Maria Rampa: Hello and welcome to Engineering Reimagined, I’m Maria Rampa. From pitching a TV show pilot that will inspire more people to become engineers, to telling a homeowner their house will be resumed for a roadway, Felicity Furey really has covered the highs and the lows of being an engineer.
At the age of 33, the award-winning engineer and entrepreneur who was named one of Australia’s ‘100 Women of Influence’ has had an interesting career pathway to say the very least.
At the World Engineers Convention, Felicity spoke about why engineers of the future will be philosophers. Greta Thunberg and Socrates might not seem to have much in common but in Felicity’s opinion, the world’s changemakers – including engineers – have much to learn from the great thinkers of our time.
In this conversation, Kylie Cochrane, Aurecon’s Global Lead for Communications and Stakeholder Engagement, discusses with Felicity how a new breed of engineers is creating significant impact through social change and how to carve an unusual career path as a young professional in an industry where you’re in the minority.
Kylie Cochrane: Hello and welcome to the latest Engineering Reimagined podcast. My name’s Kylie Cochrane, I’m the Global Lead for Communication Stakeholder Engagement for Aurecon. My other role is that I am the Global Chair of the International Association for Public Participation. Today I'm interviewing Felicity Furey. Now, Felicity is a seriously impressive woman. Seriously impressive. She's an award-winning inspirational speaker, an entrepreneur. She's an engineer who's passionate about diversity, which is dear to my heart. She was recently named as one of the Financial Review Boss magazine’s young executive of the year, and one of Australia's 100 Women of Influence. Really tough to get into. Well done.
Felicity Furey: Thank you so much.
Kylie Cochrane: And tell me, your presentation yesterday was titled Engineers of the Future Will be Philosophers. Why philosophers and what do you mean by that?
Felicity Furey: Well, I think philosophers ask some really interesting questions and as engineers, we're problem solvers, so we're always looking for answers to questions. And in preparing the presentation, I found it really interesting to learn that some science actually came originally from philosophy. So Democrates was an ancient philosopher who actually said, "What's the smallest thing that something can be divided into?" And that's when he came out with the concept of the atom. So I think by asking really different big questions, that we can be better engineers and the future of engineering is all about how we think, not about how much we know.
Kylie Cochrane: Tell me more about that. How we think rather than what we know.
Felicity Furey: Well, I think the traditional engineering structure was, you learn a bunch of stuff at uni, then you become a graduate engineer, then an engineer, then a senior engineer. A lot of the way that we've worked as engineers has been around that knowledge base of risks and assessing structures or things like that where they're kind of, you could say more simple problems. There's a clear problem and a clear answer. But now we're getting into complex and complicated problems where we're unclear of what the problem is and we're also a bit unclear of what the solution is.
So I think our ability to ask questions and to think differently about solutions is actually going to help us be better engineers rather than, I know a whole bunch of calculations. And how are we going to get to that knowing is obviously, you know, Google wasn't around when I was at uni trying to, what's the formula for concrete strength? I can just Google that rather than carrying all my textbooks with me, but also it means we can leverage the knowledge of a lot of different disciplines of people working together to solve problems rather than just having that one expert who can design an entire structure.
Kylie Cochrane: It's interesting you say that and it actually dovetails really nicely with the presentation I gave yesterday around the evolution of engineering. So we started in the traditional space where it was thinking about what would be the best design for this particular infrastructure, and it was very efficient in terms of resources, cost, direct route, but from a liveability perspective or an environment perspective or community perspective, it was perhaps not the best approach. Then we move of course to human centred or user centred design where the engineers start thinking about who they're designing for and my challenge to the people yesterday was actually we need to be in co-design. Designing these things and engaging with the people for whom we're designing, communities, consumers, users. It makes sense, right? Yet we get some pushback.
Felicity Furey: Yes.
Kylie Cochrane: Why do you think we get that resistance?
Felicity Furey: If you look at how the world has been designed, you could say the world has been designed by 90% men. And there's implications for that. There was a book that came out this year called Invisible Women and it talked about how flu vaccinations actually were designed on male physiology. So women are more likely to have adverse reactions. Seat belt designs, airbags in cars. If your car was built before 2011 and you're a woman, you're 47% more likely to be injured, 17% more likely to die. So it's incredibly important that we have diverse thinking and diverse people who are solving these problems.
Kylie Cochrane: So why is it that we're getting some resistance from the engineering industry? Why is it so hard for them to move and evolve with the times?
Felicity Furey: I don't think it's just engineering I think, it's easy for people to stay the same and not change. I think actually though engineers have you know, great ability to be curious, and to be adaptable and I think we need to leverage those skills and those strengths. But it's definitely a challenge that we're facing in change, is people's attitudes and their resistance to change.
