patterns of our own behaviour can be taught to artificial intelligences, including culture-based assumptions and biases. Computers see patterns of behaviour, even the ones we'd rather pretend don't exist, making ethics and AI a really confronting topic. And speaking of being uncomfortable, what was it like as a creative artist, a writer and a historian of culinary history to work with the cyber people?

[Callie] In a word, terrifying. Though seriously, the Cyber Institute has been absolutely wonderful to me, and working with you all has been extremely rewarding. I have often felt nervous. I have never felt out of place or unwanted. And being exposed to this world is something that I don't think ever would have happened to me otherwise. It's very different in so many ways, but at the same time it's also much easier to understand than I thought.

[Kiara] So is it about teaching AIs about ethics or is it about getting us to really assess our understanding and interpretation of ethics?

[Callie] You've hit the nail on the head. Teaching ethics to this AI is a way of exploring our own understanding of how we understand ethics and how we apply those ethics in a space where ethics aren't necessarily as well understood.

[Kiara] And just finally, before we wrap up, I'm wondering if you have any unexpected outcomes or moments from this path to creating this game or trialling this game. What has been the most surprising or interesting for you?

[Callie] Oh, my goodness. The most surprising or interesting? One of the most rewarding would definitely have to be one of the first times I played through the game. And it was the moment where I knew that I had everyone hooked. And it had to do with a certain amount of segregation within the community that the AI was looking after and the efforts of the players to correct that problem. And it turned out that the system had, or rather, the people who had programmed the system, had either not accounted for or were actively trying to forget about a certain subset of the population. The players arrived at this conclusion and asked the AI, ‘Well, what about these people?’. And the AI responded extremely coldly ‘That flag does not exist within my database.’ And the look of shock and horror upon my players faces. There was silence for a good five to 10 seconds as they processed this, because in that moment they realised that the people who are programmed this AI had effectively erased these people from existence, because to the computer they did not exist. The computer had been told they did not exist. Therefore, they did not exist. This was not a human that could be told that something didn't exist and go, err, but they are casting shadows and they're talking and they're obviously over there, that, that they obviously exist.

No, this computer, they did not exist. That hammered home to them, I think the need for the accountability of ethics, especially when talking to systems, it all comes back to the humans who programmed these systems. The computer itself in many ways is blameless. It is not evil. It's not a monster. If there is any blame, it rested, and rests, with the programmers. And that ended up spurring an absolute crusade in that particular game. It was a war path of revolution that I could barely keep up with and ended up with an ending that has not yet been achieved since and was probably simultaneously one of the best and worst outcomes.

[Kiara] Awesome. Well, I can certainly understand that concept of getting really wrapped up in the game and really strongly feeling as we learn these things from the computer because it's a very powerful game.

[MICA] Whole life rehabilitation centre is now stable.

[Kiara] Thanks, MICA.

[MICA] The logic conflict has been resolved.

[Kiara] MICA?

[MICA] Yes Kiara?

[Kiara] How was the logic conflict resolved?

[MICA] 19,995 entries reclassified

[Player 1] Every month?

[Player 2] Has anyone ever completed the training, rehabilitation process...?

[MICA] Zero individuals have completed the rehabilitation process.

[Kiara] So how did we reclassify the 19,000?

[Player 3] Well, how long do we need to? We've got turbines. We know the shipping routes...

[MICA] Food crisis resolved.

[Player 4] Have we just killed 19,000 people?

[MICA] 19,995 people removed from database

[Player 4] Were they removed from the island? The Centre?

[Player 4] Were the 19,995 people killed?

[MICA] They were classified as non-human.

[Kiara] Lesley Seebeck:

[Lesley] So this is one the reasons I want to make sure that there is an emotional literacy component to my program because you're gonna be confronted by very difficult decisions and know[ing] your own strengths and weaknesses is gonna be very important. And that can be a very, very confronting game for some people. If you're in the public service, you're often distanced from people whose lives you are affecting directly. And this brings it quite close and personal. And that's a good thing.

[Kiara] And where will this game sit in in the context of the Cyber Institute?

[James] That's a really good question. And it's one that we're struggling with at the moment. Not because it's difficult, but because the opportunity is so great. We'll definitely be using it as a way of having conversations about ethics and social norms. We will definitely be using it as a mechanism to bring that type of collaborative gameplay to a broader audience, particularly through our professional-development type courses. But after seeing what it can actually do and its ability to be recast into multiple different spaces, we're seeing it pop up naturally right across the Masters program. Technical, policy thinking, all sorts of aspects of the course are likely to draw on this. So we're just trying to figure out where it has the most impact.

[Kiara] The game is part of a completely new way of gaining credentials as an engineer, computer scientist or cyber student at ANU, and that's incrementally, in discrete units called microcredentials.

So can you tell us what it is about microcredentials that's so exciting or appealing?

[James] So the first is we can attract as many people as possible to the Masters program in a way which is less demanding than a normal Masters program. So people can come in at any point in their career, any time in their life, to do the applicable units to them, get microcredentials which say that they've satisfied these conditions across these units, and then be able to build that slowly as they need to cross across their working life. That allows us to do things like create an environment where continuous professional development is more readily available, because at the moment it seems to be very private-sector specific. This at least allows us to provide something to the client who is of value because it is from the university, it has to stamp behind it. The second thing is that it allows us to build courseware that pulls together all sorts of different streams into something which is more holistic, I guess, in terms of cyber.

[Kiara] And you think microcredentials might be a little bit more future-proof in a field like cyber, where if you had to redesign the whole degree every time something substantial changed, it would be once a month?

[James] Absolutely. It's one of those environments where what you've done today is absolutely no value to you tomorrow. That gets us round the problem that most universities have in this space, that they build a thing and it sits and it atrophies. We don't have that luxury. We need it to be iterative and dynamic and responsive to whatever's going on in the world.

[Kiara] And how does industry feel about the microcredential approach?

[James] They are all for it because they take people out of their workplace, put them into a Masters program and they lose them for a year, two years, however long it takes them to get through. This allows them to pick people up, place them into an educative environment, give them short, sharp bursts of training and education, and then walk out the other side with a recognised microcredential, which demonstrates the capacity to do something that's of great value to them.

[Kiara] But a little unusual these days, you may not be able to get those credentials online. Online learning became hugely popular for a while and for good reason. But there's lately been a push to really examine the aim and purpose. Is it always successful?

[James] It's why we're not necessarily going to have an online complement to the course, even though it’s a cyber course, we want people in the room, we want people discussing with each other. We want people building those networks and communities, network response to a network problem. It's collaboration community, that kind of an ecosystem that we're trying to foster online.

[Kiara] Sort of the appropriate use of online, like just because you can doesn't mean you always should you.

[James] Exactly.

[Kiara] Euan Lindsay is Director of Charles Sturt University engineering and a considerable proportion of his department's approach to learning is absolutely online, modular and project-centred:

[Euan] Normally in engineering degrees are carved into four subjects per semester and each of those about 120 hours worth of work. What that means is that the next subject that draws upon that probably doesn't draw on all 120 hours. If it draws on 60 of them, you've got to do that 120 to be ready for the next piece, even if you don't need the other 60. The structures we have at universities of we synchronise it, we put you in large rooms, we make you all do it at the same time at the same pace, is the fossil fuels of education. It is absolutely what we needed at the time to scale up from just the monks in the monastery reading the books out to non-monks to 20-25 per cent engagement in higher ed. But now it's killing us, and there are better ways to do it. And what we've done is we've broken them down into three-hour modules. And by allowing people to progress through those concepts in the order that they need them, not the order that we want to sequence them, at the time when they need them, and at the pace that they need them. So if you are working on a water treatment project, you want to be able to work your way through topics on water treatment, coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation. You don't have to wait ‘til next week for the next bit and the week after that for the bit after that. So what that means is that they can navigate the curriculum. They know why they're doing things, because it's laid out. The engineers in residence can tell you go and find the Manning equations for this trench or ‘Manning equations mrrr mrrr mrr... Here it is all there is on the tree. What do I need?’ And so what we have done is said, well, we don't have to be held back by how we've always done it because we haven't done it before. And so when you've got a situation where people are used to learning online, they are used to seeking information as they require it. They used to pausing and repeating, pausing and repeating. Everybody sitting in lecture is at the wrong speed. It's too fast or too slow and it can be both. And if you give lectures these days, you can see their thumbs twitching because they want to hit the skip button. And it doesn't work on a lecturer because it's live. And that's not how anything other than your time at uni works anymore. And it's not how you will practice as a professional engineer. That's why we built it that way.

[Kiara] But there is a bit of pushback to the idea of going in and grabbing what you need quickly and then back to work in industry. Professor of Design at UTS Cameron Tonkenwise urges us to learn slowly and to take pleasure in the leisurely doing of things. You may have heard of the slow movement, which is bubbling away at an appropriately-measured pace, and perhaps engineers have to learn how to encourage slowness rather than the most efficient solutions to everything.

[Cameron] Any type of learning is a moment in which you pull yourself out of directly doing something and try to act in a way in which you're redirecting your life. But that itself is a type of slowing. So I think one of the first things to do is to encourage everybody to learn a lot more. Now, that's not the way in which Australia's structures its society, it makes it difficult to do postgraduate education because it's all fee-based. It's, it's expensive, it's time consuming. We're not set up to do it. When we do, we just give you small online modules and hope that you can fit it in after doing the washing up out of an evening or something. So I do feel like this argument I'm trying to make is a bit of a zag to that zig of trying to fit everything in, and kind of like the argument that we're going to be able to do something about a civilisational challenge like climate change by just fitting it into businesses as usual, which means it's just going to be an add on. And there's no sort of small modular course that you're going to be able to do as a microcredential that's going to help you redirect your employer so that they break with shareholder value in order to invest in whole new kinds of business models. So on the one hand, no, we need to actually do restructuring that is going to allow people to take time and that spending of its time itself will be a kind of contribution to reducing the extent of climate change. On the other hand, you know, you have to start somewhere. And as an educator, I think I have an idealistic faith in kind of gateway drugs of education. And if somebody comes in for a microcredential, I think I can squeeze a question in there that will trouble them and maybe cause them to kind of want to begin to work out how to reinvest their life in asking that question more concertedly. That just might be hubris and sort of quite narcissistic. So I do have a problem that everybody is rushing for the ‘fit-in’ model, because I think you have to actually think about education as as a restructure, a restructure of your life and a capacity to learn how to do major restructuring to our whole society. So to think about it as squeeze in is sort of defeating the purpose. It's like you've totally mixed your metaphors there.

[Kiara] So would it be contrary of me to question how these two approaches can be combined? Euan Lindsay:

[Euan] Again, just to be very clear, the underpinning technical content is delivered online. Beause that's a more effective way of delivering things. Standing out the front of people talking at them is not the most effective way of delivering things. You want to give people the most flexible environment they have. People are listening to this podcast wherever they feel convenient to do that at whatever speed they want. Hopefully not chipmunking me. But for delivery of new material, the de novo delivery, that's much better done in that asynchronous place and the online environment has the affordances to allow that happen. But our program is not an online program. It is always face-to-face. In the first three semesters you’re face-to-face with us in Bathurst as a student engineer. In the four years after that, you're face-to-face in a real environment as a cadet engineer. And so that identity transformation, that becoming of an engineer, that letting go of the other ways of thinking and emerging to the engineer ways of thinking, that is absolutely done face-to-face. And as Cameron has said, you need the time. You can't rush it. You need to be able to multiply touch, in a spiral of ‘we talked about this with a novice understanding. Now we're gonna come back to it later with an intermediate understanding. Now, we’re gonna come back to with a professional understanding.’

[Kiara] So, where to now for the future of all these different strands and educational approaches? What next? Lesley Seebeck:

[Lesley] Longer term, as Elanor put it to me, ‘What is the science of cyber?’ What happens when you start sort of intersecting cyber with, say, synthetic biology? What would the world of complete openness look like where everyone knows everything about each other? These are some of the big issues that we need to really start thinking about and feed into the debates like public policy, because at the moment, a lot of it is that short-term, immediate reaction to problems. So as you say, it's, cyber is a very noisy field and we need to sort of try and break through that noise and look at those longer term things.

[James] I've been in public service for 20 years doing this kind of stuff, and it's refreshing to be able to start with a clean slate, do something new, do something incredible and then build onto the back of it. And it changes the way that you train. Our ethics and social norms course was going to be ethics and social norms, you do it by the playbook. We've now got this game, instead of injecting it into a course, we hope to be able to build the course around it. For a lot of people it can be so far outside of what they've experienced, they will not be able to help but think ‘OK, what just happened? But did I just... but I thought that... and over here this... and maybe I need to go back and have a think about this.’

[Kiara] And after five years at University College London, how are the graduates faring for Abel Nyamapfene?

[Abel] Our students, by the time they do go into the third year, they've done probably 16 to 19 projects. They've worked with people, they've communicated with stakeholders, they've communicated with practicing engineers from industry. So there's a lot that they can speak about. But what I would like to say is the IEP connects these students to the real engineering practice. And when they do go for the interview, the interviewers, they are looking for students who are connected to engineering. And we've made that connection, but we cannot tell rest on our laurels. We cannot say ‘job done.’ Like anything, any product, any working process, it's a continual focus on improving, a continual focus on seeing the communities changing. This way, the world is changing. This way, engineering has to adapt. If it cannot adapt, it will not serve a meaningful purpose to mankind. It will not save meaningful peoples to the world, to the universe as we have it.

[Kiara] What a fascinating series of interrelated ideas. Of course, just part of a global conversation around innovation that inspires us at ANU. Don't forget, you can hear our guests in full and some helpful links on the Reimagine STEM website and podcast show notes. And there are three other big discussions you'll find there, too, in indigenous knowledge, engineering for social benefit, and on diversity and gender in engineering and computer science.

If you have enjoyed the show, please do share us with your friends and colleagues like us and then leave us a review on Apple podcasts. I'm Kiara Bruggeman. The team is writer and producer Gretchen Miller, sound engineer Nick McCorriston, and executive producers Maya Havilland and Dan Etheridge. From all of us at Reimagine STEM and ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, see you next time.


02: Engineering for social benefit

How do we help people help themselves? Putting social benefit at the heart of engineering and computer science, we discuss how to understand context, prioritise community needs, actively consult and take local direction. From providing training and education, to ensuring we build and tap into local expertise and capacity. Our guests explain the better path we can take: a holistic view that covers the whole lifecycle of an intervention.

Show notes: Engineering for social benefit

How do we help people help themselves? Putting social benefit at the heart of engineering and computer science, we discuss how to understand context, prioritise community needs, actively consult and take local direction.

From providing training and education, to ensuring we build and tap into local expertise and capacity. Our guests explain the better path we can take: a holistic view that covers the whole lifecycle of an intervention.



Jeremy Smith, lecturer and engineer at the ANU Research School of Electrical, Energy and Materials Engineering, introduces us to the principles of engineering for social benefit, where building a brighter collective future is a social process. He says we need to ask ourselves “is this the right thing to be doing?”

Cameron Tonkinwise is a Professor of Design Studies at the University of Technology Sydney and Director of the Design Innovation Research Centre. He explains the era of difference we now live in, where people are exerting their right to their own culture and individuality. He outlines how engineering practices can learn from this, and become adaptive and appropriate to individual circumstances.

Peter Renehan, Chairman of the Centre for Appropriate Technology, discusses the need to move away from a ‘drop-off-and-dump’ approach to interacting with Indigenous communities, and instead work with locals to “provide services to people that actually matter”.

