What’s your current role?
I work for the Toilet Board Coalition, an organisation that develops innovative business-led approaches to sanitation. We take for granted our sewerage systems, initially built in Victorian times to reduce malodour and protect public health. Developing countries cannot afford the astronomical amounts it would now cost to build such systems in rapidly growing cities. Humanitarian projects have developed off-grid solutions, but these are also hard to scale up. More than half the world’s population lacks safe sanitation, so a transformation is needed .
Our approach is different. We envisage a “new grid” of sanitation systems comprising flows of water, materials, energy, and data. We regard human waste as a resource, part of the natural biological cycle – in fact we refer to “toilet resources” rather than human waste. These systems have business opportunities built into them – converting toilet resources into energy and fertiliser, or using data to provide enhanced toilet services in a smart city. Also they are designed to be modular – each serves a particular community but they can be connected together like building blocks as a city develops. This makes the technology more affordable, generates income which funds ongoing maintenance, and can be introduced in a step-wise fashion, spreading the cost.
We also follow the principles of what’s called the ‘circular economy’. After the Industrial Revolution, we got into the bad habit of making things, using them once, and throwing them away – this is the linear economy. In fact traditional sanitation systems are one of the original linear economy solutions, so embedded in our culture we take them for granted. We imagined the Earth’s resources were infinite. Now we know they are not – we are running out of fossil fuels and other natural resources. We’ve also learned that over-exploiting resources causes huge problems – including greenhouse gas production, pollution and environmental degradation, and mountains of waste. This simply isn’t sustainable in the long run. And we think we’ve optimised these linear systems, but in fact there are huge economic gains if we can move to the circular model. This is based on the idea that resources are re-used and regenerated repeatedly. It’s recycling on a grand scale, combined with the use of renewable energy and preservation of natural environments.
How did you end up in your current role?
I was good at maths and physics, and engineering seemed like a natural direction to go in. I had a vague idea I wanted to work in a manufacturing environment – somewhere that actually made things. I had some technical engineering jobs, but it turned out I was much better at organising and leading teams – I liked getting things done. So I moved into more managerial and leadership roles, running factories and supply chains, ending up as head of global research and development for the drinks company Diageo. But the skills I developed in my engineering roles – particularly analytical, organisational and communication skills, and a basic grasp of the laws of physics – have definitely helped my career progression.
I’ve never had a career master plan – I’ve tended to follow a path driven by what I seemed to be good at and where there was energy and commitment to new initiatives and projects.
The circular economy idea has really captured my imagination. It calls for businesses – and society more generally – to rethink how they go about things, but introducing change can be very difficult. We all get used to particular ways of doing things. I see this as a challenge – how can I persuade a company or a politician to change what they are doing?
In my current role, I’ve got more involved in engineering again, because engineering and digital technologies provide the tools that can catalyse change in areas such as sanitation. But they are only part of the solution: we have to think about the financial arguments and the human factors that will persuade people to do something differently. Engineering is all about problem-solving, and this is just a different type of problem.
What’s the best thing about being an engineer?
One big advantage is that a range of career roles are available. If you enjoy the technical side of engineering, you can develop a successful career as a technical specialist. If you’re more like me, you can use your technical knowledge as a platform but move into management and leadership roles. These require different kinds of skills – you may be brilliant technical specialist but not well suited to management, or you may not be enthused by the practical side but have a knack for managing people and getting things done.
An engineering background can be great preparation for management. You soon learn that you can’t be an expert in everything – your job is to enable the experts in your team to perform as well as they can. The skills you pick up are highly transferable. You get used to dealing with many different types of people and ensuring that complex operations run smoothly. If you can manage a factory, you can probably manage a company, and you have an advantage over other senior managers who don’t have that experience.
More generally, engineering truly is a way we can change the world. More than 2 billion people don’t have access to toilets, for example, and engineering solutions are needed to solve that challenge.
And engineering must be at the heart of a truly circular economy. Every engineer is a designer; design isn’t just about what a product looks or feels like – it’s also about where the materials come from, how they are manufactured, and what happens to them afterwards. It’s the responsibility of every engineer to think about these questions and the sustainability of what they are designing.
Can anyone become an engineer?
There are a huge range of characters in engineering, which is part of the fun of it. More seriously, the quality of thinking needed in engineering really benefits from having a diversity of people in the profession. For me, the key thing is to have a blend of technical experts and people taking on the leadership and strategic aspects – both are equally valid and important types of engineering career.
A critical skill is clear thinking – always retain a basic sense of how the laws of physics apply to any given problem. But you also need to go beyond that and consider ‘systems thinking’ – really thinking things through in their wider context. It’s also important to be able to get on with people and communicate – there’s absolutely no value in being right but not heard.
What three things should young people know about engineering?
- It’s a way to meet an amazing variety of interesting people.
- It’s about design – not just the aesthetic aspects but the practical parts too. For some reason design now seems to be considered a profession apart, but for me engineers are the complete designers.
- It’s increasingly about systems as well as designing individual ‘things’.
If you’re considering a career in engineering, then just go for it. You’ll be doing something more interesting and worthwhile than most other professions.