Tweet
                                               

Community Resilience: Engineers need new skills – lateral thinking and an understanding of human behaviour

Passers-by on the street and a wheelchair

The contribution of engineers to resilience has traditionally been limited to their technical expertise. To achieve better outcomes the broader community needs to listen more closely to engineers and the profession also need to communicate in a more approachable language.

Over the last 10-15 years, society has become used to urban systems and services being provided to us, to support us in everything we do. From garbage collection to sewage, to water, to energy. 

These are just some components of our urban systems that we take for granted. But in times of crisis – storms, bushfires, flood, terrorist or cyber-attack – many of these systems can easily break down.

You can only put so much rubbish in the rubbish bin. If the garbage isn’t being collected, where do you put your bin which is overflowing with dirty disposable nappies while you sit in hope that there will be a rubbish collection next week? Do you start digging holes in your garden to bury those dirty nappies? 

In our rapidly changing world, adapting, or becoming resilient, is essential to survival. Absorbing disturbances and still functioning isn’t only necessary for our buildings and infrastructure, but also for social and ecological systems – and people too.

In systems of people and systems of nature there is a strong connection between social and ecological –  and you can’t look at either one alone when you are trying to tackle problems. 

This is a big part of where we need to go in the future if we are to develop solutions for some of these challenges. They aren’t going to be solved only by technological or technical solutions. They require an understanding of how human society wants to behave, and will require some modification of that behaviour. 

As a society we need to encourage people to rediscover their ability to respond in various scenarios which we haven’t thought of yet. 

But how do we encourage people to take more interest in their own resilience, in their ability as a community to survive when certain services are not functioning as they had been? When we have no petrol, what happens then? Or when you flick the switch and there is no electricity, or turn on a tap and there is no water? 

Potentially it’s a script for a disaster movie, but we can’t dismiss it as fiction. We need to be encouraging people to think about “what would we do if that happens”. 

But there are so many potential scenarios that we can’t even conceive, so how do we plan and prepare a community for impacts we don’t even know exist yet. This is one of the biggest challenges to fostering a resilient community. 

At the heart of a resilient community lies an understanding of human behaviour and the ability for lateral thinking. 

We can’t hope to have sensible strategies, accessible plans for community resilience without having a good understanding of human behaviour and how that can be channelled in a crisis situation.

Resilience is achieved most effectively when communities can deliver and support themselves, instead of relying on other systems and services.

The role of the engineer in achieving community resilience is crucially important, but engineering solutions in isolation are not enough. As engineers we need to think about our roles as members of the community. We also need to encourage people to take a greater interest in their own resilience.  

Some would call this the “soft stuff”, but in my mind, the soft stuff – the understanding of human behaviour, the managing change aspects – they are the most difficult to get right. 

The soft stuff is something that engineers aren’t usually considered to be capable of –  but that doesn’t mean they can’t be! 

As a profession engineers are taught to think directly about problems, rather than laterally, about problems. Engineers are usually far more comfortable dealing with physical laws – put an equation to them and they can tell you how thick a beam needs to be and how many reinforcing bars it needs. 

But once we start wondering about how a community would respond to certain situations, and how might we best build a plan for potential responses … it’s a whole other ball game. 

Yes, technical knowledge will play a part in combating resilience challenges, but new skills, new thinking, new approaches are needed.

As a profession, we need to canvass alternative solutions for these scenarios. And to do this we need to be working as part of a system. 

Engineers know too well about systems and the way things are connected – the design of one part of the system to resist may lead to a disadvantageous outcome somewhere else because of the system effect. 

Engineers need to be part of a team 

An engineering background is a great way to address some of those scenarios and think through how to solve them, but what’s needed is a combination approach with other experts. 

Engineers need to be part of a team that is thinking about crisis events, rather than doing it alone – working alongside climate change specialists, change management specialists, project management and so on. Digital experts to are playing a greater role in engineering, with companies hiring digital guru’s to work alongside engineers and provide a whole new perspective in terms of solutions. 

How can the skills and capabilities of those digitally proficient people play a part in all of this? Engineers have to be asked the right questions to be able to give the right technical answers.

This new team approach and the new skill set (of understanding human behaviour) needs to be reflected at tertiary level too. 

We are seeing trends in the education sector where there is a closer convergence between commercial and academia, where industry and universities are co-locating for faster commercialisation of research. 

We need to envisage a fourth year university elective, which involves thinking through a community challenge scenario where students have to work out how to support a community that is facing physical challenges because the water supply isn’t functioning and electricity is down. 

A lot of fourth year engineering students wouldn’t know where to start unless they’ve had some training along the way. Is this a shortfall of our current education system? 

This is where collaboration with other students, cross faculty learning, would be extremely beneficial. The siloed approach to tertiary education does nothing to assist in that regard. We have a challenge to think about how we can put those cells of knowledge together in different combinations that will provide a path way through this.

There is no doubt that a big part of achieving community resilience is what engineers are trained to do – the technical aspect of designing and building resilient infrastructure, buildings, systems. 

But engineering solutions to stresses or shocks must be a more holistic blend of physical design and human behaviour elements. 

This skillset will be key in designing solutions which provide comfort to communities through the knowledge that, although some aspects of their community may not survive a particular stress or shock, as a whole it could continue to function – some roads may be blocked, some bridges may be washed away, but alternate routes are available for food deliveries, garbage collections and ambulances to get to hospital, all thanks to the lateral thinking engineer of the future.  

Engineers do have a lot to contribute to this important topic, but traditionally they haven’t been considered as contributors to the wider debate. 

Traditionally they have only been considered as contributors to a technical conversation. Their potential contribution relies on them being listened to by the broader community, but also in the engineer’s ability to communicate in a more approachable language.


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have Your Say
Submit an Article »

More Articles on this Topic