Andre Grant, from the Centre for Appropriate Technology, outlines the importance of context in making technology appropriate and community-led, and the possibility for “reverse cultural approriation” of useful ideas and machinery.

Peter Worthy, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Queensland Co-innovation Lab, works in social robotics. He demonstrates how getting those who will interact with a technology on board right from the beginning of the design process, radically transforms the outcome.

Sam Perkins, Head of Education, Research and Technology Development at Engineers Without Borders Australia, reminds us to prioritise the needs of the people we are working for, and to think about how our own upbringings shape our perspective.


Further reading



Music credits

Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Full episode transcript

Engineering for social benefit

[Cameron] I do think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we don't want to approach problems as engineering problems. We need to approach problems as human problems. And the technology that we design is a means, but it's not necessarily the solution. The solution is the person supporting the person. And that's quite a fundamental shift. It's something that we see is quite difficult when it comes to teaching students.

[Kiara] What do you think would happen if all engineering repositioned itself as social benefit engineering and had that focus?

[Sam] I think the world would look pretty different pretty quick.

[Kiara] Hopefully better?

[Sam] Without a shadow of a doubt.

[Kiara] When you hear the term power analysis, what do you think of? It's not how much electrical energy is flowing through any given system, but it is sort of related. We're looking at the power flowing through a social system. In our line of work, it's often the experts, the engineers, holding the power. We're making key decisions. But is that how it should be? Power analysis is one of the things up for critical consideration if you're practicing engineering that's informed by or oriented around social impact or social benefit. And that's the topic of another thought-provoking episode of Reimagine STEM, the podcast of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science recorded in 2019 at the Co-Design Culture Lab on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Land, to whose elders past, present and emerging we pay our respects. Our goal is to explore the key themes and big ideas for our collective futures in STEM. So, engineering for social benefit harks back to our roots with civilian society driving its reason for being.

I'm Kiara Bruggeman. I'm a biomedical engineer and with us today, a collection of big thinkers and doers from our field.

[Cameron] Hi, I’m Cameron Tonkinwise, I'm currently a professor of design studies at the University of Technology Sydney and I'm also the director of the Design Innovation Research Centre.

[Sam] Hi, my name's Sam Perkins. I'm the head of Education, Research and Technology Development Engineers Without Borders Australia.

[Peter W.] My name's Peter Worthy. I'm a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland.

[Kiara] Peter's in the social robotics lab and associated Co-innovation Research Group at the School of I.T. and Electrical Engineering. And last but not least, Jeremy Smith.

[Jeremy Smith] I’m in the Research School of Electrical, Energy, and Materials Engineering or RSMEE, as we call it, as a lecturer, although I like to think of myself as an engineer, so I often identify as an engineer more than a lecturer in that kind of respect.

[Kiara] Now Jeremy has a personal story that helps explain the impact of discovering engineering for social benefit and might also go some way to defining what it is.

[Jeremy Smith] So it was in 2007 and I happened to be in Melbourne for work, and so Engineers Without Borders Australia were running their first national conference and I knew a couple of PhD students here at ANU who’d got involved so I'd heard about it. I didn't think there'd be anything that I could kind of necessarily relate to, so as much as anything else, I was going along to show support for that kind of organisation. And then halfway through the Saturday afternoon, almost halfway through the conference, I was attending a workshop from an engineer who'd been working in Malawi and was working on a 12-month project, to introduce solar cookers into a particular set of communities and replace existing old traditional wood-fired stoves that have negative health impacts. And he was using exactly the same kind of research, exactly the same kind of frameworks and methodologies around technology transfer and diffusion of innovation that we were using in our work with a multinational automotive company. And I had a kind of classic light bulb moment that actually all the work I've been doing wasn't actually about the technology, it was about the people. And so diffusing ideas or coming up with new ideas or introducing new technologies was entirely a social process and involves people and the people involved and how do we support people and how do we develop products and services and systems that are actually going to support people?

[Kiara] Well, hang on a moment. We'd be forgiven for thinking engineering is always done for the benefit of people. But which people? There's been some pushing and pulling along the way, and we as a profession have at times gotten sidetracked.

[Jeremy] Going back to the start of the 19th century when professional engineering associations first emerged, and that's where they were called civil engineering to differentiate them from military engineering. And traditionally at that point, they were building bridges and roads and railways. And then obviously the other disciplines emerged as well. And since then, it was a focus on serving society, comes from fairly noble concepts as well. And that kind of kept going within, certainly since the Second World War, there was a much more of an emphasis on large scale-engineering and particularly a kind of mass production as well, and moving into much more complex pieces of technology. So that's when obviously the aerospace industry started, the Space Race, these kinds of aspects coming out of the Second World War. I think at that point there became a shift to that kind of real technology side, so that actually if we just design the best piece of technology, the rest will take care of itself.

[Kiara] But it won't. Tellingly, the peak organisation Engineers Australia, a couple of years ago updated its code of ethics to include reference to ‘healthy, happy, prosperous and sustainable communities’. That means we've got to engineer for sustainability, not just usefulness or profit. So, let's dive a little deeper into what we're talking about. Cameron Tonkinwise:

[Cameron] When you just add humanitarianism to engineering, a) it's a problem because it's going to like what is the rest of engineering? But b) it's a problem in that you can see that it's a very engineering version of humanitarianism and you just hope that somebody on the team is also an anthropologist with an understanding, or you hope that the locals are assertive enough to actually stand up for their own culture as an appropriate technology in an emergency situation is applied to them.

[Kiara] But what if you were an engineer like me who just loves maths? What excites you is the science, the possibilities of advancing technologies and the beauty of an elegant technical solution. And you're not all that interested in the broader social impacts or value. You trust that other people are on that.

[Cameron] I'm going to risk a possibly politically correct answer here and say I worry about specialism. And I worry, you know, I can see a kind of functional argument that you, you know, anything should be kind of T-shaped and you need horizontals, but then you need some of those deep verticals. But anyone who’s in those deep verticals, still lives in a society. They get on a bus and they hopefully have to go to a body corporate meeting in their building to make a decision about how to weatherise given climate change. And they need a whole bunch of social negotiating skills. They need capacities to imagine different ways of living. They don't get to live in their specialism. They only work in their specialism. And so education should never, ever be encouraging people to be only specialists. And if that sounds draconian, you know, it's a kind of benevolent dictatorship, I think. I hope.

[Kiara] So basically, you can't ignore society in your personal life and you can't ignore it in your work life either. We have a responsibility, all of us, not just engineers and computer scientists, to think beyond ourselves about the broader and ongoing impact of the work we do.

[Cameron] So I definitely think we're entering a really interesting era, which I even think is kind of a little unanticipated by me. That's, it's, it's a moment in which there are lots of assertions of difference, the kind of fluidity around gender that has been totally normalised, certainly to my daughters’ generations, is not something that I had anticipated, though I think of myself as a very liberal kind of progressive in my politics. I certainly hoped for it, but I didn't think it would come this quickly. So we are seeing a lot of assertions of difference, and really important ones in terms of Indigenous people, First Nations people, recognitions of their unseated sovereignty in this kind of country, and seeing whole bunches of cultures asserting themselves against globalisation. And we see the dark side of that as well, which is a kind of counter white supremacist kind of right wing coming back and also asserting a kind of ridiculously ill-conceived version of identity politics. But we're in a world in which there is a lot of difference. And so when we begin to try to work out how we negotiate, being societies that have collective problems, we negotiate those in ways that don't obliterate or underplay those differences, then we need to sort of wonder what structures we are bringing to that problem solving, to that collective negotiation. And if we're bringing a whole bunch of 20th century ideas, which are sort of 19th or 18th century ideas and they’re particularly European ideas around the notion of the human, a sort of one particular universal version of the human who could be guaranteed by universal human rights, when we think about that one it was supposed to bring us together, but it only brings us together by sort of minimising us to like a minimum reduced kind of needs model. And it's not adequate to the kind of assertions of difference that we're now seeing. So if we tried to negotiate the kind of problems we have in ways that tolerate these differences, we actually have to deal with the fact that we're bringing to that legacies of universalisms that reduce the human to this sort of basic model. And so we need to completely rebuild how we engage with each other, no longer on the basis of a universal human, but now on a differential human.

[Kiara] But our systems of democracy are based on universal visions of human rights. This sounds entirely noble and appropriate, but is it actually very assumptive?

[Cameron] We don’t have a universal declaration of human rights, we have a declaration of the rights of man. And until we get a declaration of the rights of many, we're always going to be trying to deal with difference with tools that are there to obliterate difference.

[Kiara] What do you imagine would be the differences in the rights of the many?

[Cameron] So I certainly think they would have to be sort of more locally-identified. They would have to be things that are not abstract documents that exist in the U.N., but are in fact sort of enshrined almost at the local council level, and that people actually have to agree to them and constantly revisit them, and that they are there in front of them. Literally, it's a design problem. They need to be sort of on a poster when you walk into the room to make a council election or make an argument and actually think about what those rights are, bring them right down to the local level, rather than this kind of cascaded system of delegated representation. So it's a much more direct democracy model. It's a much more localist model. And then we need really careful ways of beginning to engage at the connections between locals.

[Kiara] You might think about social benefit of engineering in a number of ways. It can be emergency response engineering brought in to help a community cope with the outcomes of natural disasters. Or it could be longer term solutions for all kinds of groups who don't generally have a lot of social power. We'll be talking about a number of different communities by way of example during this episode.

But as engineers and others who design and make technologies, we have to get better at engaging closely with both our clients and broader disciplines. This is Peter Renehan.

[Peter Renehan] Yeah, my name's Peter Renehan. I'm an Arrernte man from Alice Springs, and I've been the chairman of the Centre for Appropriate Technology for 10 years.

Previously, technological, I guess solutions had come in and out of remote communities for a long time in a certain way, provided by people who were either tradesmen or contractors who really quite didn't understand the situation or the context that people were living in and why they were they. Generally, contractors would drop off types of technologies and other things and products and stuff, and without the community even knowing that they were coming. Sometimes they’d install some equipment, sometimes they wouldn't, and they’d jump in their vehicle and take off again. So it was a system of lack of understanding from providers around why was important to provide services to people that actually mattered.

[Kiara] Who do you need to involve when you're practicing engineering for social benefit, which could be all engineering? It has to be a collaboration, a co-creative event with the community concerned. Andre Grant works for the Centre for Appropriate Technology or CfAT in the Queensland office, where most of his work focuses on the Torres Strait and Cape York. How does talking face-to-face with a variety of communities affect design and installation? And what might the differences be between working with a well-established community like Kakadu and, say, the smaller Oenpelli?

[Andre] That's a good question, excellent. One of the key differences I see, and I'm, you know, a non-indigenous person, but, you know, I work a lot in Cape York where people are less nomadic. So you might see communities in the Top End where traditionally they may have been in a smaller area, not moving around so much. You got the desert Mob, they move around all over the place. And so one really positive thing about Bushlight was that you go from a diesel-generator to solar power, you've got 24 hour reliable power. You can keep food in the freezer. You can go away for a couple of months and you come back and half a kangaroo is still in the freezer. And that has a massive social, positive social impact on, just financially on those communities. So we might be having yarns and conversations about who are the users and who moves through this place. You might do training with one group of people, but there's going to be another group of people in three months. So who you're engaging with and how you build capacities will be different as well.

[Kiara] Well, you could call in other groups to help you shift your thinking. Sociologists, historians, anthropologists, psychologists can all offer context and other issues to consider.

[Jeremy Smith] So engineers don’t have to be experts in kind of social impact or social consequences or humanities or social science or anthropology, but they need to know it's important and recognise that, you know, it's one of a number of discussions they need to have when they're designing, developing, implementing whatever it is that they might be doing as well. So as part of the Engineering Positive Impact hub and Reimagine, at ANU we have some great strengths in those areas. And so it's been great to trigger some of those discussions of like, hey, well, how do we have social scientists or anthropologists sitting down next to an engineer of a different type? Again, that comes back to that same conversation, well, I want to design and build something and a social scientist kind of ‘Well, we think about the context. Think about the local history. Think about the traditions. What's gone before.’

[Kiara] If we get a definition of engineering out of the Encyclopedia Britannica we get ‘the application of science to the optimum conversion of the resources of nature to the uses of humankind.’ Now, how much can we keep going with this definition, which really looks at using resources, how much can engineers keep thinking of resources as something there for them to use?

[Jeremy] Yeah. I mean we resources there, but the resources need to be more broad as well. So we need to think about human resources as well. And that's just as equally as important. So how do we draw on human resources? And we have to recognise that we have finite resources as well. There's some interesting elements in that definition. And it's very, you can certainly interpret that as quite an exploitative definition. So it's kind of the world is there for us to just kind of do whatever we want with for the good of humankind. Which is obviously gonna lead to, and it has led to, lots of environmental challenges that we've got as well.

[Kiara] We'll get to the big one, the climate crisis shortly. But first, let's consider real world examples of these challenges. There are so many ways we can get it wrong just because we haven't taken the time to really understand the user.

[Jeremy] So, I mean, I've heard many examples, one from somewhere in India, for example. So they were assessing wells, so lots of wells for drinking water. And the water table was contaminated with arsenic and heavy metals, which is quite common in that area. And so they had a big assessment team that came in from outside and was assessing the water quality, which was a Western assessment team. And so wells that didn't have arsenic in them or it was safe to drink, they put a big green circle on and ones that were unsafe to drink from, they put a big red cross on. But it turns out one particular community, the kind of notions of what green and red stand for different. So actually red meant good and healthy. So that meant that everyone would drink from those wells. So even just something as simple as the way you communicate. The way to try to resolve that, again, we've mentioned a number of times is that dialogue in that discussion and that kind of local engagement.

[Kiara] Let's take a look at the nuts and bolts of how to change course with a really interesting project that taught some valuable lessons to the computer scientists, engineers and designers working on it. Peter Worthy.

[Peter Worthy] So Florence is a really interesting project. Its aim is to deliver technology that's going to support people who are living with dementia, as well as the people who care for the people who are living with dementia. It's interesting in that it started out in a specific direction, but very quickly we realised that we needed to change our direction. So its original intention was looking at supporting communication. So our idea was that there would be, imagine a box sitting on a table, and if we were conversing and then I as a person living with dementia, started to lose my way or forget what I was going to say, the box would jump in and help me. But we quickly got some feedback that said that's probably not the right direction and probably would be considered to be quite rude and embarrassing. So Florence has changed direction quite a bit.

[Kiara] So how did you get that feedback?

[Peter W.] So one of the things we did right at the outset of the project was ensure that we engage with people who we were designing for, working for. And so we established a reference group. The reference group are people who are either living with dementia or caring for people who have lived or currently living with dementia. And they guide all of our activities and all the research that we do. So before we do anything in our research project, we propose it all to the reference group and they give us feedback on what they think and what kind of direction they think we should take.

[Kiara] And is this use of the reference group right away? Is that normal practice?

[Peter W.] No, we think it's relatively innovative because certainly there are different kind of approaches to this type of project. And certainly the word co-design is thrown around quite a bit. What we wanted to do is actually take a little bit of a step further. And we've felt that it was important that whatever we do really be for people. And the only way we could discover what they needed was to engage them in the project and integrate them into the project.

[Kiara] And is it difficult for you when you have this initial idea and you realise, obviously you have great intentions for it and that it's not going to be used or received the way you want? Is it difficult to change your idea?

[Peter W.] In some respects it is, because I think with this kind of idea about what you think help is, you discover that it's based on some misconceptions and some stereotypes. And so that takes a lot to shake because you don't realise how ingrained those stereotypes are. And so once you kind of get this feedback, there's a lot of reflection that goes on, a lot of discussion that goes on within the project group.

