Kalay Maistry: Hello, I’m Kalay Maistry. In today’s episode we are doing something a little different and looking back to see what we can learn from season one of Engineering Reimagined.
Engineers create a positive legacy for humanity. The work they do makes a difference in the lives of current and future generations. Think about the cup you drank your coffee out of this morning – what was it made of? Did you travel to work by catching a train, walk across a bridge to get to your office? In the future would you like to jump in an autonomous car? I certainly would but there are major barriers that need to be overcome to make this dream a reality. What does it take to solve these sorts of complex challenges?
The inspiring guests we’ve interviewed for this podcast may provide a clue.
When we asked about how they’re helping to reimagine the future, three key themes emerged – passion, collaboration and innovation. Today we are sharing highlights from three episodes – spanning sustainability, the law and Mars – that sparked great debate and explored these areas in detail.
There was no shortage of passion, collaboration and innovation in our chat with University of New South Wales Professor Veena Sahajwalla, who invented ‘green steel’ technology, which has transformed recycling. Interviewing Veena is Kourosh Kayvani, Aurecon’s managing director for design, innovation and eminence. What inspired Professor Sahajwalla to lead us to a better future? Let’s find out.
Kourosh: Veena is revolutionising the science of recycling to help global industries safely use toxic and complex waste as low-cost alternatives to raw materials and fossil fuels. Veena's passion focuses on mining the mountains of rubbish and waste materials produced by modern society, and reusing them in industrial processes to create new goods.
Veena, one of your major breakthroughs came when you invented an environmentally-friendly process that recycled rubber tyres from used cars into parts replacement in steel-making. Your process was patented, won multiple awards, required less energy, reduced carbon emissions and reframed rubbish as a valuable resource. The first question I have is, why had no one else thought of doing this?
Veena: Sometimes it’s one of those discoveries that actually happens because you've thought about the science for so long it was very much about saying, "Well, you know steel-making requires all kinds of exciting high-temperature chemical reactions”, so it's about where, at the molecular level, we can source these types of inputs from? People may realise that steel is nothing but an alloy and, at the very basic level, it's iron and carbon and potentially many other elements.
So, the ability to in fact have another source that can offer carbon as a fantastic resource in that process of making steel was really something that came about as a result of one of those moments when you're sitting and looking at the phenomena in your labs, and you actually are going, "Wait a minute. Actually, at such high temperatures, the transformation of complex materials takes place to the point where we can reform those fundamental molecules." Steel-making temperatures are so high that at 1550 degrees Celsius, you're triggering off that transformation. What we've done is reform that complex tyre into these absolutely simple molecules of gas. That's really where it's exciting to think that we should be looking at materials not just simply at the macro level, a big tyre, but rather, if you could zoom down at the micro level, and you could actually reimagine what those elements might look like under different manufacturing conditions. There should be no limits in the way we look at how our resources are in fact being sourced, to me, it's absolutely fascinating and mind-blowing and that's why I love engineering so much.
Kourosh: Where are we at with the industry uptake of this process in terms of percentage of steels being made using this recycled tyre approach?
Veena: We've been very, very privileged that we've got industry partners in Australia and of course, in other parts of the world who have been excited about the technology. We've indeed commercialised this technology in Australia and overseas, and that's been an absolutely fantastic privilege for me and our team. When you collectively look at the number of tyres that we've recycled as a result of this Green Steel Technology in Australia and overseas, we've actually exceeded 11 million tyres globally using our technology.
Kourosh: That's fascinating. I guess the outcome is for all of us to see. The second question for you on that note is, why the field of waste? What inspired you to focus on that area?
Veena: There are a few elements as to why I was passionate about waste from early days when I was a kid growing up in Mumbai, because I mean one thing is, of course, in places like Mumbai, you do see waste everywhere. But, as people may know there are many, many people who make a living as waste pickers, and I think to me, that's a very important function. A society cannot exist if we don't have that very important function, so it's an important part of our everyday lives. Particularly, in so many developing economies where we hear stories about where people work under some very horrific conditions, working with really difficult waste materials.
There was also an element that we are not recognising and rewarding people who work in that space. What if we could value add, so that it doesn't just stop at picking and collecting waste, but rather also transforming them into value-added materials and products?
Kalay Maistry: That was fascinating. The passion that Veena has for her work is truly inspiring and I can’t wait to see what she does next. Her team have recently worked with Planet Ark to create a tile made of ground up coffee beans; the innovation is incredible.
Next, what did we learn from a professor of law to help us reimagine engineering? Many contracts contain legal jargon beyond the comprehension of most people. Professor Camilla Andersen from the University of Western Australia has trailblazed the development of visual contracts. How did lawyers and engineers come together to innovate? Interviewing Professor Andersen is John McGuire, Aurecon’s Managing Director for Built Environment.
John: Welcome Camilla. It's great to have you here.
