Humanitarian Engineering Conference 2019 - A Student’s Perspective

One of EWB’s yearly highlights is the Humanitarian Engineering Conference, and 2019 was no exception. All those who attended heard from many amazing speakers and had the opportunity to talk with other like-minded individuals about humanitarian happenings. The general consensus seems to be that everyone had a great time. But what was it like for a student member who attended for the first time? One such student offers their thoughts on the day.

The Humanitarian Engineering Conference is a highlight for many EWBers, and having missed it last year, I decided to be sure to go this time around. Being a student member of EWB, I knew of the many hours that the Conference Team had put into making the event a success, and was excited to see the results of their hard work. As it was my first time attending, I didn’t completely know what to expect, besides the fact that the day would be all about, well, humanitarian engineering. In all honesty, I was intimidated by the name of the event alone and wondered if I would feel out of place among the other attendees, especially as I knew there would be many professionals present who were highly experienced in the field of humanitarianism. However, I soon came to realise that my concerns were unwarranted; the day turned out to be a fantastic experience and was a great opportunity to hear from and interact with like-minded individuals about topics we are all passionate about. 

The day started early, and as I saw the mass of mingling people when I entered the University of Auckland’s Engineering Building, I started to feel apprehensive and immediately sought out any familiar faces in the crowd. But that feeling of unease quickly ebbed away after everyone filed into the lecture room for the first portion of the day. It was the image of both students and professionals alike, seated in a lecture room and eagerly awaiting the speakers of the morning that made me realise that we were all, at least for the day, essentially the same. All of us were there to listen to each others’ experiences as humanitarian practitioners and gain inspiration. And as the day progressed, I had the pleasure of speaking with several cool people which solidified the fact that there was nothing to be worried about. This was not an exclusive event at all; anyone could attend and feel comfortable no matter if they were new to the idea of humanitarian engineering, or a veteran in the field. 

Many amazing speakers took to the stage throughout the day and I enjoyed listening to what they had to say. I was surprised by how little I knew, despite being a part of EWB for almost two years. Everyone spoke of projects and initiatives that are highly valuable and ingenious, and deserved to be widely acknowledged. An example is The Living Building Challenge, where those who participate seek to create spaces that, as put by the International Living Future Institute, “give more than what they take”. It was great to find out that this initiative had spread to New Zealand, with Tūhoe Te Kura Whare being the first in the country to accomplish this challenge. I also learned, through several different speakers, of the importance of viewing situations through a cultural lens, as to be humanitarian engineers means to work with communities, and in order to do so, the communities’ perspectives and beliefs need to be understood. It was very eye-opening to see just how different, and better, the results can be when this is done properly. Another highlight for me was hearing about UNICEF’s use of innovative design to tap into water reserves deep underground to provide for many rural villages in Ethiopia. In addition to bringing clean and safe water for the people, projects like these mean that women and girls would no longer have to sacrifice their lives walking for water, therefore opening up new possibilities for them such as education. It was very disheartening to see the contrast between their lives and my own, but it made me recognise the importance of humanitarian engineering around the world and the need to take action. 

Despite my initial worries, the Humanitarian Engineering Conference was a great occasion that provided a welcoming atmosphere for all its attendees. The event was an excellent opportunity to hear more about various approaches to humanitarianism and is worth every dollar spent (the catering was also very good). It was a day full of inspiration and learning and I would highly recommend it to students and professionals alike, regardless of experience; all you require is an interest in learning about and helping communities in need.

Check out more photos of the day here!

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