Kylie Cochrane: Do you think that the younger generation has a role to play here? I heard the other day that we're calling our, our generation Z engineers, so those born after '94-'95, we're calling them the Harry Potter generation, which I don't know if it is an insult or a compliment, because they are, they have a greater social connection, they're more likely to take action on social issues, and I look at my daughter and her generation, they're very much about, they work to live. They make it work around them and what they believe in and how they believe in their sense of purpose in the world. Do you think this generation is going to change what engineering looks like?
Felicity Furey: Definitely. And it's interesting looking at people like Greta Thunberg, who left school for a day and did a protest that now started a worldwide movement. So I think in today's world, 140 characters can be more powerful than an army of 140 people. Six characters #MeToo started a whole global movement. So I think that definitely young people are switched on to change. They're not standing for, how things have always been. And certainly growing up I thought to be a leader you had to be someone who's got grey hair, who's old, who's got 50 years’ experience, who's got a fancy title, like CEO, like leadership is kind of bestowed on you. And I think that's starting to flip. I think young people are saying, "I can be a leader, I can make change." And we're seeing so much evidence of that.
With people like Greta, with people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who stood up to a Congressman who had been there I think for 14 or 20 years in his seat. And she came in with a fresh perspective. Stood no chance compared to her great attitude, her inspiring talks. And it was incredible to see a young person like her who was a waitress, trump him and actually get elected. So there's lots of cases all around the world where this is actually starting to happen now. And I think young people are switched on and they're wanting to make change.
Kylie Cochrane: Do you have examples of where it's happening in the engineering industry?
Felicity Furey: Well I've definitely seen young people starting organisations like Marita Chang from Robogals. Where she's wanting to create diversity and get more women into the industry. There's a great programme that's run by the Foundation for Young Australians called Young Social Pioneers, and they get a lot of engineers through that programme who are wanting to make change in the industry or creating technical solutions, to problems that haven't been seen before.
Kylie Cochrane: I saw outside some of the Engineers Without Borders and some of the students have put together some fascinating, different stands and information at the World Engineers Convention and some of them were looking at, different products that could be used for a female menstrual cycles for example, and how that would make a huge difference in the world. Why is it that female engineers are focusing on that?
Felicity Furey: Well, I guess female engineers have a pretty direct relationship with that challenge. I think it's not something that we often talk about in public. And so they're wanting to solve challenges that directly affect them. There's also examples like there's the straw that actually you can use to drink water safely through. So, that's to address the issue of not safe drinking water in different African countries. And we actually at Swinburne had some students go over and they worked on female hygiene, on water and also climate resistant agriculture in East Timor. And it was actually really awesome to see a lot of men, working on the female hygiene and the menstrual cycle products. And it was such a great opportunity for them to learn what it was like for women in those countries. And they had no idea of the barriers that they faced.
I think also when we think about engineering, it's easy to think about bridges and structures and tunnels. But technology could be exactly like you said. I've got a really good friend who runs a social enterprise called HireUp. And they're actually using technology to connect carers with people with disabilities. So they actually build a relationship with the carer and they get to work with people who have similar interests, not just kind of randomly getting paired with someone. So there's a great guy who loves busking, so his carer is a really great musician. So I think there's so much engineering that sits behind that technology platform, but that's actually, quite a social issue that he's addressing.
Kylie Cochrane: Yeah, it's fascinating. I love the way that the new breed of engineers are bringing together social issues, with their passion for engineering and we're seeing some really exciting things as a result.
Felicity Furey: Yeah. And when I talk to young people about the future of engineering, I say there’s kind of three parts. The first part is that engineering or your STEM skills. That's kind of like your toolkit and your foundation. The second part is the people. How do you actually communicate that and solve these challenges? But none of that's important if you don't know what you want to work on, what's the challenge you want to solve in the world? So I say to young people, "Think about the challenge you want to solve, and then that foundation of engineering and people skills will enable you to do that."
Kylie Cochrane: So speaking of the challenge you want to solve in the world. One of the challenges that you and I both share, is getting more females into engineering, into STEM. How can we encourage young women to look at science, technology, engineering and maths?
Felicity Furey: There's a lot of barriers, I think it starts from when we're even little, like you know three years old, you might say to, "boys will be boys." Or you might caution girls, "Oh be careful, don't hurt yourself." So I think language is really powerful, and the meaning that we add to it. So I think it starts from that, that culture that we have around gendered roles. And so that can switch girls off from the beginning. I had never heard about engineering. My dad was actually a journalist. My mum did art. There's no engineers in my family, and I just picked subjects I liked. So I did art, I did history, I did physics, and then I got to the end of year 12, had to fill out the QTAC form. So grew up in Brisbane and what do I put? My teacher said, "Maybe you should think about engineering."