Now, we've known each other for probably the last two years, working together to find out how lawyers and engineers might be able to come together to innovate, and perhaps, disrupt engineering and the law at the same time. Isn't that a cool project?
Camilla: It's very cool, and it's been an awesome two years. I couldn't have had a better sponsor than you and Aurecon. It's been a great ride, and it's led to so many big things. So, yes, I often define this project as changing the moment you walked through my door, and it really did. So cool and thank you.
John: We're going to learn all about it now. If we go back to the beginning, and you recently mentioned to me that in Australia, two insurance companies are refunding more than 60 million Australian dollars to over 110,000 consumers after selling insurance that the corporate regulator ASIC said was of little value.
This just highlights that contracts and agreements are so often incomprehensible, that we don't bother to read them, let alone understand them.
So, taking that as background, my first question to you is, what prompted you to go down the path of researching and developing a visual contract?
Camilla: Well, as I often say when I'm asked about where this crazy project of comic book contracts came from, it was never really meant to be a project. It sort of happened, as I think some of the best things in life do. I was doing a favour for a friend, Adrian, from the engineering department. He wanted me to draw up a contract, but as he said, oh, he bloody hates lawyers and they're always being so argumentative and putting things out that people don't really want to read and making enemies out of people.
And we agreed that on the back of some of the design thinking that was going on in Scandinavia, and thinking about visuals in contracting, why not just take the leap and do a comic contract. So, we did this, and we had fun with it and I didn't think much more of it. Then I informed my research colleagues in Scandinavia in the Proactive Nordic Think Tank about what we'd been doing. They got very excited, and they linked me up to Robert De Rooy in South Africa who was doing similar contracts, but for very different reasons. Not to try and make people read contracts, but to make sure that they could, because most of the people that he was contracting with were illiterate domestic farm workers, or domestic workers.
So very different avenues into a very similar project. The moment that Robert and I linked up, the media got wind of it and they were very excited about what we were doing in terms of visualising contracts, and bam! Suddenly, we were getting all this interest, and then you walked in my door saying that you would be very keen for us to work with Aurecon on your employment contract. The rest is more or less history.
It is really shocking to me as a lawyer when I realized exactly how broken contract law has become: to the extent that people not only don't read their contracts, they don't expect to be able to read them. They don't expect to be able to engage with them at all, and the contracts are just punitive instruments for lawyers.
John: So, we've now had the employment contract, the comic contract in Aurecon for over a year; and we have had eight hundred plus employees engaged on this new contract. The results to date have been beyond all our wildest expectations. Clearly, we haven't had a dispute, which is a positive thing, but it is the other benefits that we are seeing – just the immediate engagement with employees to Aurecon understanding this notion of playful with serious intent, this notion of innovation, and this notion of culture. That has been really important to us. What else has been happening in this space? Where is this now going? Is there a large amount of interest in this particular field?
Camilla: There certainly is. I've been engaging more industry over the last year and a half than I have the whole rest of my career, in terms of prospective engagement with what they actually do, which is very gratifying. I've always had industry engagement but now it's gone completely amok and that's great.
So I can't tell you who they are, but I can confirm, we have a large research project with a major bank and they are hoping to do to their banking client contracts what you've done with your employment contracts, change the face of banking and change the way that their clients engage with their legal rights, because clients don't read their contracts but they really should. They're hoping to increase transparency and a lot of different aspects of the relationships with clients which is very encouraging.
John: What does this mean to you as a lawyer, starting in Europe and coming to Australia, and practising the law and teaching the law? What does it mean to you to be able to, at this part of your career, changing the face of law, changing how parties come together? How does it make you feel?
Camilla: I think you just made me blush, John. That's a very rare feat, well done. I think it's humbling. People call me an innovator and an entrepreneur, and I get cagey about that because I don't see myself as an innovator and entrepreneur. I'm a researcher, it's my job. I'm supposed to rattle the cage and see what new things work, what doesn't work.
Kalay Maistry: That was such a great example of how passion and collaboration can lead to innovation. Next, let’s hear from someone who has volunteered to leave Earth permanently and move to Mars. Aurecon Associate Dr Gabi Wojtowitz interviewed Dr Adriana Marais, one of Africa’s foremost physicists and an aspiring extra-terrestrial. Is living on the red planet possible?
Gabi: Since childhood, you have dreamed of living on another planet, what is the appeal?
Adriana: I don't know. I guess I just got born with a bigger view of what my place in the universe. No, I've never seen myself as being limited to this planet, and there's a lot of odd things that we do on this planet. My real hope is that we can upgrade the way we think here on Earth. Space exploration seems to be an extreme but effective way of really forcing people to think differently by achieving really improbable things.
Gabi: Does anything about it scare you?
