I recently interviewed Wim van Schalkwyk, an engineer who has danced along to an unconventional song throughout his engineering journey. After working as an industrial engineering graduate for a couple of years, his travelling spirit was unleashed in a short sabbatical touring South East Asia; an experience which forever changed him. On his return to the motherland, he founded a small design and online marketing start up. But the twists and turns in his dance did not stop there and he glided into International Development in Southern and Eastern Africa after which he waltzed into Aurecon.
Aurecon is a global consulting engineering firm who prides itself in making it’s clients ideas a reality and is currently pioneering Afrikan Design Innovation, a human-centered approach to co-designing solutions to challenges. As the Aurecon Design to Innovate Partner, van Schalkwyk hosted two training workshops at the Gauteng campuses of the student chapters, in collaboration with EWB-SA. The student chapters were trained in the application of the human-centered design, engineering and innovation to projects which with social impact.
Van Schalkwyk feels that defining the HCD philosophy as one which simply puts the end user at the centre of the design is to trivialise the philosophy. For him, the HCD philosophy, is one in which the end users are included as co-designers in the design process; a practice which not only enhances design solutions but only empowers and maintains the dignity of the user.
The users, the humans, the people. This is exactly what inspires van Schalkwyk to continue his dance into community development. People who have faced greater hardships than him but who do so with great resilience and happiness.
His advice to aspiring engineers is to, “Travel! Embrace diversity. Intentionally put yourself out of your comfort zone – that is where growth is waiting! Oh, and don’t assume you know - go out there and speak to people.” In short, go forth and embrace your travelling spirit, young engineers. Travel through the rest of the exciting interview below.
1. Describe your engineering journey.
I have an unconventional journey. I started my career as an industrial engineering graduate at SASOL in Sasolburg. After a couple of years, I was privileged to take a short sabbatical to free my travelling spirit by touring South East Asia on a shoestring. This was truly a life changing and humbling experience. Back in South Africa, I founded a small design and online marketing start up – helping companies leverage the increasingly complex digital landscape. Then unexpectedly I transitioned into the world of International Development – working for a DFID-funded regional development programme in Southern and Eastern Africa. After all these bends in the road I landed at my current employer Aurecon – a global consulting engineering company who prides itself in bringing its client’s ideas to life.
2. What prompted your involvement with EWB-SA?
Earlier this year, Paul Ssali, a mechanical engineering graduate from the University of Pretoria (UP), shared with me how he realised after starting at Aurecon that this company takes human-centered design seriously. Since he played a very active role in the EWB-SA student chapter, EWB-UP while studying, he saw the value that Aurecon could bring to show engineering students what human-centered design looks like in industry and approached me with the idea to get involved with EWB-SA.
3. Recently EWB-SA and Aurecon collaborated for a couple of workshops/events, what did these workshops/events entail?
As Aurecon Design to Innovate Partner, I was joined by Paul to host two training workshops at Gauteng campuses. EWB-SA chapters at University of Johannesburg (EWB-UJ), University of Witwatersrand (EWB-Wits), University of Pretoria (EWB-UP) and Tshwane University of Technology (EWB-TUT) got training on how to apply human-centered design, engineering and innovation to social impact projects.
4. Describe what your work at Aurecon entails.
Aurecon is pioneering Afrikan Design Innovation, a deeply human-centered approach to co-designing solutions to complex challenges (read more here). I proudly lead this programme in Afrika – engraining this approach in everything we do as a company. A lot of my work is about transforming fixed mindsets and inspiring new approaches and possibilities for both colleagues and clients.
5. What does HCD mean to you?
It’s very easy to say “put the human / user at the centre of design”. That’s the textbook answer. I believe the HCD philosophy challenges us as designers to go much further. We need to find clever ways to include users as co-designers in the whole process. In practice, that is really hard. But I am encouraged every day to see the empowering effect of giving people a voice in our projects. Over and above the fact that our solutions are better – it empowers and gives dignity to the people that is taken along the design journey.
6. What sparked your interest in community development?
People inspire me.
People living lives more difficult than mine – but often with more resilience and joy.
7. How have you been able to utilize your skills as an engineer to assist/ empower communities?
I chose Industrial Engineering as a career because of its integrative and cross-disciplinary nature. These skills are helping me every day in the projects I do at work – many of which impact, assist and empower communities. We are currently doing work for a mine in the Northern Cape aimed at designing a housing benefit policy to enable workers to build and own their own houses. The project team has fully embraced the human-centered co-design methodology and it is amazing to see the impact that this empathetic approach is having on everyone involved.
8. What do you feel you have acquired/gained (both for your professional and personal development) through your association with EWB-SA?
The recent workshops have been my first exposure to EWB-SA. I was left incredibly inspired after seeing how committed these young students are to use their skills and strengths to have a positive impact in our country. I salute the work that EWB-SA is doing to give these students the various skills they need to be future-ready engineers with impact.
9. What advice would you give to aspiring engineers?
Travel! Embrace diversity. Intentionally put yourself out of your comfort zone – that is where growth is waiting! Oh, and don’t assume you know - go out there and speak to people.
Wim van Schalkwyk interviewed by Dhruti Dheda
Read more about the HCD workshops held in conjunction with Aurecon and EWB-SA: Afrika with a "K": Aurecon and EWB-SA HCD workshops
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