Now I thought engineers had to be really smart, get top marks. I kind of got a C in Physics, I got Bs, I wasn't the top student. I also thought that engineers did maths all day, and I hated maths. So I think young people today have a lot of misconceptions about what engineering is and what they do. And we often see the technical elements of engineering roles or those more traditional things I mentioned earlier on, around bridges and roads and or construction sites. We get young people saying they think it's men in overalls fixing cars. So I think there's a lot of cultural challenges, a lot of misconceptions. And that's what we need to shift to increase diversity.
And talking about the why of what engineers do. So you could still talk about your bridge, I would nerd out about all the concrete, but I know that's not really going to shift things for people. So, how I could talk about a bridge that I worked on, could be, well instead of people driving two hours to go from this side of the bridge to that side of the bridge, we've connected them and they can travel in just five minutes to see each other.
Kylie Cochrane: So speaking of the human element, why do you think your teacher suggested that you go to engineering? What was it about you?
Felicity Furey: I'm still in touch with him. I should definitely ask him because I've never asked him that. But I think he saw how much I loved physics, and that I was creative and he actually wrote me a card at the end of year 12 and said, "Never stop asking why." So I think that's a really great skill for an engineer to have. And I think he sort of could see that potential in me, that I was completely oblivious to. And I think having that belief really, that if he didn't have that conversation, I wouldn't have done it. And that's why I'm really passionate about talking to girls. So I think that creativity, adaptability, and that love for knowledge.
Kylie Cochrane: So you started life as an engineer, but you've taken a different path. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and why and how this has happened?
Felicity Furey: Well, I still feel like I've always got the inner core of an engineer and that's not going to change. And certainly being an engineer has helped me with my other ventures. So I just got sick of turning up to meetings and being the only woman. I would be constantly in meetings, there'd be 15 people there and I would be the only woman. I just thought, "Okay, this has been talked about for a long time and I've seen lots of reports come out, but where's the action? Where's the change?" So I thought, "What could I do, to do something about that?" And I didn't expect, I didn't think of myself as a leader. I didn't think of myself as a change maker. I just got really, really frustrated and angry. So one day I was in a meeting, we had the opportunity to do something for young girls. I put up my hands and said, "I'm going to lead this project." And that's something I'd never done before.
So that led to our first Power of Engineering event, back in 2012 and the government in Queensland gave us $10,000 towards that. So it went really well. We shifted perception of students and we had 57% change in mind from a no to a yes. We ran out of toilet paper in the girl's bathroom. So I feel like that's success for an engineering event. And because I had had that unexpected success, I thought, "Well we could really do more here." So within three months, we did another five events around Queensland and now I've done over 120 around Australia. So I think showing, for me, I actually got to see the different skillset that I had, in being a leader and creating a team. And that shifted what I wanted to do with my career.
So for the last four or five years, I've worked part time as an engineer and then done my side projects. And then a few years ago I actually quit my job to work on this full time and started a second business called Machinam. And we have maths resources called Maths in REAL LIFE. And I became our marketing and sales person, which again, I did not learn in engineering school, but that skill of a problem solver and just figuring things out really helped me start those businesses. And it's really cool to see something that you started actually creating an impact and creating social change.
Kylie Cochrane: And I think that's the thing, wanting to do something rather than talking about it. I really see that in a lot of the work and the thinking that young engineers have today. What do you think are the key skills that they will need to have as we move into the future?
Felicity Furey: Well, the World Economic Forum produced a paper this year, about leadership in the fourth industrial revolution. And interestingly they said the number one skill for leaders is empowering people. And we've changed from this command and control structure, to actually how can we support, engage and empower others. So I think that is going to be a really important skill, particularly as engineers. We need to be able to get people on side, we need to be able to convince them that our idea is the one to take forward. So we're going to have to be the influencers. We're going to have to be leaders, also be people centred.
So being a white female, I can't design for everybody, but I can still ask people what their perspective is. So I think we all need to be responsible and accountable for bringing in those different perspectives. It's going to become even more important as machines take these routine tasks. We're going to be having to bring the people skills and the human element to the fore, like never before.
Kylie Cochrane: Now, speaking of the human element, one of the things that's a passion of mine, is looking at the impact that residents and activists and communities have on impacting projects. We've seen NIMBYs, Not In My Backyard, YIMBYs, Yes In My Backyard, BANANAs, Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. And whilst those acronyms are a bit of fun and light-hearted, the issue is quite serious. What thoughts do you have on how engineers of the future will impact communities? And conversely, what impacts will communities have on engineering of the future?
Felicity Furey: I've just had flashbacks to working at Brisbane City Council as a project manager. One of my roles there was, I was 23 and I had to go tell 12 people, we were resuming their house for a road project. And it was really, really challenging. And thank God I had a comms team to help me out there. So there's everything we do as engineers is for people. And it's important that we think about all the different elements of that. And we also need to have community consultation. It's imperative to what we do. And the approach I took at Brisbane City Council was, "Consult early, consult up front, do it often." And I was really surprised to see when we did do that, how well the projects went and actually reduced our risks by so much. So as engineers, we've got to use our logic, our engineering judgement to really sift through, "Okay, how do we consult? And take on all the really important feedback? How do we take on these perspectives? But how do we also make an appropriate solution?"