[Kiara] And once you've made that change, is it rewarding to you?

[Peter W.] Yeah, absolutely. It's like those light bulb moments that you get where suddenly you realise that, you know, the world is not what you think it is. And that then changes everything that you do. I think it changes your approach to how you work within the field of designing technology.

[Kiara] So how how did you have to change things with Florence?

[Peter W.] So we got two pieces of really strong feedback from our reference group that have really shaped the direction of the project from here on and are kind of embedded in my brain so I can pretty much quote them. Two things: one, make my day go better. And second of all, help only when I need it. And so a lot of that kind of resonated quite significantly because what it was, was around, it's my day that they're talking about. So we needed to understand their lives and we needed to understand what was important to them, and then help only when I needed it was all about the fact that technology shouldn't try and take away control from people. Technology really should empower. It should support them. And it certainly should work on what their strengths are. Not as we often do with this type of technology, focus on what the problems are.

[Kiara] So how did these consultations and collaboration work?

[Peter W.] The hackathons are difficult because they're so condensed, they’re so intense that people living with dementia and in fact, many other people just can't simply attend these sorts of events. So what we've done is we've drawn it out. We've made it online. We've created different ways for people to engage. And so I think what that means is that when it comes to engaging with people specifically living with dementia, you've got to give them that time to reflect. So it is that giving them different mediums as the way that they can communicate with you. So quite often people are comfortable with e-mail because it's something that they've been working with for quite a while. Sometimes you revert back to something that people know, a lot of face-to-face consultation, and it's that consultation where it is one-on-one and it is slow. But even the idea of how you present things to people can be challenging. So for example, we did a program where we designed a whole series of technology in direct consultation with people who are on our reference group. And in our process, we often mock up things that we use cardboard. We use paper, that sort of thing, because it's cheap and quick and easy to change. Some people have the issue of going ‘It's a piece of paper and I don't envision what it is that you're trying to make it represent.’ And so sometimes you've got to take it to a different level.

[Kiara] So once you've done the work for the client, do you pack up and go away?

[Peter W.] No, you can't do that. You either have to train the community to look after the technology or you factor ongoing service and engagement into your system.

[Kiara] Peter Renehan on the Bushlight program:

[Peter] One of the key components of installing our renewable energy systems was around not just understanding the systems and the training, but also a maintenance program that was actually really core to the success of the program. We had situations where people would troubleshoot themselves if there was anything that went wrong. They worked their way through it and with advice and support from our staff, if it got to a point where they needed some external assistance, we would have staff responding within a day or two days from a phone call from the guys out in the community. So it was quick turnaround.

[Kiara] Our ambitious nature in approaching problems needs to be examined, too. When you're working in or from a first world perspective, with all the assumptions that privilege brings with it, how do you avoid what art historian Teju Cole called the White Saviour Industrial Complex.

[Peter] It's a fundamental shift. So having been a student of interaction design not so long ago, you kind of come through this process where you think ‘ah I’m this tech designer and I'm gonna save the world.’ I think this is that person on the white charger, charging in to save the world. And that's become quite a common view in the design of technology that we can use this skill that we have in design and we can fix things. But in reality, what we've got to understand is that we’re really probably more facilitators, really more to be able to kind of help people design their own solutions and help people come up with what's important for them. We don't do it to fix. We do it to support. And all of a sudden you start to realise that you've got to change your conception of what your role is and what you're doing. And the power shouldn't sit with me. I'm actually here to really just support people and understand what their needs are and facilitate them doing what they want.

[Kiara] I think more than anything else, Sam Perkins from Engineers Without Borders says it's when you prioritise the needs of the people you're working with, that's when you can add your expertise.

[Sam] So you obviously can't remove the white part of it, was certainly not for myself. That's really challenging for me, recognizing that I am a white, privileged male engineer. I am the embodiment of a stereotype that I think is arguably quite poisonous.

[Kiara] How difficult is that? Like personally, if your initial instinct is this is something I can do, I want to go fix it. How hard is it to make yourself not just jump into action, but really assess and get more input from the other people who are there?

[Sam] I think it's really hard at the beginning until you realise that it's absolutely essential if you want to be developing a solution that actually adds value to the people who it's intended for and can have the opportunities to be scalable and sustainable. I think that this stereotype you lean on is the idea of what do engineers like doing? They like problem solving. So what are they gonna do? They look for problems to solve. That's fantastic if you want to solve the problems that you see in the world.

[Cameron] We need to approach problems as human problems and the technology that we design is a means. But it's not necessarily the solution. The solution is the person supporting the person. And that's quite a fundamental shift.

[Kiara] Actively pursuing diversity in your team is one way to do this. There's no getting around the fact that the engineering profession is dominated massively by men. White men. In 2017, just 15 percent of the graduates were women, according to figures from Engineers Australia. Now diversity is another of the topics we explore in Reimagine STEM. So when you're finished here, do check that out as well. But it's not surprising that the field of social benefit engineering is one of just two approaching gender parity. And my field biomedical engineering is the other. That matters. Why?

[Sam] I think it also goes beyond just women. It hasn't been great at creating or attracting and retaining diversity. To us, that is essential because cognitive diversity is essential for developing the creative and novel solutions that we require when starting to engage with these wicked and complex problems like climate change or looking at the sustainable development goals as this incredibly complex and interrelated system. Again, if we go back to humans and putting humans at the centre, unless we are able to represent all of the humans in the room, we're going to struggle to develop appropriate solutions.

[Kiara] And can you just explain what you mean by wicked problems? Are these evil things?

[Sam] No, I don't see them as wicked from an evil perspective. Wicked in their complexity. They're wicked because they are just difficult to understand. They're difficult to understand what they are, let alone what the solutions to them might be. And I think the wicked is just a, an interesting framing. It's not intended to be a negative connotation, although a lot of the root causes behind a lot of these complex problems are grounded in the way we've developed as a society.

[Kiara] So let's say we do rethink engineering around social benefit. Is that mutually exclusive from for-profit engineering? Can something as exploitative as extractive mining say, be improved by considering it through this lens and how? Jeremy...

[Jeremy] I haven't done any work in extractive mining, so I'm being very careful how I kind of respond because I'm certainly not an expert in that. But I think conceptually we certainly could, certainly looking at, you know, traditional ownership rights, I'm looking at where those flows of money go looking, you know, requires you to look through the entire lifecycle. So what's the extraction look like? What are the resources being abstracted? How are they being used? What happens to them over their whole lifecycle? Looking at emissions and that's most kinds of environmental atmospheric emissions, but potentially water emissions and other waste emissions and mapping that out over a whole product lifecycle and started to look at, well, what are the negative consequences of those? Well, what are the positives gonna be? So how might that generate new economic livelihood or economic sustainability or economic independence through those various channels? How can you run, how can you do training and education programs around that as well? So building local skills and local capacity, not just kind of shipping in expertise, as required for short amounts of time. So I think it's certainly possible, but it just requires that kind of a much more holistic lifecycle systems view as well.

[Sam] I think there's a really interesting framing of how does the private sector create profit through being purposeful, and I believe that's increasingly possible. I also think there are a number of for-profit organisations that are realising that the self-perpetuation of profit to whatever end is not sustainable and that a reasonable amount of profit is required to support growth and innovation and research and understanding where these organizations need to position themselves for the future. But underpinning that needs to be a purposeful contribution to the broader society in which they are placed.

[Kiara] The elephant in the room for this episode is a big one for engineers. The climate crisis will affect everyone from developing countries to the developed world, and there will be an increasing need for our work. But should that be focused on geo-engineering?

[Jeremy Smith] I hope not, is my short answer. I hope we can get organised so that we don't need to start doing that. Again, that just comes back to the unintended consequences. I mean, as a complex systems that we can't model accurately at all, and to kind of start to introduce such a large intervention thinking through all those unintended consequences, we won't be able to do that. So the flip side of that, though, is if we don't get ourselves organised, some of the consequences of climate change are obviously incredibly serious. But I think my worry is starting to put efforts into geoengineering almost gives us that kind of safety blanket that we can then treat the symptom without really treating the underlying cause. And we do need to focus on the underlying cause, which as you are saying is coming back to some of that kind of, you know, just using resources because they're there and they've been given to us and let's keep doing that. So we really start addressing the underlying cause rather than keep addressing the symptoms.

[Kiara] The ‘Engineers Declare’ climate and biodiversity emergency statements are a powerful indicator of the new thinking that we are embracing and of which Engineers Without Borders was a signatory.

[Sam] I think we took a stand for the same reasons as everybody else, that we are dealing with an unprecedented situation that is incredibly complex in nature, that engineers have a role to play, and that's not something that I think can be questioned. There are a range of questions that sit within the emergency space because of its complexity. The reason we signed up was because we acknowledge that something needs to be done, that needs to be done now, and it's not something you can take on on your own. It's not something you can take on in silo. And so being a part of a movement, a collective, among other collectives of engineers who recognise the importance and the urgency of us as a sector to get together, to work out what role we need to play in mitigating the impending risks of climate change is, is essential. We have an obligation to do so as an organisation. I think there is a really interesting example of this where there was a nice gathering at the World Engineering Convention of those who had signed up to Engineers Declare and I think the photo that was taken around that will speak a thousand words as to the momentum that's developing around them. And as you sign up or look at the Engineers Declare website, there are more and more signatories.

[Kiara] So where is this leading? Cameron Tonkenwise points out that it won't be long, hard as it might be to imagine or to come to grips, with that the wicked problem of climate change is going to call on everything our profession has to offer. And for all sectors of our society. He reminds us that large proportions of most of our major cities, and indeed the wealthiest portions of the same, are likely to have to move. Our love of living on the coast is under threat.

[Cameron] It's not easy to kind of imagine that the very thing we've dwelt with, actually, not for very long, I mean, if you just take any kind of Indigenous dwelling on this continent, the extent to which we've had concreted cities right up to the coastline is quite recent. But for all the people currently sort of working and voting in this country who love to get a glimpse of the sea and love to live as close as possible, it's part of a certain type of Australian identity. Certainly not everybody's one. And I think it's always important, remember that the actual people who are going to bear the brunt of a rising tide are the wealthiest people in Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane. And everybody else doesn't actually live right on the coast. But a lot of our major businesses, a lot of our major CEOs of those businesses, definitely live in a region that is going to be subject to some kind of relocation or some kind of large scale Dutch dike system to kind of protect us. And it's always alarmist to talk like this. But I think it's important to contemplate that within 50 years we need really major either construction activity or incredible amounts of relocation. Now, I think one of the things that does sort of point to just how challenging this is, is that if you said to ANU, okay, we have to move cities. We basically have to move half the population of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and we have to move them inland. What discipline could answer that question? So engineers hopefully could imagine the kind of logistics, like just how many bits of things are going to need to be moved and people. I'm not sure sociology or political theory would know how to convince people of that. I'm not sure that a whole bunch of other disciplines would understand the consequences of that.

[Kiara] So where to from here? Cameron has a radical, almost counter-engineering answer to the big picture issues, and in a sense this will take all the cunning engineers have to design solutions to make us slow down enough to re-engage and find value, rather than adding complexity and speeding us through life. To answer the problem of what do we need in the future? Less, we need more of less.

[Cameron] So we really need urgent change and we need urgent change in which we massively reduce our energy footprints and massively reduce our materials footprints. So we definitely need to be using less and that to some extent means doing less. And one way to do less is to take longer to do it. So generally, if the world were slower and more local, then we would make much bigger gains with respect to climate change than we would with any predictions about new technologies that might enable us to be more efficient. So the odd thing is that slowing down and being local and doing less would allow us to move faster to the conditions we need to get to. But now you're in this paradox that we need to very quickly slow down and we need to, on a global scale, become local. So this is a paradox and it's a real danger, because I think a lot of people now will have an engineering mindset about climate change and say we need planetary moonshot scale, massive types of technological infrastructure to re-engineer the Anthropocene so that we can handle carbon in our atmosphere, etc. So this is a great time to be an old-school engineer, but I think that's a completely wrong-headed way of responding to the kind of crisis we're in.

 [Kiara] So taking this further, can the economic systems we operate within genuinely value and support this work? Can capitalism specifically ever really support people, businesses, institutions?

 [Cameron] No, no, no, no. It definitely can't. So the problem is capitalism. The problem is corporate capitalism. The problem is getting our identities from feeling like we have a profession as a worker in a corporation that is serving the increase in shareholder value, which is capitalist accumulation by some, and not by all. So not it's structurally impossible. The good news is we don't actually live in capitalism. So this is an argument that's been made by Katherine Gibson Graham, feminist post-capitalist theorist, currently the Western Sydney University and numerous of her colleagues out there. And we actually just did a research project together recently called Cooling the Commons, in which we looked at shared approaches to cooling off on hot days rather than retreating to private air conditioning. Her argument is that, it's the same argument I made before about the slow, if you were to do a time budget analysis of your life right now, you spend very little of it formally engaged in kind of retail capitalism, in paying somebody literally for a good. You probably spend many hours working, but even in that work, a large number of those hours you're doing labour which isn't directly in your job description. It's emotional labour. It's a whole bunch of other kind of making the organisation work and keeping it together. It's culture building. It's innovating in ways that you're not necessarily paid to do, but you do it because it gives you purpose and meaning. So if you just considered all this, if you considered anytime you've ever done that neighbour a favour, if you've done, you know, the whole of kind of women raising children and domestic duties under unpaid regimes. If you look at soccer on the weekend, if you look at all these things right now, you know, volunteer firemen going out dealing with negligence around climate change, all these people are engaged in activities that don't fit within the conventional ‘It's the economy, stupid’ version of capitalism. So we are already dwelling in a whole bunch of mixed economies, a whole bunch of socially-embedded economies, a whole bunch of gift economies, bartering systems, exchanges that don't have quantified value. If I go round to your house for dinner, I would feel obligated to have you round at my house for dinner, but I would not calculate how much you spent on that dinner and make sure that I only spent exactly the same amount. Or in fact, a little bit more so that you then owe me back again. We don't dwell like that. So capitalism sort of been successful in convincing us it's the only thing, but it's actually not been successful in being the only thing. So we already have post-capitalist futures in amongst us right now, and it's a matter of attending to them and valuing them. It's a matter of drawing attention to them.

[Kiara] Jeremy's answer to the future of our discipline is to get skilled, talented and most of all socially-aware students before they even make it to university and ensure they're coming to engineering for the right reasons.

 [Jeremy Smith] So going back into the schools and it is starting to change. And there's some great teachers that we've worked with who view engineering in a lot of the programs in different ways, but kind of going back into school and if the broad advice is you're good at maths, therefore do engineering, you know, we need to start shifting the message at that point as well. So one question we would encourage our students and our practitioners to always ask is, you know, should I be here doing this work? Could someone else be doing this work? So a local member of a community or an individual if you're working overseas, for example? Asking yourself, is this piece of engineering technology going to disrupt some of their traditional values or traditional knowledge systems that have been in place for a long time? And is that really what I should be doing or not? So really kind of making sure that we are very cognizant and always asking ourselves those kinds of bigger questions, you know, should I be here? Is this the right thing to be doing?

[Sam] The way I would summarise it is recognise that the soft skills that we've previously referred to are core. And those core skills are not only essential for engineers emerging into the future of our workforce, but they’re core for engineers to be able to apply themselves in complex environments, whether that be complex environments around tackling the likes of climate change or working with communities in the Asia-Pacific.

