Category Archives: Theoretical Articles

What is Engineering – really?

While this seems to be an easy question to address – appearances can deceive. This entry briefly introduces how we are considering the term, and provides a base from which we will introduce and explore the broad and fascinating topic of Aboriginal engineering. The following definitions were our beginning points. Like all good models (and definitions) they are simultaneously useful and wrong – in line with Box and Draper’s (1987) observations in this regard.

Key elements are the –

  • focus on ‘problem-based’ activity
  • solution-seeking orientation
  • design and implementation of solutions to known, and emerging, problems

To these components we are choosing to add one additional factor namely

  • the importance of understanding the beliefs and philosophical bases of cultural factors that influence the shape of engineering as a social practice.

As Senge and others have pointed out – via a model called the ‘ladder of inference’ (see image below)  – the underlying, and essential, components shaping all action are culturally based meanings rooted in observable data and from which we choose specific data that will influence our assumptions. These, in turn,  inform emerging beliefs, and these create actions and visible outcomes.

When any of those initial added meanings come from opposing positions they will lead to – sometimes vastly – differing actions and outcomes. These variations in outcomes are an important element in our emerging understanding of engineering practices and will require thoughtful analysis, as concepts of Aboriginal engineering are further explored in this project.

ladder of inference


Engineering is a problem-based practically oriented discipline, whose practitioners aim to find effective solutions to engineering challenges, technically and economically. Engineering educators operate within a mandate to ensure that graduate engineers understand the practicalities and realities of good engineering practice. While this is a vital goal for the discipline, emerging influences are challenging the focus on ‘hard practicalities’ and requiring recognition of the cultural and social aspects of engineering.[1]

One of the great attractions of engineering work is the huge variety of tasks and environments in which engineers find themselves working.

From designing programs at a computer terminal, to overseeing maintenance operations for major structures like aircraft, ships, heavy earth moving equipment, mobile cranes and offshore oil platforms – there are many ways to be an engineer.

(Engineers Australia website – accessed 9/2/2015)

What is ‘Indigenous Engineering’?

Given that engineering is a problem-based practically oriented discipline, whose practitioners are concerned with finding the most technically and economically effective solutions to practical challenges, the practice of ‘engineering’ is as integral to Indigenous communities as to any other form of human society.

To many Australians the concept of ‘engineering’ is more usually associated with activities of ‘developed nations’ such as Britain was, when Captain Phillip’s convoy arrived in Botany Bay in January 1788. It may therefore be a revelation, to some people, that Aboriginal people were using highly developed, sustainability-based engineering principles and practices, honed over thousands of years of close relationship with the land and ‘country’. In a way it is blindingly obvious to say that there was an engineering component to every aspect of Aboriginal society.

However, in the years since 1788 much knowledge about Indigenous engineering has been lost. The reasons for this, and the implications for present and future management of Australian land, are large and have multiple dimensions, and remain to be fully explored.

As the first entry in this blog notes, initial responses to hearing the term ‘Indigenous/Aboriginal engineering’ include ‘what’s that?’ or ‘what engineering did they have?’ suggesting the term is somehow implausible or invalid. However, evidence for sophisticated Indigenous engineering practices indicates that the major differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous engineering, are rather more philosophical and societal than technical or practical.

We are proposing that common and shared cultural beliefs influence and shape achievements, as well as the ways in which each national group of engineers develop, their technical skills and attributes.  As we explore and share current understanding of Aboriginal engineering, we expect to illustrate – and hope to discover, or be told about – ways in which these differences influence the nature, visibility and form of Aboriginal engineering practices used throughout Australia. Much of what we are finding will require far more exploration and analysis as this work is developed, and replaced by future research.

Our current work has led to the drafting of a comparable definition of Indigenous engineering practices along the lines of

“… working with Country to develop and sustain safe and healthy living for the group, in a manner that enacts a custodial role for humans of caring for Country, including minimally disturbing the land”. (NB – thus far we have not found a comparable published definition) [1]

Of the many potential differences between this characterization of engineering, and that used by Engineers Australia, we are primarily concerned with two. The first of these concerns the sense of relationship with, and consequent conceptualising of, the physical character of, ‘country’ and ‘nature’. for example, when the Institute of Civil Engineers first defined ‘engineering’ the writer was explicit about ‘nature’ as something that exists for humanity’s ‘use and convenience’. How this humanity  responds to Nature – via the work of engineers – is evident in the constructions, reshaping and reworking of the landscape and its physicality, for human purposes. in different contexts and locations.  For many cultures land is something to be owned, worked and used as convenient. This sense of ‘using Nature for man’s purposes’ is vastly different from Indigenous concepts of relationship with Nature, which reflect a set of expectations about human custodianship of, and caring for, Nature.

Why is it important to understand more about Aboriginal engineering?

Engineering is both a practical approach to providing for social needs, and a means of representing societal beliefs and values through the means of meetings those needs. Engineers’ actions are rooted in cultural assumptions with which they are familiar – there should be no surprise in that. There is however a surprise in recognising the extent to which the cultural precepts of Aboriginal engineers have inadvertently contributed to concealment of the extent of their activity. There is also much to be learned from the demonstration of principles of sustainability. These  are becoming ever more important as modern engineering practices are leading to a re-consideration of  engineering impacts on the land – on ‘country’ as Aboriginal engineers understood it.

It seems, on the evidence available that Aboriginal engineers understood – long before other cultures – the vital importance of ‘treading lightly’ on the earth. Engineering that leaves an apparent sparsity of physical evidence for future exploration may be too easily ignored, if observers are seeking to find things that are like things they know. This has certainly been the case in Australia, and yet it need not continue to be so.

[1] Shared Values: Diverse perspectives – engaging engineering educators in integrating Indigenous engineering knowledge into current curricula Elyssebeth Leigh, Tom Goldfinch, Juliana Kaya Prpic, Les Dawes, Jade Kennedy, Tim McCarthy. Paper presented at AAEE 2014 (Wellington, NZ)