Adriana: No, I mean what scares me is the kind of blindfolded way in which people on Earth live. Our population is exponentially increasing, in a lot of areas, at least. Guess what? Our resources are constant. We're living on the same rock that we've always been living on, and we carry on consuming at the same rate. This is scary. This is crazy. Wanting to go and establish an extremely resource-constrained settlement on another planet, this is great. This is the future. Demonstrating how we can live in resource scarce environments. I hope we don't find ourselves in the situation on Earth where we are forced to deal with such a situation. I hope, rather, that we can gradually just change the way we behave. But, unfortunately, we don't seem to be acting quick enough and, perhaps, demonstrating a community on the surface of Mars is the wakeup call that people on Earth need as to what's possible, using solar power, highly-efficient water management systems, and even air production from scratch. How do we engineer systems that can be manufactured from local resources without negatively impacting the environment, once we have these resources how can we keep them within the system and all the equipment and construction implications that come with that? Also based on what we're gonna be able to access on Mars. So, whatever we extract will be painfully extracted with a lot of power and resources used for that, so it would not make sense to not recycle even the sweat that comes off your forehead would in principle get sucked into the ventilator and purified. You know, the salts would be put on the table. Now you can tell I'm not an engineer, but in principle these things are possible. When you're looking on a molecular level at resources and living such a thin line between life and death, then you really realize how precious resources are and how much an easy ride we have here on Earth.
Gabi: What do your family and friends think about of you wanting to live on another planet?
Adriana: Totally supportive, think it's completely in character, yeah. Would be proud to know me if this happens. Of course, this hasn't happened yet, I'm not an astronaut yet, I haven't been to space. Being one of the first humans to live on Mars, this is a huge dream. But I'm into bigger ideas, I don't think I've got any time to waste in terms of investing in smaller, not there's such a thing as a small idea but I'm like, I'm on this planet once, let me try and leave it. So, yeah, friends and family can understand that that's who I am. My dad has written a book based on me, my mother does numerous interviews saying she would never stand in the way of a dream of a child of hers, 'cause a lot of other mothers ask her, "How could you let your daughter go?" and she's like, "Let? How could I prevent my child from living her dream?" So, I'm lucky to have a supportive friend and family base.
Gabi: The Mars One project has had financial problems; do you still believe the project will get you to Mars?
Adriana: The Mars One project has never had any money, so for us and Mars One, nothing changes. Guess what? We don't have a billionaire funder, unlucky us. So, funding has always been a challenge and it continues to be. The Mars One project has been hugely successful. Sheldon Cooper has volunteered for Mars One on the Big Bang Theory, Lisa Simpson's volunteered for the Mars One project on The Simpsons, Cartmans' girlfriend has volunteered for the Mars One project on South Park and yeah, this is amusing, but also important because this has been the contribution that's entered into conversation. Even when it's bad press, it's press about getting to Mars which is what we didn't have before. We've got the National Geographic series on Mars, we've got the Martian with Matt Damon, we've got all of this popular culture conversation happening around the project, so in my mind the Mars One project has already been a success, it's brought together a hundred people who are dedicated and prepared to give up their life on Earth to make this possible, and the opportunity to count myself amongst these other ninety nine has really been a privilege. So, there's absolutely nothing that's gone wrong with the Mars One project, maybe they've bitten off more than they can chew, but that remains to be seen. I mean personally, I don't think any of the ninety-nine others or myself have ever invested all of our hope with Mars One. It's a start-up, you know? A start-up having financial problems, it's not really uncommon. Personally, I've been endeavouring on all fronts to support the Mars One project and do parallel activities. The Foundation for Space Development South Africa is initiating a project for the winter of 2020, where we will take a dozen or so people to Antarctica for an over winter expedition. It's an off-world settlement simulation experiment, so the conditions in Antarctica, especially during winter, are most closely analogous with what it would be like to live off Earth. It's completely isolated, no ships can come and go, no helicopters can come and go, there's no visibility, no light for some days. So, these conditions are close to the kind of cold you will experience on Mars, the kind of isolation. And for the testing of hardware this provides a fantastic opportunity to test the lifetime of lithium batteries under these conditions. Can we support the diesel generators with some hydrogen fuel cells? Can we develop a wind power generation system? How will we grow food indoors? So, this is very analogous to what we would do on Mars. Water is easily accessible in Antarctica, you just have to shovel it, so that'll be part of our activities. On Mars, it's a bit more complicated where only two percent of the sand is ice. Importantly besides the technology and the research aspects of it, and the community and the interaction between the people will really be crucial in terms of the success or failure of the projects that each person brings to the mission. So, we'll be opening up applications to the public. We haven't announced it yet, we're still finalizing discussions with partners from government agencies to tech companies to aerospace companies.
Kalay Maistry: We hope you enjoyed this recap of our first season of Engineering Reimagined. Don't forget to share this episode on social media and leave a review for us where you’re listening – we want to know what you think! Tell a friend or colleague about us, they can find the podcast by searching Engineering Reimagined wherever they listen to podcasts. Coming up next, we’ll reveal the most popular episode of season one. Stay tuned!