18 Aug 2020
What is humanitarian engineering?

Chair of RedR Australia, Robert Care, explores the future of engineering in a post-COVID world.

On World Humanitarian Day, Prof. Robert Care AM, Chair of RedR Australia reflects on the important role engineers play in supporting humanity. He believes engineers needs to build for humanity first and use the engineering profession to affect positive change for marginalised communities globally – something called ‘capital age humanitarianism’.

“There is going to be a greater need for humanitarian engineers in the future. It is not just about designing and building things but understanding the social consequences for people and providing better solutions for them. All engineering should be humanitarian engineering otherwise why are you doing it? COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to appreciate what we have and to help those who are less fortunate,” explains Robert.

Robert stepped into the role as Chair of RedR Australia’s Board in May 2020 – just as the global pandemic had gripped most of the world and the need for humanitarian assistance was more important than ever.

History of service

Growing up in the South of Sydney, Robert studied to become a structural engineer with a Bachelor of Civil Engineering in 1973 and gained his Doctor of Philosophy in 1978. His career with the global consulting firm Arup, which provide engineering, architecture, design and planning services for all aspects of the built environment, spanned 37 years and took him around the world building and leading high performance teams in diverse countries, cultures and economies. In 2012, he was awarded an Order of Australia for his services to Engineering, Business, Humanitarian Programs and Athletics.

His leadership style is characterised by a unique combination of humility, humanity and commerciality, and his strong sense of purpose inspires others to achieve great things alongside him. In his new role as Chair of RedR Australia, he plans to continue the great work of his successor Professor Elizabeth Taylor, strengthening the organisation’s efforts to support those in greatest need around the world.

 “I am hopeful that when we get to the other side of COVID-19 that we will be able to participate in a constructive conversation about how we come up with humanitarian solutions and get to a better outcome than we had before,” notes Robert.

“It’s about spending time reflecting on how it can be done better to ensure equality and fairness. I don’t think our job is going to get easier, which I think is a good challenge.”

A changing world

Robert believes that aside from COVID-19, the biggest challenge we face is climate change, increasing the likelihood of humanitarian disasters and conflict and creating a greater need for humanitarian assistance. 

“People across the globe are going to be forced to adapt to the changing environment, and with many displaced from their homes it will require a large humanitarian response.”

Prior to COVID-19, RedR Australia’s submission to Australia’s International Development Policy outlined that by 2030, violent conflict and natural hazards would require US$50 billion per year in global donor contributions to manage the needs of approximately 300 million affected people. Of these, 77 million climate-displaced people would require an additional US$14 billion. There is no doubt the economic fall-out from COVID-19 will exacerbate these figures.

“We will need more and more effort put into not only disaster recovery but disaster preparedness, resilience and development after disasters.”

Robert openly speaks about his own personal crises, including his three-year struggle with severe depression at the age of 50, which has shaped who he is today.

“Up until I was 49, it seemed nothing was beyond me. I went to university, got the university medal, got a PhD, got a job, got married, had wonderful kids and wife and everything was going really well and then I had a crisis. From 1999-2002 I was really struggling, and after three years I realised the only way forward was to get some help. I approached a psychologist and started rebuilding myself.”  That process took a further 2-3 years, and constant management ever since.

“As I rebuilt myself, I worked out what my purpose in life was. I was no longer the structural engineer and design analyst, but I was now focussing on the role engineering can have on increasing the wellbeing and resilience of those most in need.”

Future challenges

Robert urges those thinking about taking their skills in engineering into the humanitarian world to take the plunge.

“The people who have deployed into humanitarian crises become more engaged, better engineers and grounded from the opportunity and the experience. Whether they do it for a short or long period, the skills you will gain will make you a better person.”

Passionate about coaching and mentoring people, Robert’s advice to younger generations is to take a broad view of engineering and think about the consequences of the decisions you make.

“Firstly, we are often moving forward with such speed that we forget to reflect on the outcomes of our work and how we can take that information to make improvements in the future”

“Next, I would tell a young person that if something doesn’t seem right in the organisation you are working for – speak up. I think it’s easier in some organisations more than others, but I think we need to speak up.”

“Thirdly, seek out the people who can help you. There are people out there who will help you and are aligned to your thinking – you just need to have conversations with those people.”

Robert hopes that through his role and with his experience, he can continue to strengthen RedR Australia so it is fit-for-purpose for the future and whatever challenges lie ahead.

Find out more about becoming a humanitarian, joining the RedR Roster, building your humanitarian skills through one of our training courses, or donating to RedR Australia.