So it's really difficult to design something that works for absolutely everyone. I feel like that's an impossible task. We have to make compromises in our design. So that really is the job of the engineer to take on that feedback, really engage with the community, really listen, empathise, understand their perspective. Go out on site. It completely changes my perspective on every project, when I actually see it in real life and talk to the people that are living there every day. So I think it's incredibly important and essential for not just future projects, but really we need to be doing this now.
Kylie Cochrane: I'm standing here smiling, going, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. I'm going to go on a slightly different tack now. You mentioned earlier that you're a young, white, female. What are some of the barriers you've had in your engineering career? And how have you overcome them?
Felicity Furey: In the beginning of my career as an engineer, I was really nervous about speaking up and putting my hand up in a meeting and saying what I really thought. Often everyone remembers your name if you are a minority in the room. And so I was really conscious if I said something that wasn't quite right, then people would go, "Oh Felicity said a stupid thing again." And they're going to remember that.
So one thing, in some ways it could be a strength, is that I would just, figure out everything that I had to learn. But I also felt like I couldn't ask questions. And I'm an extroverted communicator. So how I solve problems is actually by talking to people, which is a real challenge in that situation. So I realised that my opinion was actually really, really valuable. And if people don't take it on, that's completely fine. You've at least said your piece. And it seems kind of counterintuitive is when I started to speak authentically and started to speak my mind and share my ideas, people kind of liked them. And I really wish I'd done that earlier.
So I think there's a lot of barriers that I've put on myself. I don't think we should be telling women or minorities, "Well it's your problem. You need to fix those challenges." We need psychologically safe workplaces, where people can express themselves, no matter what their differences are. And we need to be open to hearing those perspectives as well. So, it's definitely a two way street of people feeling like they can express themselves and listening to those perspectives.
Kylie Cochrane: I'd like to ask you about psychologically safe because it's probably an expression that is not familiar to a lot of people. Could you just explain what that means?
Felicity Furey: Sure. Yeah. So Google did some research. They looked at what are kind of the cultures and the environments that we need to have in the workplace. And being psychologically safe was the number one thing for effective teams. So, what that looks like is people being okay to share their perspective and not feel like they will be judged or assessed or torn down. And I think that's really important for us if we're going to be taking risks or putting ourselves out there and those important jobs that we have as engineers, to really consider all the options.
Kylie Cochrane: Thank you. Now one last question, Felicity.
Felicity Furey: We nearly done?
Kylie Cochrane: We're almost done.
Felicity Furey: I could keep going for hours.
Kylie Cochrane: We could keep chatting. Some advice for a young engineer, whether it be female or male, about to start their career, just finished university. What are three key things that you would tell them to do or think about?
Felicity Furey: I remember finishing a panel and at the end I met Ming Long and we were asked a question on the panel, "What's like one skill that you need to be a good engineer?" And she said to me, "No, you don't need anything. You are enough." And I nearly cried when she said that to me. I thought, "What? I'm like, just me being me, I'm enough?" So that would be my first thing to engineers is say, "You are great the way that you are. Learn about your strengths and really leverage those." I wish, that's probably the second thing is, learn your strengths and what they are. I wish I learned my strengths early on. And the second or the third thing would be, that people aren't going to know what you want unless you actually tell them and communicate it.
It can be really challenging putting yourself out there and sharing a big idea. One thing I've been working on right now is how do I create a TV show to inspire people about engineering. And that is a really scary thought because I have no idea how to do that. But once I started putting that idea out there, I got contacted by a guy who owns two jet planes, two fighter jets and he said, "Hey do you want to fly my fighter jet so we can go around inspire people and make a TV show?" And I thought this is crazy that, I don't know woo woo universe, what's delivered. But that's certainly inspired me to keep going with the project. So actually going, what are some of those dreams that you have? Be brave and share them. Because once you start sharing them with people, that'll actually happen.
And it could be something really simple like, "I'd like to be the team leader one day." Your boss isn't going to know, if you want to be the team leader one day, if you don't actually tell them.
Kylie Cochrane: Yeah. Absolutely. Felicity, it's been a pleasure and a privilege chatting with you today. Never stop asking why. Thank you, mate. Really appreciate it.
Felicity Furey: Thank you so much.
Maria Rampa: What a fascinating episode – I really enjoyed hearing Felicity’s views, she certainly is an inspiring force. If you also enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, follow, rate and review us on Spotify and Apple, as that helps even more people find out about Engineering Reimagined. Until next time – thanks for listening.