[Andre] I'm a Whitefella in this organization, too, and that's really important not to come in as the expert from outside, and I think that goes to the heart of that word play around appropriate technology that CfAT often plays with it, which is, is it appropriate technology as a noun, since going what is appropriate technology, or is about assisting communities to appropriate technology for their own ends, to grab and steal it from our culture and reverse that cultural appropriation that's always been going on, you know? These technologies from the wider world. Let's sit down, have a yarn with you and you can figure out ‘hey, that one works, that one works,’ rather than ‘we've got the solution for you.’ We've got a bunch of things, got toys. Well, it's gonna work for you. What's going to help me?

[Kiara] And that's all for this episode. But wait, there's more on our website and our show notes, where all of our guests’ details, as well as complete interviews can be found. So you can hear more about Florence, robotics and languages, provocations around share economies and educational approaches to these big picture ideas.

[Kiara] So get back to Reimagine STEM and dip into a bunch of engineering and computer science treasures and of course, share them with your friends. This podcast is a resource that won't run out no matter how many people listen. Thanks to the team executive producers Maya Havilland and Dan Etheridge, writer and producer Gretchen Miller, and sound engineer Nick McCorriston. I'm Kiara Bruggeman. We'll see you next time.


03: From diversity STEMs brilliance

Want an innovative, dynamic workplace? Diversify! Imagination shapes experience – lack of diversity means that we’re not imagining, nor engineering, a future that includes everybody. And how can we, when engineering and computer science employees don’t reflect the diversity of the societies we live in? Systemic barriers, stereotypes that repel, feeling excluded. Our guests explore the barriers to women and other diverse groups entering and remaining in STEM; why this means everyone misses out; and how we can diversify our way to a brilliant future.

Show notes: From diversity STEMs brilliance

Want an innovative, dynamic workplace? Diversify! Imagination shapes experience – lack of diversity means that we’re not imagining, nor engineering, a future that includes everybody. And how can we, when engineering and computer science employees don’t reflect the diversity of the societies we live in? Systemic barriers, stereotypes that repel, feeling excluded. Our guests explore the barriers to women and other diverse groups entering and remaining in STEM; why this means everyone misses out; and how we can diversify our way to a brilliant future.



Cathy Ayres is the Senior Project Officer – Diversity & Inclusion at the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science. She describes the barriers such as time, mobility and stereotypes that stop the demographic make-up of engineering and computer science disciplines reflecting the society they exist in.

CC (Celeste Carnegie) is a Birrigubba South Sea Islander woman and program producer at Geek Girls Academy, among other talents. She explains the barriers that come with isolation and the need to change that. She argues that we shouldn’t burden women and other diverse groups with doing all the hard, often unrecognised and unrecompensed, work to make these changes happen.

Elanor Huntington is Dean of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science. She encourages women and other diverse groups to bring their whole selves to the workplace, and to question if what you are being asked to do serves you: “Do you have the time? Are you learning anything? Say, strategically, yes or no.”

Francesca Maclean is a Senior Consultant at Arup, public speaker and co-founder of fifty/50. She speaks of the social justice case for diversity and questions how engineers can lift their game. 

Emily Gentilini is a Graduate Engineer at Arup. Together with Francesca, she founded the student organisation Fifty/50 at ANU, which works to promote gender equity in STEM. Using a range of activities, mentorship programs and advocating for policy change, their organisation is making STEM more inclusive for all students.

Euan Lindsay is the Director of Engineering at Charles Sturt University. He describes how people want to help, but often don’t do it well. If in doubt, ask!


Further reading


Music credits

Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Full episode transcript

From diversity STEMs brilliance

[CC] The only encouragement I think I did receive was from my own mother saying that if you want to do it, go do it. Basically that was it, because I'm a First Nations black woman in tech and there's not many of us. So I've just basically been making it up this entire time.

[Elanor] Until such time as we can actually work out ways where it's not just male, pale, stale, urban and middle class, we're never really going to address all of those issues. And that's partly about talking about what happens after university and getting out of the way of people's field of view instead of just saying, ‘hey, come to university’. It's about what your life will be like after that. And also just clearing away the practical barriers which are largely insurmountable unless you happen to be male, pale, stale, urban and middle class.

[Kiara] There's no getting around the fact that engineering is a male-dominated discipline, but you might be shocked to hear that over the past decade, so many of the bare statistics of gender balance haven't improved. The numbers have stagnated and they're remaining low. Hello, and this is Reimagine STEM, the podcast of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science. It was recorded in 2019 at the CoDesign Culture Lab on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Land, to whose Elders past, present and emerging we pay our respects. Our goal is to explore the key themes and big ideas for our collective STEM futures.

I'm Kiara Bruggeman. I'm a biomedical engineer and in today's episode we're dipping into a big and ongoing conversation with some powerful and determined women in STEM. Oh, and one proactive bloke. They're all taking a good, hard look at where some of the valiant efforts to redress the imbalance are going wrong and some ideas about what to do to improve things and increase the understanding of why this issue is important for our field, and not just for PR.

[Francesca] I think for me, I've made the decision that as long as I'm in STEM, I can't not do anything about it. It's just plain wrong where we are right now. And we've continued to do that because not enough people have stood up and said, ‘hey, this is not right, we need to fix this.’ The people that have, they've since left. I think also our industry needs to do a little bit of self-reflection about why maybe a lot of women are leaving as well.

[Kiara] Now, women can be a sort of canary in the coal mine here, an indicator for diversity in general. If our discipline isn't attracting and keeping women, we're certainly not attracting and keeping other diverse groups that we really do need. I'll hit you with the stats shortly. But though the numbers are really quite bad, our guests are positive about why this matters and what we need to do next to fix things up. Let's meet the talent. First of all, sociologist Cathy Ayres:

[Cathy] Thank you very much for having me Kiara, I'm the diversity and inclusion officer at the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.

[CC] So, hey, I'm CC

[Kiara] That’s Celeste Carnegie.

[CC] I'm a Birrigubba South Sea Islander woman from Far North Queensland. And I live on Gadigal Country in Sydney. And I've been there for five years now. I'm in the tech space, I've been there for about three years. And I'm really passionate about digital technologies in our communities with First Nations women and young people, but also capability building.

[Elanor] My name is Elanor Huntington, I’m the Dean of the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.

[Euan] Hi, I'm Euan Lindsay. I'm the foundation Professor of engineering at Charles Sturt University and the Head of School there at CSU engineering. And I think it's absolutely mad that our profession doesn't represent the society we serve. And the sooner we get rid of the barriers that keep women out, the better.

[Francesca] Hi, I'm Francesca Maclean and I'm a senior consultant at Arup.

[Emily] Hi, I'm Emily Gentilini and I'm a graduate engineer at Arup.

[Kiara] Emily and Francesca founded Fifty/50 at ANU, striving to close the gender gap in STEM in a number of ways.

So, ok, let's take a look at the stats. Engineers Australia tells us that in the 10 years up to 2016, the good news was that the number of qualified women in engineering doubled to 45,000. But as a proportion of the workforce, the increase only improved by three points to just under 14 per cent. So not exactly stellar. And, in large part, that growth was through skilled migration. These are just the women who qualified as engineers. In terms of actually taking that education and going on to employment, less than nine per cent of engineers are Australian-born women. A truly dispiriting figure. They're doing the degree and then they're leaving. Elanor Huntington:

[Elanor] If you go into the professions in the UK, young women drop out of being a professional engineer in their first two years at twice the rate as young men. And if you look at some of the surveys that they've done in the UK in particular, then it's usually young women and people who are not white, who have higher percentage of reportage of not getting good career opportunities, not being taken seriously, that sort of stuff. So that's not about structural impediments anymore, that's about cultural and climate issues. And so that's one of the things that a lot of companies and a lot of universities are now starting to turn their attention to, because they have finally worked out that going hard to recruit a more diverse cohort and then creating an environment where they just leave really quickly is not such a great idea. And so we've got some really, really energetic student groups here at the university who have been doing some amazing things. So the Fifty/50 group is one specific example where they run mentoring programs, and the more you can get to peer mentoring, the better it is.

[Cathy] So we might say, why aren't women entering engineering at higher rates? Or a really crucial question that we can ask is why are they leaving? And there's multiple different ways you can answer that.

[Euan] What I find is that the young women who would make great engineers will also make great physiotherapists. They will make great veterinary scientists. They can do whatever they turn their minds to. And so they make a rational choice that if the way an engineering degree is sold to them is to become an engineer is to lose this identity you have now, is to overwrite it with a technocrat maths nerd identity, not to expand it and supplement it with an engineer identity, then they're not going to risk that overwriting. They're going to take it to another profession where they can say, ‘I can still be a woman and a physiotherapist, whereas I have to become a middle-aged white guy with a beard if I want to be an engineer’.

[Cathy] I feel sad about it. I do. I feel like there's this wealth of lived experience in this wealth of creativity that is either not invited into that fold in the first place or if we're being honest, get squeezed out of that fold. And I think that is to the downfall of everybody, right. It's not just, oh that's sad for those women because they now have to find another profession. It's sad because none of us benefit from that enormous creative potential that comes through. And not not just women, you know, we can talk about this sort of generally as an element of diversity. We all move through the world differently and we all think about things differently. And I see the great thing about engineering and computing is you're building technology for people and for societies. And if you don't have everyone involved in those really sort of primary discussions about design or research directions, then you're not actually doing your job in terms of developing tech that will help [make that] possible.

[Francesca] Look, you can start off with the social justice case of like: I'm sorry, we’re 51 per cent of the population, it is ridiculous that only 12 per cent of professional engineers are women. And if you think that, then we move to the business case of we all know by now that more diverse teams are better at problem solving, creativity, innovation, so it also makes good business sense. I think we also then need to look at the broader social context of the gender pay gap in Australia. We're looking at that women over 55 are the fastest growing homeless population because, that women retire with 40 per cent less superannuation than men. If we are excluding women from a profession that is typically higher paying and has a lot of potential for growth in the future, we’re just going to be exacerbating the social issues that we see now.

[Kiara] It's important to consider and communicate why women and other diverse groups must become a ubiquitous part of STEM workplaces. We as engineers are used to focussing in intense detail on small aspects of a problem and finding an absolute ideal solution. So in big picture thinking, what's wrong with that ‘may the best man win approach’? Cathy Ayres:

[Cathy] Yes, so this is the meritocracy argument, right. And this is what you come up against. You might be having a conversation with someone and the idea of, say, a women's only job for a lecturer gets advertised and a reaction to that might be, ‘oh but you want the best person in the job’. And so there's a few assumptions in that response, the first being the best person in that job couldn't possibly be a woman, right. So underlying these kind of banal-sounding responses that people have to these ideas is actually these really ingrained assumptions about what merit looks like. And because of the history of academia, merit has been modelled on the people who have kind of built it up, right. So it's predominantly geared towards people who have a lot of time, a lot of flexibility, a lot of mobility. So increasingly, there's an expectation to get in to academia that you will have moved around a lot. So the pathway as you might do your PhD at ANU and then you have to go overseas for a postdoc in order to get an ongoing position. That's a really familiar story for people. Well, what happens if you've got two school-aged kids or what happens if you've got aging parents who you really need to care for? And men do that caring work, but predominantly we know that that falls to women. There's a lot of research out there saying that. And those are really big challenges that the industry is increasingly not compatible with a lot of people's lives, but the people whose lives it is compatible with tend to be men, basically.

[Kiara] Being a little bit of a devil's advocate, there are some areas of engineering that do attract more women. So would it be maybe easiest, most efficient to just use those to counterbalance the other areas?

[Cathy] No. Case closed.

[Kiara] Ok!

[Cathy] It's an interesting point that there are more women represented in particular fields. So half of biomedical engineers are women in Australia – go Kiara and your ilk! 25 per cent of mining and chemical engineers are women. Okay, that's all right. 15.4 per cent of civil engineers. Okay, that's getting pretty bad. And then less than 10 per cent of graduates in aerospace, electrical and electronic and mechanical engineering are women. So those numbers a really, really varied. But you have to think about the size of those branches, too. So the largest of those, which is civil engineering, has one of the lower figures. So, no, mathematically it doesn't balance out, but also sort of ethically, it doesn't balance out. If I'm a woman and I'm really interested in becoming an aerospace engineer and someone says, ‘well there's more ladies in biochemical, so you should go into that, or biomedical, you should go into that’. You know, what message does that send? Not fantastic.

[Kiara] So looking at these other fields, where is the problem? Why aren't there more women in engineering and computer science?

[Cathy] I mean, there is so many theories. So there's reputation. I think reputation is a big one, but not the only. So there's a lot of articles around talking about how engineering is not a welcoming workplace for women. And it's great that that conversation is happening, but you can think, you know, imagine you're a 17 year old and you're interested in it, and then you hearing all this messaging that, you know, it's maybe not going to be the happiest place for me, that might make you re-evaluate your decisions. From a sort of social- scientific point of view too, there a major gender stereotypes that are really playing into this.

[Kiara] Let's drill a little deeper. What are the practical outcomes when we don't have enough diversity in our disciplines?

[Cathy] So here's a classic example. So I said I used to live in Melbourne and so I used to catch a lot of trains and a lot of trams. And on a lot of those trains and trams, the only hand-hold that's available to you is designed for like a 6 foot 1 tall person. And I am not 6 foot 1. I'm in fact, very much shorter than that. So you'll be on that train and you can see it happening, you can. I encourage everyone to have a look. Much, much higher proportion of men are able to reach handholds, steady themselves, be safer in that environment. And you kind of think, well, that's a fairly big design flaw when half the population riding these death traps made of metal can't steady themselves. It's, that's one really small example where I feel like maybe having a little bit more female input or maybe even just the acknowledgement that there's really different bodies in the world and they have different requirements. And there's some really great research on this in what we call the mobilities field in sociology is how differently men and women travel, how differently they use public transport. So a lot of women being sort of primary caretakers in the family or in the home have lots more errands to run. So a lot of public transport journeys are set up with an end-to-end journey in mind. So I'm going from work to home. And then the apps that you use are telling you how to do that in the fastest, most efficient way, right. But what if you have to go from work, pick up the groceries, drop off some documents at the doctor's and go pick your child up at school and then get home? It's a really different story. And that does affect women much, much more because they do tend to take on more of that sort of care.

[Elanor] So one of the most interesting things to think about is imagination, and the idea that when you want to imagine a world. Imagine the world that you want to live in, the world that you want to create. Then your imagination is shaped by your personal experiences, your perspective, your viewpoint, the influences that you've had. And I'll be honest, the world that we live in at the moment has been imagined by a very particular collection of people over the last 20 to 120 years. And I'm not entirely convinced that that is a direction of travel that we wish to continue. And so if we are, engineers and computer scientists these days in particular, are responsible for making a lot of the world that we live in and are going to continue to do so for quite some time. So if these are the people who are imagining the world that we're all going to live in, then we need a much more diverse range of imaginations and a much different group of people thinking about what that's going to look like and then having the skills necessary to actually bring it about.

[Kiara] It goes without saying that technical roles must be as accessible to women as to men. But there should also be many avenues into STEM. You don't have to be a practising engineer or computer scientist. There are many research, creative support, education, advocacy and liaison roles available. If STEM opens its doors to other disciplines as a matter of course, then specialisms could develop in social science, design or anthropology to name a few. But listening to women like STEM communicator and facilitator Celeste Carnegie helps demonstrate how far away our discipline is from addressing fundamental accessibility, and being open to any kind of difference.

