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The rise and rise of immersive technologies like virtual reality has been described as the billion dollar niche. With affordable and accessible applications now being used for everything from gaming to promoting exotic holidays, people have the opportunity to experience something far beyond their own environment without ever leaving it. EWB-Australia are harnessing this to transport EWB Challenge students into the very heart of a new community; building empathy and human connectedness for more user-centred design thinking.

The EWB Challenge is the humanitarian engineering university program tasking over 9000 first year students to develop engineering solutions addressing the needs of diverse communities ranging from Cambodia to Nepal, to Vanuatu and Timor Leste. In 2016, in a unique partnership with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), EWB-Australia Challenge gave students the opportunity to develop design proposals for over 11,000 refugees living in the Mayukwayukwa refugee settlement in the Kaoma District of Zambia’s Western Province.

Aimed at improving daily life, and supporting the integration of refugees now eligible for permanent residency in Zambia, the design briefs included topics such as off-grid energy, SMS communication services, food processing, irrigation, transport and appropriate shelter. So how can students design useful solutions for a people and a place that they have never seen or experienced?

The EWB Challenge team creates an information portal for them – a window into another way of life. Spending several weeks overseas the team conducts in-depth interviews, and compiles extensive photo galleries, diagrams and maps to accurately document every aspect of life. Even the most seemingly mundane details become important, from the preparing of a meal to the storage of tools. But how to elevate all this information off the page so that it encourages empathy for people and makes real their way of life?

“We have started using affordable 360° technology to make it feel alive,” explains Tim Danes, E-learning entrepreneur and EWB Challenge virtual reality consultant. “You are empowered to look around. And when you are empowered to look around that changes the way you think about a space. All of a sudden it is not just a pin hole to look through.”

When preparing for the 2017 EWB Challenge project in Vanuatu, Tim employed the latest 360° filming techniques to build a virtual reality documented through the routines of daily life, such as lighting a fire. “When we film in 360° you can take a moment to look around, you can see the kitchen set up, see that the ventilation isn’t really there, and you can see everything else about the hut. You learn about so much more than just a woman lighting a fire,” He explains.

“Virtual reality takes content to another level,” He says “So if I take a photo of a water tank with a 360° camera then we can see that the water tank is actually 50 metres from the house and that the pipe that goes from the tank to the house is made from bamboo, and we can see a whole lot more context that just isn’t available from a single photo.”

Drone technology is now taking the experience one step further because it reveals the landscape people live in. “To capture how far away a water source really is, and what a big issue it is to get there when it is down a 100 m escarpment, I moved to a super stable video camera and drones,” explains Tim “You get elevated views and an idea of scale, which is so hard to capture from the ground. And now I have developed an app that can deliver two and three dimensional content on the same platform so you can move between both. When you actually feel like you are in the space, it really helps with your connection to the people and to the environment. It creates empathy.” He says smiling.

Building empathy is a corner stone of EWB Challenge, and is one of the most powerful differentiators of the program from other first year engineering modules. “A big part of what Engineers Without Borders’ Challenge does is teach empathy to people,” explains Scott Rayburg, senior lecturer of Engineering at Swinburne University. “Engineers are all about solving people’s problems, and how can I solve your problem if I can’t empathise with that problem? I need to understand your life, your issues if I am going to solve a problem for you.”

Jenny Turner who led EWB’s collaboration with UNHCR agrees. “Most of these students have never been to Zambia and for most this is their first experience of considering refugees and what they have actually gone through as well. So the amount of empathy that they develop through that process is really incredible, and that really comes out in the designs.”

Whilst student designs must be technically solid, the human-centred considerations of sustainability, community impact, availability of materials, and cultural appropriateness are just as important. “The Challenge really throws you in the deep end and it gets you to consider all aspects of the project,” Reflects Liroy Lourenco, a student at RMIT University. “You have got to engage with the client, and think about the user experience. I really appreciated watching the students that I was working with pushing themselves to say not everybody lives the way I do, not everybody cooks the way I do, or thinks the way I do, and wrestling with those things.”

Working on the front line with students as they develop these new skills, Scott Rayburg agrees, “The first thing that they do when they come to Swinburne University is take part in the Engineers Without Borders Challenge. They haven’t even trained to be an engineer yet and they are already coming up with a solution for someone in another country and that’s a really exciting experience, and it forces them to be creative right away.”

The very best of those student designs as judged by a rigorous university and industry assessment, are showcased at EWB’s annual Making an Impact Summit. Bringing together the very best proposals and sharing these with project and community partners such as UNHCR, is a moment when students, academics, industry and community partners can reflect on the humanitarian engineering skills students gain through the program.

“The designs that you see at the Making an Impact summit, they are very thoughtful of the communities whom they are designing for,” says Jenny “and that blows me away, that first year students are able to do that to the extent to which they do.”

So whilst engineering education in the past may not have ranked empathy as a core competency, rapid technological progress, emerging middle income economies and the impacts of climate change mean skill demands have shifted. “We need a fundamentally different kind of engineer,” observes Scott “The ones that we were training in the last generation are not appropriate to the challenges that we have now.”

Which means the user-centred design skills that students are developing can help to positively influence the engineering sector itself. “Most students will go and work with engineering firms here in Australia,” says Jenny “and so they are taking all of that knowledge and experience with them into their careers.”

The game changer for Tim nonetheless comes back to these new affordable technologies that allows students to step into someone else’s world. “Virtual reality is an empathy machine!” he says “From an education perspective content is important, but context is number one. My primary goal is to increase the validity and reliability of design projects. So that when a student creates a solution, they have looked at enough to see more of the context; to think more critically; and to hopefully produce an appropriate design idea.”