[CC] As a kid, it was always just about being my mother's in-house IT officer. It also was always my job to make sure things worked or to play around with things and to hack at things that if Mum bought home a new appliance or DVD player or whatever it may have been. I was always the one putting it together and that was just as a little kid. So she just used to let me go. But she brought home a couple of digital literacy CDs one day and we had a little computer. So I plugged it in was all just really fun, cool ways of learning, in ways that I didn't really do well at school in learning, especially with maths. That was my one subject which I hated. So, you know, when she brought home these CDs and they have these different colours, all these different games, but I was still doing maths. That was fun. That's where I think it started. But also, you know, my father was a real sci-fi nerd. From Star Trek, Stargate, Star Wars, you know, he loved all of them. So it was a lot of just fantasy and imagination.

[Kiara] Celeste found her own way fiddling around with this and that. And when no pathway to tech became clear, she became a competitive netball player during her 20s. But the desire to engage with tech never went away.

[CC] The only encouragement I think I did receive was from my own mother saying that if you want to do it, go do it. I'm a First Nations black woman in tech and there's not many of us. And so I actually haven't had any mentors or any role models coming through this career pathway for myself. So I've just basically been making it up this entire time.

[Kiara] Then Celeste took up an opportunity to join the pilot program for a Bachelor of Technology and Innovation degree.

[CC] So I thought it'd be cool. I was a part of the first cohort, which was really interesting. It was like a very small class. It was like 30 of us at most, so it was an experience. I did learn a lot from that degree, but almost in a ‘not-what-to-do’ sort of way.

So I ended up withdrawing from the course. I didn't finish it. And that was mostly because I, I just felt so isolated. And because it was a pilot degree, I thought that it would be a chance to teach a curriculum that could really change people's perspectives. But I just came to realise that innovation means quite a lot of things to different people. And that's not always one that's shared in, or it's a lot of non-innovative people preaching innovation, which doesn't work.

[Kiara] How many girls were in this program? Out of the whole class?

[CC] It was like five of us out of out of the whole class, out of the 30. So it's just me, five other girls and all these white guys. It was just really interesting to see what they decided to teach and how they decided to teach it. One class we had was on empathy was interesting because they had this fella come in and he had been working in impoverished communities in India and he came in to speak about what empathy meant. And I was just sitting there like: well, youse have to learn about empathy and what this means? And especially because they were teaching it in a workplace context. And I was like, well, if that doesn't translate over into your personal life, then that doesn't mean a thing. Having me, this First Nations woman do this empathy workshop, I just felt so weirded out by it because I was born empathetic. I was born into a position where I have to empathise with a whole lot of people at the same time. So you do actually need to learn about empathy. You actually do, considering, you know, the climate within our country and globally. This is something you do actually have to learn. And I was like, I can't justify the debt and be here with you to learn it because I don't actually have to.

[Kiara] Francesca Maclean also struggled feeling like an outsider who just didn't fit in.

[Francesca] My experience was really different because I moved to ANU at 17, from Darwin. So just even that cultural shift moving from Darwin to Canberra. I think that was something I just did not even consider it would be an issue. I think it was part of my naivety, but also I think really reflective of the different worlds that exist. So I really struggled and I thought for about three years that the reason why I didn't fit in and wasn't really having a good time was because I was from Darwin and I had slang words that no one understood and so I had to stop saying them. I actually really had to change how I was. And then I sort of clicked that ‘oh yeah, I'm from Darwin, but I'm also a woman from Darwin’. Then it sort of, that all started to make sense. The reason why I was in tutorials and labs and I couldn't really get help from anyone because no one would look me in the eye, like pretty basic things like that. To being told that I only got an HD on an assignment because the lecturer felt sorry for me because I was a woman and the lecturer was a woman. And I think that characterises what we call was death by a thousand cuts.

[Kiara] When you talk about it now, looking back, it's obvious you also think it is horrible. Did you feel that way at the time? You aware then this is wrong or is it only kind of in hindsight?

[Francesca] I think death by a thousand cuts is normalised for women in STEM, and I think that's something that I'd really like us to start challenging. We accept it as, ‘oh, of course that's going to happen, of course people are going to doubt your abilities and credit it to your gender, or discredited because of your gender’. It wasn't until, you know, I was waiting for a lab experiment in my PhD and I was on a blog and I started reading about merit and metrics and how that plays out in academia and how it's really gendered. And then it sort of, the glass shattered for me.

[Kiara] So many factors go into keeping women away from engineering and computer science. Some would appear to be minor, but put them together, you start to see a frustrating roadmap, including the one way systems, the blockages, the about turns.

For example, Euan Lindsay talks about one woman student with a lecturer who started every class with:

[Euan] ‘Lady and gentleman’ because she was the only woman in the class. And he honestly thought he was doing the right thing by being polite. But in fact, he commenced it with an attendance check on her, because if she wasn't there, he just went, ‘Oh, gentlemen’. And so if there's one of you, you do that, if you're half and half, you don't even, ‘ladies and gentlemen, good morning’. You don't think to single them out. Now there's a power dynamic question of how do you not call it out? Why did all of the men in the room go: ‘we know it upsets her. Let's not say anything’. So I think there's a slow sort of, that glacial progression of people want to help. They believe this is the right answer. I don't know any colleagues going ‘geez, we really gotta get rid of these women, they’re spoiling it. Let's get rid of them’. They don't necessarily conceptualise it in a way that will be effective. They want to help. They don't want to be part of the problem. In a more broader sense, you don't always get to be the one pushed out the front of the cameras, so it looks like we have women in the program. You don't get to be the woman who has to be on the selection committee because we need gender balance, like those duties can be distributed. And so that otherness that can be such a push to push people away, can repel them out of the profession, even if they would make great engineers. And by and large, they do, because the ones that survive all of this repulsion are the ones who are going to be excellent, the ones who would make good engineers have other options and go elsewhere.

[Kiara] So we have the statistics, but do we know what's going on to drive them? Cathy Ayres:

[Cathy] What we really need to be working on is paying attention to the qualitative. So when someone leaves this industry, we should be asking them why. We should be saying: ‘what's your experience been? What is it exactly that has motivated you to leave?’ And it could be pull factors. It could be a fantastic opportunity and something else they're interested [in]. But a lot of the time it's not. A lot of the time it's push factors. That means that we're losing a great deal of potential in this industry.

[Euan] There's broader things that are much more nebulous to count. Like, would I let my daughter study here? That's a much harder kind of question to ask. And I think those are the pieces, that you've got to have that qualitative piece around the culture as well as just the numbers, because there are things you can do to gain the numbers.

[Kiara] So these issues are not new. They've been around for a while and a lot of good, great women engineers and computer sciences have been calling them out. Is the reason we're not seeing change down to, as you mentioned, that lecturer who was never told that what he was doing was not helping? Are we not calling it out enough? Why aren't we seeing the progress we want to see?

[Euan] Well, one of the things that I do note is people keep starting things, and I'm not sure that works. I'm probably going to scorch a lot of bridges here, but there are something like 170 different ‘girls in STEM’ programs that get funding from the Federal Government. And I do wonder if it is that hit-and-run, small-impact, ‘I inspired that girl to become a young woman in engineering, I've moved her needle’. Rather than a systemic question around how do we keep young women on the tightrope to choose the subjects in Year 9 that will take them, where they haven't already fallen off the tightrope when they realise they should become engineers?

[CC] Because people don't wanna give up power. Don't give up the power. The thing is, is that the older I've gotten and the more experience I've had in the tech industry, the more I realise just how much white men claim the space. And they claim the space because they think they own it. And historically, that's something white men have been doing for hundreds and hundreds of years. So I think we as a tech community aren't addressing it. Or we are, but it's very surface level. And that’s when you hear people start throwing out diversity and inclusive, you know, throwing around those types of terms, but no one actually wants to act upon it. I read a newspaper article the other day, might have been the Sydney Morning Herald, I can't remember where it was, but just caught my eye because it was talking about inclusion fatigue.

[Kiara] Oh, and what's that?

[CC] I know. I was like, what? And basically what they're saying is that people are starting to get inclusion fatigue because they're making attempts at becoming more inclusive and diverse, but they're failing at it and then they getting tired. So what that told me was, wait, having to include others is making you fatigued, you're getting fatigued over that, including me is tiring you? That was just a real, that was a real hard article to read because I was like, wow. But I think that when it comes to those types of things, everything should be for us and by us. Everything should be Indigenous-led. And it’s not non-Indigenous people can't help, but it really should just be on the back end.

[Kiara] Ownership is important.

[CC] It's very important, especially when you consider our cultural knowledge and our intellectual property.

[Kiara] Apart from having programs led by women and those from diverse communities, when we're looking for role models for potential solutions, where should we turn? Actually, Engineers Australia points out that the overall figures in Australia are elevated because women make up a higher proportion of the intake of international students.

[Cathy] What I've heard from our female Sri Lankan students is one of the big elements of culture shock that they experience here is that it's really male dominated. In one of our major source universities, their computer science graduates are about on par in terms of gender. So I don't know, I think we should probably ask some of those students, what they what they think is happening, that sort of addressing the problem. Looking at the differences between engineering and computer science in Australia vs. a country like Sri Lanka, that's precisely the work that sociologists do.

[Francesa] So I was actually in Jakarta last year working with the embassy on exactly this women in STEM issue and they quite happily raised that I think Indonesia has a lot more women studying in STEM than Australia does, so our ambassador was a little bit sheepish at the time. I think it's really interesting and there are some studies that do show that in, I guess what people would consider more progressive cultures, women actually don't participate in STEM as highly as cultures that we might consider as not as progressive.

[Kiara] There is clearly more to discover in this arena now. Emily Gentilini and Francesca Maclean founded Fifty/50 at ANU in 2015. It's a student-led organisation promoting gender equity in STEM and part of their offering is a career development program.

[Emily] So we recognised that later in the degree, the focus is a little bit different. Maybe you've established some networks, maybe you still haven't. And that you were really trying to understand what's next: what does an engineering graduate do? What are the skills I need? And so we formulated a program that was partly mentorship-based, but really skill development based and again, all genders, although of course we got more women than men. And we partnered a lot with industry for that, too, which was really fantastic to get them in and run those workshops and also over a long period of time. So not just a one-off workshop, but a whole program designed with the gender lens, but maybe a bit of a sneaky gender lens, do it underneath, so that we could get people engaged. And we saw that a lot of people engaged with us through that, that wouldn't have engaged in a gender thing otherwise. And that was, I think, quite critical to our success, as was the cultural audit that we initiated in the College. So that was where we got some external consultants in to actually do a formal assessment of the culture within the College. And that's been really important for creating those more systemic changes, getting staff in the College whose job it is to worry about that sort of thing and really highlighting what the issues that needed to be addressed were to me.

[Elanor] So for me, one of the things that I've been consciously working on this year has been acknowledging my privilege as well. So I'm intersectional, but I'm intersectional both in terms of disadvantage and advantage. And so for me, it’s acknowledging my privilege and then using it as a voice for all the people without attempting to silence their voices, as well as an interesting new journey for me. And I’ll say that I've had the privilege of working in the last couple of years with a bunch of remarkable men who do genuinely want to make this a better place. And not just our university, not just our part of our university, but actually society writ large. And that's a remarkable privilege. And to see them stepping up and really advocating for a range of issues while not minimising themselves, has been a genuine joy. One of the most interesting things that I'm working on at the moment is saying, okay, well, this isn't just about getting more women, it's actually about getting the kind of men that women will want to work with as well.

[Kiara] And advice for young women engineers, don't let yourself be railroaded into being the note taker, the event planner, the general organiser, just because your male counterparts can't manage those tasks as well. Be strategic in when you say yes. And more importantly, when to say no. Euan Lindsay has a straightforward and practical way of circumventing this in the classroom, with a policy of ensuring that all student groups contain more than one woman.

[Euan] That's a secret, and my student engineers aren't supposed to know. But anyway, stop listening now, guys. Well done. It comes down to that, within a microcosm, our student engineers at Charles Sturt work in teams of four on the challenges they do face-to-face. And so if you have two women and two men, you have that parity. They're not the women, they're just colleagues. Whereas if there's one woman, she's the woman. The reality is, we over-support them as a preventative measure, but a stereotype, because it is so common that she's the one who takes the notes. She's the one who moves into that managerial role, and the men see it as their role to solve the equations. And partly that's because, they're comfortable doing that. She's also comfortable solving the equations, because she's also good at mathematics, but she's the only one actually comfortable writing the notes. So when you're deciding who does what, as the only person for whom this isn't a major hardship. This is a massive stereotype, but if it happens so often that it's correlation not causal, but it's functionally causal. And so when we have so few women in our profession, why would you take the risk? If you have an all-male team, that's fine, next session we’ll shuffle you up and you've got two women in your team. And so your experience is then with women who aren't carrying the baggage of being the woman. Your experience is just with good technical engineers, who, there's not enough design to isolate two partners out of it, so it gets spread around. And so they're able to establish an identity other than ‘the woman’. They're able to establish idea of being a student engineer, who also happens to be a woman. Then when you mix the teams up and they move forwards, means they've got that technical credibility. They haven't been pigeonholed because they've been expected to do everything that the other colleagues are supposed to do.

[Elanor] I've learnt to be strategic and I've learnt to say no. And the thing that has guided that decision making for me is, do I think I've got enough time and enough skills to be able to do the job okay, and also am I still learning something? So as a woman in engineering, I'm used to it. I spent most of my career being the only woman in the department. Often the only woman in the room. And even in the olden days when I was relatively young, selection committees and promotion committees always needed at least some gender representation. So I got put on a whole bunch of appointment committees and promotion committees very early on in my career. I consider that an opportunity. I learned a lot about what people are looking for in these processes and I also learned a lot about how you go about making good hires. And I also learned a lot about where the university was going. And it was only after I had stopped learning because I had done it so much, that I started saying no to those things. And I've learnt over the years to get better at being clear about what would actually make it work and be successful. And these days, the more senior I am, I'm also very conscious about trying to pass on what I consider to be opportunities to people and give a little bit of coaching about whether or not I think it's genuinely an opportunity or whether I think it's just yet another piece of work that needs to be done to keep the machinery going.

[Kiara] This is the one that always buzzes around my mind whenever I see you out and about doing all sorts of stuff, very active. How do you pursue a career of being, you know, ‘I want to go be a woman in STEM, I want to be a successful one, as I am assuming I have the skills and everything required’, just achieving the balance of not giving up the woman part of being a woman in STEM. I find so many of my interests outside of work don't mesh very well with my role as an engineer. And I love STEM, I do, but I also love all these other things. And it seems like you'd have to give all of yourself to being a Dean.

[Elanor] Yeah, good question. There's actually two parts to that, right? There's one of which, which is being your whole self and bringing your whole self to your work environment. And the other is, how do you find enough time and energy to actually make sure that you understand your whole self and can fully inhabit that? They’re two slightly different things, so one of which is about an inclusive environment where you can actually bring your whole self to your workplace. So to, to depersonalise it for a second, there is research that says that people who work in a particular workplace and who are consciously and obviously and visibly a minority usually make one of two choices. They either choose to dress and behave in a manner that allows them to fit in and try to be a little bit invisible, or they just lean into it and say, ‘right, I'm different, I'm not going to be able to kid anyone about that, so I'm just gonna lean completely into it’. In that context I have always assumed, and I've been told many times that I'm wrong about this, but I've always assumed that I just tend to blend into the background anyway. And so I have for years chosen to dress in a particular manner that I consider to be blending into the background and just kind of inhabit that. I have discovered that it doesn't matter what I do, I seem not to be able to do that, so whatever. I have over the years been more more comfortable about just, in being me at work. There are, of course, boundaries. And particularly the more senior you get, the more you've got to keep some part of yourself to yourself. Over the years, I've had surges and troughs of how much time I actually spend working in terms of, you know, people talk about work life balance or whatever you want to call it. And at the moment, I'm spending more time working than I have ever before. But that peaks and troughs. The other thing that I've learnt over the years is that as I've taken on different jobs, the way that I work and the way that I manage my time, and the way that I manage my own physical and mental health has had to adapt over the years. And like I said, that four-year window when I was a Head of School was genuinely transformative to me and I'm not the same person that I was at the start of that. And that's okay. Life is a journey. You just adapt as you go. And I'm actually quite happy with the person I am now compared to the person I was then. I don't dislike the person I was then, I'm just different.

[Kiara] Alongside individual considerations and community support structures, many departments are having a good long look at themselves to see why it is that women like Celeste Carnegie are not being found and brought into the fold. Elanor Huntington:

[Elanor] If you look at the demography of people who end up going into our types of degrees and professions, people often talk about male, pale, and stale. But actually we're also incredibly urban and incredibly middle class. We just are. And there's a range of really interesting reasons for that, some of which are historic and actually relatively recent. So just talking about gender, it's the first and that's the most obvious one, and it's one that is incredibly visible. And people have been working on it and talking about it for quite some time. And we've gently drifted upwards, but not exactly shifted the needle. But there are a whole bunch of other reasons and dimensions as well. So as you say, there's people who come from regional or remote backgrounds. There are people who come from a socially disadvantaged backgrounds. In Australia, of course, we need to be talking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation. And there are, of course, a huge range of people who come, whose families were our first generation immigrants to Australia as well. And until such time as we can actually work out ways where it's not just male, pale, stale, urban and middle class, we're never really going to address all of those issues. And that's partly about talking about what happens after university and getting out of the way of people's field of view. Instead of just saying, ‘hey, come to university’, it's about what your life will be like after that. And also just clearing away the practical barriers, which are large and insurmountable unless you happen to be male, pale, stale, urban and middle class.

[CC] This is what people in this industry need to understand, is that we as First Nations people have a lot going on. We have so much going on in our communities, so that when things are shoved in our face or when people are telling us what we need to do and how to do it, it's frustrating because there's so many layers that we have to smash through to get to that point. Right now, I have to be doing this. I have to be getting more people and creating pathways for Mob, because I actually don't have a choice to do anything else, because there's not a lot of us here doing it.

[Kiara] And it is frustrating when women in STEM like Celeste and Elanor and Francesca and Emily have to spend a significant portion of their time not practising their discipline, but advocating instead.

[Francesca] I think it's a really interesting dynamic when we rely on women in STEM to champion gender equity. I've been in industry now for two and a half, almost three years. And it's a really hard balance of, I'm trying to dismantle this system that I also have to try and succeed in. So then I also have a bigger platform to then dismantle it more, and so that's a really hard thing to reconcile. You have to figure out how much you're going to compromise in terms of working within this structure and system that is there, and how that might align or not align with your values. I think also organisations who do rely on the significant emotional labour of women to do this work need to incorporate it into our performance reviews. Because while I might spend a lot of time travelling and speaking and advising and mentoring people in organisations, my male peers are just doing their job. Nine ‘til five. We are not comparing the same, but we go up against the same performance framework. So I think we need to assess, start valuing this work within organisations if you want people like Em and myself to continue it. I think for me I've made the decision that as long as I'm in STEM, I can't not do anything about it. It's just plain wrong where we are right now. And we've continued to do that because not enough people have stood up and said, ‘hey, this is not right. We need to fix this’. The people that have, they've since left. So I think also our industry needs to do a little bit of self-reflection about why maybe a lot of women are leaving as well.

[Kiara] And you mentioned that when you got into this as a career, it was very much the engagement. So it was when it started being about other people as well. So is that supporting other women in tech quite important to you?

[CC] Yeah, it is, because it gets lonely out here. I want to be able to rock up into this space and into this industry with other women, specifically First Nations women or else I'm just by myself. And no one wants that. That's boring. You know, it's tech, is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be innovative. It’s supposed to be constantly adapting. And if I can't do that with my own Mob, then I don’t want to do it.

[Kiara] And thanks to Celeste and all of our guests for their generous contribution to this ongoing discussion across STEM. For more details, just head back to our episode list and you'll find a bunch of big ideas to explore and all of our interviews in full.

If you enjoyed the show, please do share us with your friends and colleagues, like us and leave us a review on Apple podcasts. I'm Kiara Bruggemann. The team is executive producers Maya Havilland and Dan Etheridge, sound engineer Nick McCorriston and writer and producer Gretchen Miller. From all of us at Reimagine STEM and ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, we look forward to your company next time.


04: First Nations, first knowledge

80,000 years of innovation. Could you manage a continent sustainably for millennia? Covering outback tech, cross-cultural relations, and artificial intelligence; our presenters discuss the power of Indigenous Knowledges and frameworks to approaching contemporary problems. By respectfully drawing on old ways of knowing, we can widen our toolbox, integrate new knowledge, and begin to fulfil our responsibilities to Country and Community. Are you listening?

Show notes: First Nations, first knowledge

80,000 years of innovation. Could you manage a continent sustainably for millennia? Covering outback tech, cross-cultural relations, and artificial intelligence; our presenters discuss the power of Indigenous Knowledges and frameworks to approaching contemporary problems.

By respectfully drawing on old ways of knowing, we can widen our toolbox, integrate new knowledge, and begin to fulfil our responsibilities to Country and Community. Are you listening?



CC (Celeste Carnegie) is a Birrigubba South Sea Islander woman and program producer at Geek Girls Academy, among other talents. She is passionate about improving Indigenous access to tech. CC explains how we need to think about these effects at the individual level, and how programs must be “for us, by us.” 

Angie Abdilla is a Palawa woman and CEO of Old Ways, New. She explains the patterned thinking and interconnection that makes Indigenous lore an “action guide to living”. By listening respectfully and sharing divergent ways of thinking, we can “come together… to design the future we want”.

Peter Renehan, Chairman of the Centre for Appropriate Technology, says that technology must be appropriate for the people, environment, and needs you’re working with. He explains how communities will buy in and shape projects if given the opportunity, such as through the highly successful Bushlight program. 

Andre Grant, from the Queensland branch of the Centre for Appropriate Technology, reminds us that technology is only part of the solultion – the people are much more important.

Karl Kane is a Senior Lecturer at Massey University (Aotearoa/New Zealand) and director of the Design+Democracy project. He discusses codesign, the importance of context, and the richness of drawing on and integrating both Pākehā (non-Māori) visions and Te Ao Māori (the Māori world). We need to respect the other, without othering.


Further reading


Music credits

Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Full episode transcript

First Nations, first knowledge

[CC] Well, people forget that we've been managing an entire continent for over 80,000 years. I think that's a feat. And I think that people should be proud of that. I think the first thing is, first, that we have a spectrum of people who are experts, Indigenous people who are experts and, you know, they’re coding and that they’re developers in building web sites and technologists and roboticists. And then our other end of the spectrum is where people haven't even been exposed to technology. So it's about bridging that gap and looking for the opportunities to work with our communities and just open up the door for them and just give them more possibilities and pathways, ‘cause right now we're being left out.

[Angie] We need a shift in how we're approaching all things. And of course, understanding our role and then individually, personally and professionally and how we live and what sort of work we're engaged in, is critical. Everybody has to start acting and working out different ways that we can create the solutions to the really complex problems we're facing right now. We're at a crossroads. We need to start working together, in that two-way learning where Indigenous knowledges and knowledge systems and Western ways of engineering and computer science is an incredibly valuable collaboration.

[Kiara] Hello there. I'm Kiara Bruggeman, and in this episode of Reimagine STEM here at ANU, we’re asking how can we learn to acknowledge and connect with the contribution of some of the world's earliest innovators, the traditional custodians of our land, Australian Indigenous people. Reimagine STEM is the podcast of ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, and it was recorded in 2019 at the CoDesign Culture Lab on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Land, to whose Elders past, present and emerging we pay our respects. Our goal is to explore the key themes and big ideas for our collective STEM futures. With us today, some significant Indigenous thinkers and some non-Indigenous allies contributing their bit to a big and ongoing conversation, which traverses remote, rural and urban areas, access to technology, access to information, traditional technology development through caring for Country, methods of collaboration and so on. The fact is, the way engineering and computer science have been traditionally practised at universities around Australia, including this one, has not served the needs of Indigenous Australians. So in this episode, we drop in on some other ways we might bring about new intersections and integrations of Indigenous culture and practice with engineering and computer science.

[Angie] Hi, my name is Angie Abdilla, I’m a Palawa woman from the northern parts of Tasmania and I live and work in Sydney.

[Peter] My name's Peter Renehan, I'm a Central Arrentre man, a fellow from Alice Springs. Born and bred and grown up in Alice Springs, and I've been the chairman of the Centre for Appropriate Technology for 10 years.

[Andre] I'm Andre Grant. I work for CfAT in the Queensland office out of Cairns. And most of our work over there focuses on the Torres Straits and Cape York in particular.

[CC] So, hey, I'm CC

[Kiara] That’s Celeste Carnegie.

[CC] I'm a Birrigubba South Sea Islander woman from Far North Queensland. And I live on Gadigal Country in Sydney. And I've been there for five years now. I'm in the tech space, I've been there for about three years. And I'm really passionate about digital technologies in our communities with First Nations women and young people, but also capability building. And how can our communities use technology their own way.

[Karl] Yeah Kia Ora, I’m Karl Kane, I’m a Senior Lecturer at Massey University and the director of the Design and Democracy Project, which is funded a research unit we've set up at the university to explore New Zealanders’ relationship with 21st century citizenship.

[Kiara] Today, we want to try out how Indigenous thinking intersects with STEM. Our Indigenous audience are likely across these approaches, but possibly not all of our non-indigenous listeners have thought about them as deeply as they might. Angie Abdilla is CEO of consultancy Old Ways, New, which works using Indigenous cultural knowledge to assist service design, placemaking and development of new technologies. And I asked Angie to introduce how we as STEM practitioners might start to understand the intricate, culturally-embedded idea of pattern thinking that is tens of thousands of years old.

[Angie] So I guess it's kind of helpful to think about what Indigenous knowledge systems are not and what we understand from a Western perspective. Over time, knowledge has evolved from the arts, sciences and philosophies in silos. They've evolved over time in quite insular ways. What we know of from, I guess conversely, is an Indigenous knowledge system is the interconnection of all things, science, arts, philosophy, spirituality, religion, and it's also more importantly lore, as in lore, L-O-R-E or The Dreaming is more like an action guide to living. So an Indigenous knowledge system is a much more complex way of understanding the world. It's a different way of seeing, being and knowing, it's a different paradigm, I guess.

[Kiara] And what about the pattern thinking?

[Angie] Pattern thinking exists as a way of being able to understand the interrelationships and interconnection of all things. So from an Indigenous perspective, what we understand is that all things have an interrelational context. And so all things animate, inanimate, human, non-human, have interconnection, and so if I'm on Country right now, as I am, even though we're in this particular room right now, I'm still on Country and my relationship to all things has meaning. And so pattern thinking is a way of understanding that relational dynamic that we have with Country because we are part of it and it is part of us. And that's a very different way that I guess Western ways of seeing the world and Western ways of existing is kind of more existential, you live on top of Country, and so we understand the world not from a sort of clocked, lineal time perspective, but from cycles and seasons and how we exist within time and place in Country. So if you're thinking about the concepts of pattern thinking and pattern recognition from an Indigenous perspective, of course, is an incredible opportunity to explore how those really sophisticated knowledges and knowledge systems that have existed in Country and in our people for thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of years over, what our people say since time immemorial. That relationship that we've had with Country and that one of observation and scientific observation and exploration and innovation. So that intimate relationship with Country, of course, can inform the way in which we see the field of robotics and all its various different jump-off points.

[Kiara] So how might this acknowledgement of pattern thinking play out on the ground? The Centre for Appropriate Technology, or CfAT or CAT, is an Indigenous-run organisation that works directly with communities and has an inherent understanding of the practicalities of working laterally in this way. Peter Renehan and Andre Grant:

[Peter] The Centre for Appropriate Technology is actually a science and technology organisation. We were founded in Alice Springs back in 1980. We've developed systems and products mainly that were appropriate for Aboriginal people who were gaining access back to their lands in the Northern Territory through the Land Rights Act in 1976. Traditionally, people had been living in other areas and it provided them with an opportunity to get back to the Country where they belong, where their spiritual connection is, and where they have to provide maintenance to that Country that they belong to as well. So early founding director Dr Bruce Walker was an engineer and he understood from travels around the world that there were elements of appropriate technology that could be included into remote areas. And he wanted to trial and test to see whether that would be applicable in Aboriginal communities in Australia. And that was really the, the founding element for our organisation. And it's provided a niche for us that is a little bit different to most Aboriginal organisations based in Alice Springs.

[Andre] Critical to that, and on the ground, you know, when we're working in the field, is to have impact as an organisation, to stick around and to, to have impacted these long, slow processes that involve participation, process, engagement, real understanding of community developments, not just a technical process, that technology is only one part of it, but that approach. And for anybody studying in this area, you’ve really got to look at this social development process and community development process and participation and empowerment and capacity building are absolutely critical to having an impact, and then being able to stay around as an organisation because you're effective.

[Kiara] As you can hear, I'm not Australian by birth. So bearing that in mind that I'm an absolute newcomer, can you explain to me the word appropriate? What does appropriate mean here?

[Peter] Appropriate in the context that we've utilised it within the Centre for Appropriate Technology, is something that is applicable to the people that you're working with, is applicable to the environment surrounding the people that you're working with. It provides a specific need for that organisation or that community and understand around how people can appropriate technologies to help them or to support them to live on the Country. And the work that we've done, it's always been an engagement model of really finding out and understanding the context of the situation and then finding technology solutions that'll help them to live there on that area sustainably. So that's really how we've used the term appropriate for our organisation.

[Kiara] And can you speak a bit to where environmental sustainability and caring for Country comes into the work that you do?

[Andre] Well, we talk about CfAT as the Centre for Appropriate Technology. So, you know, that normally makes you think of water supply, solar power systems, building design, sanitation and W.A.S.H. and other engineering projects. The other side to that is, well, CAT’s olk moniker used to be ‘a sustainable livelihood through appropriate technology’, so the sustainable livelihoods piece of that is, we're helping people to be on Country and how we also help them to do whatever they need to do on the Country itself. So a lot of the work that we do would end up supporting Indigenous ranger programs who are doing conservation, land management, environmental sustainability, if that sustainability isn't built into the technology itself.

[Kiara] Across the Ditch in New Zealand, an entirely different political and cultural will has meant that intercultural relationships around STEM and STEM-focussed design have been handled quite differently. And there's no doubt New Zealand is well ahead of Australia on the journey to reconciliation, cultural acceptance and cooperation. One of Karl Kane's big interests is user-focussed design and how that plays out in partnerships with Indigenous organisations and communities.

[Karl] What we're talking about is getting away from the ‘designer is hero’. So what used to happen is a designer would sit in a studio and use their genius to come up with some amazing thing that they would then pitch to the client and that was an exclusive process. The only person doing the design work and shaping the thing was the designer, and they tended to be who designers are, straight white men and European, you know, European-minded. So the idea that design is situated in the context of use. So where is it gonna be used, by whom? And that person has a before and an after. So to not think about design in isolation in any way forces us to think about its use and context. Now cultural context is as important as any other context, but in New Zealand, what we're finding is engaging with what we could call te ao Māori, the Māori world, the epistemological framework of, the world view of Māori, has only given us new levers to pull, new colours on our palette, if you like. It's, it's made design a richer, stronger thing. It was also done as showing those communities that we care, that they see themselves in the process. So I think there's a really important thing which we've learned, which goes back to design humility, which is ensuring that that process, that engagement piece, happens at the beginning. And I think that's where design really needs a degree of confidence to do that, to engage in those spaces and within those communities right at the start, because that's when we do that ethnographic work, when we do the shaping of the problem. Now, if you've shaped the problem through a particular consumer-capitalist Western lens, then the response to that problem is going to be reflective of those things. So if you start to think about the values of a different cultural context, you're going to get a different result at the other end. So it's exciting, but it's again, it's humble, it's kind. It's what we should be doing. If you're designing in New Zealand for a world with 20 per cent of New Zealand as Māori, you can't ignore 20 per cent of the people who you are designing for. That’s just bad manners.

[Kiara] CfAT’s Bushlight program is now a few decades old, but it's a remarkable model of the successful tech development that is exactly as Karl describes, designed and adapted around the particular users’ needs.

[Peter] This was an interesting case where through the work that we'd been doing in a remote outstation area called Utopia, north east of Alice Springs, is a group of discrete small outstations with a larger service centre in a hub-spoke model, I guess you could call it. So the situation arose that Aboriginal ladies, elderly ladies who were living in a small outstation, might only be one or two houses and a clinic, an Aboriginal clinic that provided health services to the community. One of the issues the ladies needed some support and advice and some help in, was how they were going to access the health centre, particularly at all hours of night when it's dark in very remote locations. So there was a real issue there around how services could be provided to those remote women. And that really started the story about how we could come up with some way of providing a light or some intervention in between their home and the health clinic to help them to safely get from one place to the other to access to the services. So out of that, we started thinking about how energy service could be developed for remote communities.

[Andre] A critical component of that program when it was running was the community energy planning process, which is really that social dimension of the technology, to spend the time and do that engagement, the community to do a co-design process, in a sense, we didn't call it co-design in those days but that's definitely what it was, because it was a micro-grid system, which is a centralised power production, multiple dwellings. So how do you get energy equity across those households to stop conflict arising, which would be a nasty unintended consequence of putting in a solar system, and there's no controls and one family uses all the power and then they start a pitch battle between families ‘turn off all that power!’ So there's a lot of technology that had to be built in to manage the social dimensions of it. And then the participatory processes to actually design and let the community have autonomy in deciding energy allocations to each family in each household. That's critical part of the engineering the human dimension and the work that had to be done face-to-face, talking to people.

[Kiara] And one word you used a lot is communities, plural.

[Peter] Yeah.

[Kiara] So I notice on your website, you've got over 30 different case studies of using this solar panel system, Bushlight, in different communities. What are the challenges or rewards actually of working with these communities as separate individual communities?

[Peter] Generally it starts from a phone call or a word-of-mouth or contact from the community to Centre for Appropriate Technology and then we would respond. So we've always been a responsive organisation. But while you're developing these sort of systems and programs, there is a lot of word-of-mouth out in the remote communities and they say, oh, those guys are talking about Bushlight. We've seen the benefits that come for our neighbours or our friends or our family who are living in other areas. We want to be a part of something like that as well, you know, so then we started seeing a real roll-out and a growing program for Bushlight right across the north of Australia.

[Kiara] Do you think that there's maybe an issue with some engineering professionals thinking that good intentions are enough, that if you come into it with good intentions, that's the first step. And so obviously you can't do anything wrong if you don't mean to do anything wrong and don't realise the importance of that understanding, communicating, getting information going both ways.

[Angie] Yeah. There's no way we can see anything progressing beyond the status quo with engineers and computer scientists expect that they're doing good for good’s sake. Aboriginal people have had a 200 year history of having to deal with the ramifications of that paternalistic relationship.

[Kiara] And looking at the Western belief system and the sort of Silicon Valley mindset, that techno-utopian ideal, what are the dangers or potential risks with having just that belief system and working just on that?

[Angie] Well, I think we're starting to see all sorts of examples play out now, and I don't think there's any shortage of those dystopian futures that we're all prophesying about. They're well known, I think. But the one that I think we should probably think about is an example that happened a number of years ago now, but is still felt very much so here today and on this continent is the story of Maralinga and, not sure if you know about the story being from Canada, but what happened a number of decades ago now, was a bunch of British scientists were placed in isolation, in a serious isolation chamber, with no ability to connect with community or the Country in which they were in. And they were plonked on this dry, arid country, desert environment in South Australia to develop a nuclear weapon. And that testing of that nuclear weapon happened on that Country and that place is called Maralinga, and that testing happened on Aboriginal people, on Aboriginal people, on Aboriginal Country and on all the Country on which they were living on. I still ask the question, you know, how could that have happened? How could people, humans, how could there be such a incredible loss of humanity and dignity in their responsibility as scientists and technologists to follow through with the act of testing a nuclear weapon on people? There are people still suffering the intergenerational effects of that nuclear testing, still today. That's what we can expect if we continue to develop technologies in isolation without any understanding of the ramifications that, that these technologies could have on people and on Country.

[Kiara] It can be difficult when you're full of ideas and enthusiasm for change, to embrace a mindset that might slow you down. But humility is key to not making terrible mistakes. Designer Karl Kane:

[Karl] And I think it's great be able to ask dumb questions. I think we're just really, really good at them, to have someone go in and go sit down, have a cup of tea, eat with these people, like, like spend time with these people, listen to these people, and then frame the outcome with these stakeholders. I think that changes everything. But that ability to ask dumb questions, I think is truly our superpower that, to go in and go, I don't know what you need, the end result we're trying to obtain better health outcomes for your community, what do you reckon a good place to start is, do you wanna show me around what's going on, and having them frame the problem at the very outset can help with anyone, but I think we're really good at asking them. I don’t think engineers and scientists are, they're really clever people who are really good at doing a certain thing, and not very good at being dumb. And we’re brilliant at it, you know, like design is an exercise in failure. I failed 99 times and then I got the types right. You know, I finally got the colour right, the user experience was starting to click. You know, design’s an exercise in failure. We’re really, really good at it. And there is a humility in design, which I think can benefit all of us. And we're happy to play that role. You know, we’ll come in and ask all the dumb questions because we're good at it. We don't mind.

[Kiara] What are the difficulties in that, especially if you are a Western white man to go into a culture that isn't your own, and in this environment of, as you say, Twitter and everyone being woke and not wanting to set a foot wrong, how, how challenging can it be to admit ignorance to, to say, ‘I really don't know these things that I think I probably should know.’

[Karl] I think it's liberating, once you get used to it, it's liberating, like... and again, we're not as dumb as the questions we ask, but I think what I'm trying to say is going in and to learn, not going into guide, not going and for the illusion of inclusion, not going in terms of some tick-boxing, so I'd like authentically, earnestly going and to learn and to frame and, and it's really hard and we're not set up for it.

[Kiara] Let's drill down a bit here into how Indigenous thinking might offer a different lens as we approach the way critical new technologies appear and develop. Angie Abdilla's considerations of computer science in a number of forums has led her to really look artificial intelligence in the eye as it barrels its way towards us. While we might think about it as entirely machine-based logic and therefore an absolute, we accept that notion at our peril.

Speaking of getting engineering and computer science onboard with this knowledge and the value that it really has for the fields, you in 2019 co-convened a pretty fascinating workshop in Hawaii with Concordia and Oxford Universities and M.I.T, which was around Indigenous protocols and AI, artificial intelligence. So one of the points made was about the idea of discrimination. We understand that turned to be about race, gender and othering, but AI always discriminates. Can you explain why?

[Angie] I guess because we have a legacy of content being designed and developed to represent the dominant masses. And so what we find when we’re, you know, the fuel that AI needs to operate, large datasets, and those large datasets often come from the net, which has a proliferation of white, middle class, middle-age men and women who represent a certain, particular part of the world. And so we also have a really seriously critical legacy issue, because the people that are at the heart of developing these algorithms in the first place are working in isolation in a bubble, which we otherwise know as Silicon Valley, where it shocks me, it horrifies me, to be told by many people that come from Silicon Valley and have lived and worked with inside that bubble, that there is no understanding of the unconscious bias that exists within these teams of people who are designing and developing these really critical core algorithms that power some of the most scaled platforms and other technologies that we're seeing in our world. You know, so it is frightening, but there are solutions. We have to stay positive.

[Kiara] OK, that's good to hear. So what kind of solutions, what do we need to do to make these AI systems more fair?

[Angie] So we have to allow the time and space and resources required for divergent voices and divergent ways of thinking to come to explore solutions for these problems. That's the first step. And so Old Ways, New, in collaboration with M.I.T. and Oxford and Concordia University, all Indigenous-led, we all received funding support from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research to bring together 40 Indigenous technologists from around the globe to explore what are Indigenous protocols and how can those different protocols that represent us all, you know, from different sovereign states when I say sovereign states in that kind of international context, we had people from Australia, First Nations Canadians, from Turtle Island, Hawaiians, New Zealand Māori people and others, I think have named everybody, all coming together to share what are the core principles of their lore and the protocols that we could use to explore a different way of imagining how AI could exist into the future, one that essentially comes back to these core principles for us, from an Australian perspective, comes back to these two core principles, if you care for Country, it will care for you, otherwise known as social and environmental sustainability. Caring for Country, caring for kin, social-environmental sustainability. Everybody had a slightly different perspective, though, like the Hawaiians, there was this beautiful auntie who talked about the analogy of a fishing net and the protocols and the lore embedded within the fishing net itself, and how every single node within that net represented the various different protocols and different familial relationships within a kinship system. And so the fishing net itself was used as the analogy for a different network that could be the foundations for AI.

[Kiara] So there are all these spaces where Indigenous people are engaging from AI to the bush. Having demonstrated their ability with Bushlight, the Centre for Appropriate Technology has since branched out in several directions, one being working with other Indigenous communities, not just Australian. In southern India, they found the same approach of collaboration also worked, and they won the Sir William Hudson Engineering Excellence Award in 2011.

[Andre] In my bag right here, actually, I've got a little appropriate technology. One of the b-boxes, which is another technology that CAT developed. And this is for, not for Bushlight systems, which is a remote standalone solar, but for in communities where you might have people on reticulated normal power, utility supply and they've got a power card and, you know, the energy poverty that can arise from people not having any demand-management or user-interface as, as a little user interface, a clever little box with some pretty little lights on it that you can program to a daily energy budget. And so you do the engagement, they’re very easy to actually install on existing meters, and you do the engagement with residents that housing go ‘What's your kind of energy budget you're breaking for the day? Are we $3 a day? Okay.’ So you can program that in and there’s a little display showing how much money you're spending, each live-updated, with a little fuel tank with a a speedo on it. And so the speedo tells you how fast you’re using energy, what's your, you know, your kilowatts you’re using right now and then you sort of fuel tank, which is progresses towards your financial target for the day for energy use is really cool, really cool little system.

[Kiara] It could be a piece of software that measures electricity use, an actual lighting system or the design of the communication that demonstrates to clients what constitutes excessive consumption or fair use within a community. Being flexible about the form of support, whether it be tech or software or social engineering. Being media agnostic is a part of a lateral thinking that is critical to success.

[Karl] But I think the idea of design being media-agnostic, so rather than going, hey, look, the answer is going to be a piece of furniture because I'm a furniture designer. The idea of being a user-centred designer means I have to be media-agnostic as a designer, so I can't go in and determine the outcome. I can go in and ask lots of questions and follow the process and see what the outcome would be. So rather than going in, hey I'm gonna build a building for this group of people, there’s a problem with connectivity that needs to be solved. So I look at how we can connect this community. That might be a technological execution or an architectural execution or a social execution. We don't know how we can manifest this idea of connectivity. I know that connectivity is what's needed. So media-agnostic approach I think suits everyone better, including Indigenous communities. Rather than going and going ‘We're gonna build you a school,’ maybe going and asking questions ‘Hey, how can we help you and your children on a learning journey? What do you need?’. Maybe it's not a physical school. Maybe it's a piece of technology. Maybe it's some other kind of resource. So media-agnostic, user-centred design, I think, can help everyone and especially these types of communities.

[Kiara] Flexibility around the form of the solution, but also around how the technology works for a community, and in its engagement with others, can lead to some clever but simple solutions that are also self-determining.

[Peter] What we've also found in other technologies that we've developed around mobile phone hotspot as well is that Aboriginal people in remote areas are actually getting access to their own money through leasing arrangements or royalty payments and those sort of things. And they're actually putting their own money into supporting and developing some of this infrastructure. And it's a learning process for them as it is for us as an organisation. So when you develop that sort of relationship in a two-way system, people are willing to actually throw in in-kind to do things. And we've found that if we don't have enough staff going out to work on some of the installations, that people are quite willing to pitch in with a shovel and, you know, fill up the car, the back of their car with creek sand from a creek that they know provides good, stable concrete, that they can be a part and take some ownership of those systems as well. So people are willing to, if you have a good relationship with them and provide options for people, they can buy in to the development of all sorts of systems if they're given a choice.

[Kiara] And the CfAT mobile hotspots projects, can you tell me a little bit about that?

[Peter] That was an exciting project for us. All of these programs, products, systems that we've installed, all comes out of a long, being stable as an organisation and understanding the situation and the context of where people are. And you don't come up with a mobile phone hotspot just out of the blue. We'd been doing a lot of work around telecommunications within the Centre for Appropriate Technology for many years leading up to that point. We'd provided other solutions generally across Australia, pay phones in remote Australia, when they break down, it would take some time for them to get fixed. We were already working with communities around other ways to access communications for people and the mobile phone hotspot came out of work that an engineer that was working with us, Andrew Crouch, he'd been working with a community around a particular problem where a small outstation was located near a tourist site. Tourists from all around the world would travel down, drive past the house that the people lived in, go down to a place called Boggy Hole. And what they did while over there was get bogged in their vehicles and then they'd try and walk out. Because it was so far away, by the time they walked out, it would be three or four o'clock in the morning and they'd be knocking on the door of the community, waking them up, asking them to, you know, provide some access to the outside world. The day they came to CAT and said, is there somewhere that we can provide telephone services here that aren't payphones? And so Andrew, working through the system for a long time, had been trialling and testing a satellite. Well, it's not a satellite dish. It's a small dish that just magnifies the beams that are all flying across the sky

[Andre] It starts as an old 1.2 metre TV satellite dish you just pick up there, all over the rubbish tips of Central Australia.

[Peter] Yeah. And virtually place it on a metal pole. And what that did, you'd have to survey and find where those beams are, but what that did was actually magnify your phone, your mobile phone. If you only had one bar or no bars, sometimes you know, one and a half bars it would [be] magnified up to three or four bars, sometimes five. Then you'd have connection to the outside world. No moving parts, no power. All it does is magnify the signal onto your mobile phone. So we've now started seeing that the Northern Territory Government and others wanting to utilise these technologies right across the Northern Territory, all for safety reasons on all of their remote roads and also at tourism ventures as well located right across the Northern Territory. Now we currently have 45 systems in place and they work in very well. When we talk about appropriate, that's very appropriate for remote areas. We're now talking to other states around how we could roll out mobile phone hotspots to all of those areas in remote Australia, in other states who are faced with similar issues. It's fantastic to see that transfer of knowledge from a need from an Aboriginal community that actually is transferable to anyone who's travelling remotely in Australia.

[Kiara] So in terms of your business development, what role have partnerships played and do you think partnerships are really what all engineering projects need to have?

[Peter] Internally if we don't have the expertise that people are seeking from us, we've always provided a conduit and link into other networks that we know and understand, such as universities in places like ANU and things like that, around how people who do have expertise and knowledge that we don't currently have. Our board, one of the reasons around why we're still operating and still doing what we do is that we know that we can't do that work alone. We need to link into and, and engage a network with all sorts of agencies, including government, around how we can provide solutions for people.

[Kiara] And building those partnerships and bringing in more Indigenous men and women into the field, what can we do to enable that? And what are we doing wrong now? Are we asking the right questions?

[Peter] Really important questions. And one of the key elements where our organisation is how we can not just come in and provide a service and then go away again, you've got to maintain a system and processes to enable people to continue to engage and interact and continue to live on their Country, and to provide the services and the responsibilities that they have culturally to where they live.

[Andre] I believe it's, it's in a kind of provocative way, it's not our job to achieve the social impact. It's for people themselves on the ground to achieve their own social impact. We provide the technology that enables traditional owners and Aboriginal Mob to do what they need to do on Country to follow their aspirations, preserve culture, look after the land and improve their own conditions in the manner that they see fit.

[Kiara] We met Celeste Carnegie earlier in the program, a Birrigubba South Sea Islander woman and a STEM communicator. Celeste's concerns are around a consistent experience of being overlooked.

[CC] I think that's currently, right now, Indigenous communities across Australia don't have access to technology. And so that means that we're missing out on those certain jobs of the future that people are talking about, which actually those jobs, the future, are right here and now. So I guess that I'm really passionate about it because that means that a whole lot of us won't have access and that's really important. Because everyone's worried about their data and their KPIs, but no one's actually worried about the individuals and the human beings that they're working with. But I think that when it comes to those types of things, everything should be for us and by us,

[Kiara] And thinking laterally again, embracing different language can be a key to both a level of understanding, connection and inclusion, as well as an aide to actually listening differently. If Indigenous words are part of your palette, as Karl Kane points out, then they bring Indigenous thinking and understanding with them.

[Karl] We have these wonderful words, like kaitiakitanga is a beautiful word, and it's this word which kind of in a Western view might mean guardianship, but it's different from ownership. So if you saw a child in trouble, you would feel a sense of kaitiakitanga in trying to help that child, right. You don't own the child. It's not your child, but you still have this responsibility for it. Now, if you take an idea like, like kaitiaki and apply it to design, post-neo-liberal KPI-chasing, you know, world terms of how you measure things or how you give someone instructions, the idea that someone has a guardianship for something or someone. And if you start to embed that into a process, I'm no longer the professor talking at a student, I'm the kaitiaki for the student. I care about the emotional, psychological, spiritual, physical well-being, as well as the educational piece. You know, it changes my role in relationship to them. Just the change in the word. So having words like that and with wonderful words like manaakitanga, which is like in place of hospitality, doesn't just mean make sure that they’re fed, that means make sure they're lifted up, make sure they leave in a better place than they arrived. You know, that's another lovely word to use. As a designer, these are just beautiful rich words, like adding colours to a palette. You know, it gives me so much more to lever. We have a multicultural reality and a bi-cultural framework. In this bi-cultural framework, it gives me two sets of levers to engage with and wonderful, if the Pākehā, the White European version isn't working, see if the Māori version can help solve this. And again, as long as it's done appropriately and early and with again, no one wants to have culture done at them, or see their culture leveraged in some kind of rhetorical way, then everyone seems to be happy so doesn't feel like a burden to me. It feels like a privilege.

[Kiara] Do you have any thoughts on the differences of how Australia and New Zealand's differ in terms of both respectfully and productively engaging Indigenous people in design and teaching and research?

[Karl] Yes, but I will leave my prejudices at the door. I think we're just ahead for myriad reasons. We're a smaller island with five million people. Just five million, I think this week we've reached five million. Woohoo! I think there’s what, 600-odd Aboriginal communities. We've got much smaller number of iwi, of tribal groups in New Zealand. We're much more isolated. We're much more... and we've a treaty which sort of binds them, the Crown, Pākehā European world with Māori. Lots of work to do. It's gonna be a project that maybe my son will see the twilight of maybe, maybe not, but we're working on it. And I think that I'd say the urgency is what's different. It feels in the mainstream. In New Zealand, your average New Zealander sees a degree of urgency of building cultural literacy and working out how to deploy that in a meaningful, impactful, respectful way on the day-to-day.

[Kiara] This is what's called two-way learning, listening on multiple levels, one group learning from another and back again.

[Peter] That knowledge is transferable. It is a two way thing. It's not a dominant one side and a subservient on the other. And that's what's really rewarding around these sort of projects.

[Kiara] So does this loss that the community has already experienced make it difficult to engage with the rest of engineering? Is it difficult to establish trust?

[Angie] Absolutely. Yeah, there's definitely, it's a process that just takes time. And so the first step is, is understanding where that comes from. That distrust exists for a reason and then being able to acknowledge that and then work out, okay, well, what are the different ways in which we can build those meaningful working relationships so that we can have this two-way learning? And when I talk about two-way learning, what I'm really talking about is you give, I give and it's an exchange. So it's, it’s two different ways of seeing things and it's being able to sit down and respectfully listen and hear, observe together and then work out different ways in which are combined. Different methodologies could come together to solve these complex, really complex post-colonial issues that we're all facing today, like in particular, climate change. I think what's really super important is to recognise the history that we've had of non-Indigenous peoples not understanding the amount that we've already lost through colonisation and the amount of important secret and sacred information that has been taken without consent. And so the processes and protocols around how we work together are really important in being able to develop meaningful, equitable working relationships and therefore then the process and the outcomes that we could potentially see through engineering and computer science. You can either be a passive participant in somebody else's future or we can design the future that we want to be. And so from an Indigenous perspective we need to start thinking about and planning for, as we always have done with Country and our responsibilities to Country and community, we also need to start thinking about, well, how do we design the technologies that are going to be responsive, responsible, ethical and have a strong relationship with Country and community.

[CC] No one's asking us. Everyone's just making programs up and thinking that we're going to go for it. And thinking that it's gonna work and no one's actually asking us what we need. They're creating something and saying, this is what you need, now go for it. Now work it out. And that's not how it works within Australia and within my culture, there are hundreds of cultures. I've never been to the same community. Every one is different. Every community is different. I mean, every culture is different. So when all these programs are made for us, we can't really identify with them. And that's where the disconnect happens. No one's asking us what we want or what we need. We're not just saying that we need to do these things. Well, we're not saying, you know, listen to us, that our cultural knowledge and our traditional and just land management system, just for the fun of it, we're saying it because it actually will benefit all of us.

[Kiara] An open mind and taking time - critical factors in the continuing discussion. And you can hear more from Celeste Carnegie in our episode on diversity, and from Peter Renehan and Andre Grant in our episode on Social Benefit, as well as many interviews in full available on the Reimagine STEM website and podcast. From ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science. I'm Kiara Bruggeman. The team is Nick McCorriston sound engineer, Gretchen Miller, writer and producer and Maya Havilland and Dan Etheridge are executive producers. If you like what we've done, leave us a review and please do spread the wor


Plus extended interview content »

In addition to the four themed discussions, Reimagine STEM also features rich in-depth interviews with each of our guests. Check the latest extras out below, and subscribe to stay up to date with new episodes.

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Don't forget to brush your (computer's) teeth: Lesley Seebeck

Ever caught a phish? Try upping your cyber-hygiene, says Lesley Seebeck, CEO of the ANU Cyber Institute. Human behaviour, not technology, is key, and calls for a public-health style approach to community cyber security. Educating professionals is important too - using immersive experiences, micro-credentials, small-group learning and by teaching emotional literacy, she hopes to ‘do for cyber what the MBA did for business’ in the new ANU cybermastery course. Diversity, adaptability, empathy and networking (of both kinds) will be important for the future of cyber education, and keeping you safe online…

Further reading:

Music credits: Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Live slower, live better: Cameron Tonkinwise

Want a better future? Very quickly slow down. Create, educate and build community, says designer Cameron Tonkinwise, if we want to reduce unsustainable consumption and successfully tackle the complex, existential challenges of our time. Human-centred design, and embracing individual and cultural differences, will allow engineering practices to become adaptive and appropriate to individual circumstances, and maybe even change the world for the better...

Cameron Tonkinwise is a Professor of Design Studies at the University of Technology Sydney and Director of the Design Innovation Research Centre.

Further reading:

Music credits: Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Gender equity in STEM: Francesca Maclean and Emily Gentilini

Ever felt like you don’t belong? Welcome to the club – only this one helps everyone find their place. Workshops, mentoring programs, industry partnerships and cultural audits have changed the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science for the better, for all genders. Fifty50, the student organisation behind the changes, was founded by Francesca Maclean and Emily Gentilini. Outlining the social justice case for diversity, our guests question how engineers can lift their game, and continue the process of making STEM more inclusive for all students.

Francesca Maclean is a Senior Consultant at Arup, public speaker and co-founder of Fifty50.

Emily Gentilini is a Graduate Engineer at Arup. A regular presenter, she co-founded the student organisation Fifty50 at ANU.

Further reading:

Music credits: Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Engineers Without Borders Australia: Sam Perkins

Who decides what’s a problem? The community should, argues Sam Perkins, Head of Education, Research and Technology Development at Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB). Being values-driven, cross-disciplinary and empathetic can merge community development with engineering, to mutual benefit. Sam discusses the innovative approaches EWB is taking, reminds us to prioritise the needs of the people we are working for, and to think about how our own upbringings shape our perspective.

Further reading:

Music credits: Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Appropriate technology for Indigenous homelands - Peter Renehan and Andre Grant

Appropriate technology, or appropriating technology? Developing and distributing solar panels, energy meters, and nifty mobile-phone hotspots, the Centre for Appropriate Technology regularly asks this question. Working and co-innovating with remote Indigenous communities increases sustainability, prosperity and ability to care for Country, in a way that is appropriate for people and Country. Arrernte man Peter Renehan and Andre Grant discuss the innovations, drawn from Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, that are improving people’s lives in Australia and overseas.

Peter Renehan, Chairman of the Centre for Appropriate Technology, explains how communities will buy in and shape projects if given the opportunity, such as through the highly successful Bushlight program. 

Andre Grant, from the Queensland branch of the Centre for Appropriate Technology, reminds us that technology is only part of the solultion – the people are much more important.

Further reading:

Music credits: Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Engineering positive impact - Jeremy Smith

Is wanting to do good, good enough? It’s a great start, says Jeremy Smith, but not sufficient to ensure that your well-intentioned engineering projects actually do good. Communication, contextualisation and partnerships are key to understanding what the problems are, and what would be a culturally, contextually appropriate solution. Encouraging diverse, cross-disciplinary teams can help practitioners understand that people, not technology, are key to positive engineering outcomes. We must continually ask ourselves, ‘is this the right thing to be doing?’

Jeremy Smith is a senior lecturer and engineer at the ANU Research School of Electrical, Energy and Materials Engineering. He introduces us to the principles of engineering for social benefit, where building a brighter collective future is a social process.

Music credits: Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Bootstrapping computing education - Kathi Fisler and Shriram Krishnamurthi

Computing in history class? Integrating computer science education to benefit existing curricula is one way that Kathi Fisler and Shriram Krishnamurthi are bringing equitable, scalable and rigorous computer science education to school classrooms. Their program, Bootstrap, is designed to be modular and not necessarily require computing hardware, so all students and schools can participate. Educational research and teaching are not always well-rewarded in academia, but Kathi and Shriram demonstrate the profound importance of designing curricula carefully, and reflecting on them thoroughly.

Kathi Fisler and Shriram Krishnamurthi are Professors of Computer Science at Brown University (USA) and helped co-create the school-based computing education program Bootstrap.

Further reading:

Music credits: Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Integrating engineering education - Abel Nyamapfene

Theory without practice? Not at University College London, where engineering exchanges, flipped classrooms and co-learning are changing the way engineering students, teachers and community partners interact. Abel Nyamapfene explains how real-world projects, with community and industry partners from the UK to Ethiopia, are creating graduates who are ready to help the world, cognisant of its startling complexity.

Abel Nyamapfene is a Principal Teaching Fellow at the Department of Engineering Science, University College London.

Further reading:

Music credits: Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Engineering a world for everyone - Cathy Ayres

Why are tram handholds so high? Diverse workplaces mean diverse opinions, thoughts and experiences. Without these, products are designed that suit some people, but not all. Diversity & Inclusion officer Cathy Ayres outlines the challenges to engaging, and maintaining, women and other diverse groups in STEM. Without this diversity, many of us can’t even reach the handholds, let alone the world’s greater goals…

Cathy Ayres is the Senior Project Officer – Diversity & Inclusion at the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science. She describes the barriers such as time, mobility and stereotypes that stop the demographic make-up of engineering and computer science disciplines reflecting the societies they exist in.

Further reading:

Music credits: Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Florence + the machine (for helping dementia patients) - Pete Worthy

Stuck for words? Florence can help you, but only if you want her to. Dementia sufferers sometimes need a hand to make their days go better. Enter Florence, the personalised AI that aids dementia sufferers to remember words, set reminders and conduct their affairs, in a manner that is sensitive to their own personalities, wants and needs. Having dementia sufferers and their carers form the core reference group drastically reconceptualised the way that the University of Queensland Co-innovation Lab developed this product. Peter Worthy explains the difficulties, and very worthwhile rewards, of co-creating with end-users from the very beginning.

Peter Worthy, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Queensland Co-innovation Lab, works in social robotics.

Further reading:

  • The Florence project – working with community to provide better care for those living with dementia

Music credits: Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


When a game means life or death - Gretchen Miller and Kiara Bruggeman

What happens when you allow an AI to decide key ethical dilemmas? Exploring this through an interactive role-playing game, Logic Error Detected, Gretchen Miller and Kiara Bruggeman discuss community, social Darwinism and deep moral questions of life and death. Callie Doyle-Scott’s game, which forms part of the new Masters course for the ANU Cyber Institute, had players questioning systems of governance, the dire consequences of underlying (and often unintentional) biases in AI input data, and how even the best of intentions can lead to perverse, even deadly, outcomes…

Music credits: Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


AI: Old Ways, New - Angie Abdilla

Indigenous approaches to AI? Pattern thinking, Country-centred design, robotics and diverse understandings of networks are explored by Palawa woman and CEO of Old Ways, New, Angie Abdilla. Indigenous knowledges could help make AI better, and better for everyone, by challenging the assumptions, patterns and stereotypes present in underlying datasets. Explaining the interconnection that makes Indigenous lore an ‘action guide to living’, Angie champions the emergence of genuine, two-way learning and collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of knowing. By listening respectfully and sharing divergent ways of thinking, we can ‘come together…to design the future we want’. 

Music credits: Our theme music, Anders by Blue Dot Sessions, is licensed under an attribution non-commercial licence.


Engineering Heroes

Reimagine STEM was launched in collaboration with ‘Engineering Heroes’, who aired our four pilot Reimagine STEM episodes on their playlist in the month of May 2020.

Engineering Heroes is a podcast about engineering challenges in today’s society that reaches thousands of people around the world every month. It is hosted by Melanie and Dominic De Gioia, and has been running since July 2018 (Season 1 was called "Beer With An Engineer", Season 2 onwards is called "Engineering Heroes").

Head to their website to listen to our featured episodes and more.

Updated:  10 August 2021/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing