Home 2017 The Accidental Changemaker: From IIT Undergraduate to President of the World’s Engineers

The Accidental Changemaker: From IIT Undergraduate to President of the World’s Engineers

by Marlene Kanga

Engineers are changemakers. Whether we know it or not we have changed the world in ways that even we could not have imagined.  I arrived at IIT Bombay a naïve teenager with what I thought I knew engineering was all about. I excelled at mathematics and science; my father was a leading engineer and involved in many exciting projects and I had heard that IIT Bombay was the place to be. I had no idea that engineering would provide me with the tools and capacity to change the world.

My first opportunity to make change came in my second year when I was elected Mess Secretary of the Ladies Hostel. I had complained about the high costs of the food bills in the hostel, which was shared among the residents, and had observed that staff generally produced about three times the required amount for each meal, taking the rest home. So, where about 50 batata wada as were needed, about 250 were prepared, the rest were no doubt sold at Y point.

I set about analysing what was utilised and attempting to converse with the kitchen staff in what was a foreign language to me. They split themselves laughing. Nevertheless, I established a strict regime, handing out oil and other staples from a locked storeroom before each meal and cutting costs by half. I also adopted a command and control style with my fellow residents, putting up rules on the board that were all ignored. I learnt to lead through collaboration and influence. The changes came slowly but everyone recognised them, some even appreciated them. I remained Mess Secretary for my remaining four years at IIT B. It was my first leadership role, I learned to speak up, work to benefit all and enjoy the challenges.

Being a changemaker is empowering. Professor Indira Madhavan taught environmental engineering as an elective in my fourth year and inspired me to think about the social and economic impacts of engineering and how it can make a better world. Engineers are changemakers. We have “the Force,” we can create tangible solutions out of concepts and ideas, we create the future.

Engineers are changemakers. We have “the Force,” we can create tangible solutions out of concepts and ideas, we create the future.

Engineers have been innovating and changing the world for centuries, especially in India. The early civil engineers built the early urban settlement in the Indus valley at Mohenjodaro around 2600 BC, with rectangular street grids, grand buildings, and public baths. The Mauryan Emperor Ashoka built the city of Pataliputra in the 3rd Century BC, the largest city in the world at the time controlling a large empire that covered most of India. The Mughal Emperor Akbar built the planned city of Fatehpur Sikri around 1569, as a new capital to enable control of his vast empire.

The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century in the UK and Europe was driven by inventions like the steam engine which reshaped the world, yielding massive productivity improvements to those who had the means and the determination to implement them. Steam engines led to rail networks and industrialisation, jet engines led to global travel, and the first computers eventually enabled global connections and access to vast amounts of information. All this has been made possible with science, technology and engineering. The creativity of engineers changed the world, affecting the quality of life of everyone in most parts of the globe.

Engineers continue to be at the forefront of shaping our world in the 21st century. In the last 30 years alone we have seen the rapid rise of computers and communication technology. The invention of the iPhone, celebrating 10 years in June 2017, transformed our world. For example, the Arab Spring in the Middle East in 2012 would not have been possible without the extraordinary accessibility of mobile telecommunications and inventions like Facebook and Twitter.

We need engineers like never before. The ingenuity of engineers will be indispensable and the solutions they create will be as revolutionary in the 21st century as in the previous 200 years. According to the UN, more than 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities and the proportion will grow by 2.5 billion by 2050 [1]. India’s pace of urbanisation is like a revolution, according to McKinsey, with the pace of change 3000 times that of the industrial revolution of the 19th Century [2]. However rapid urbanisation requires solutions to transport, air quality, food security, water supply and sanitation, energy and telecommunications problems, which will all need engineering solutions. For cities exposed to natural disasters and rising sea levels, engineers will enable sustainable solutions to mitigate these risks and build resilience. These are just a few examples of the enormous and social benefits of engineering.

However, technology has not reached everywhere. It is estimated that approximately16%of the world’s people do not have electricity in their homes [3] and 37% lacked access to basic sanitation in 2015 [4]. Nevertheless, change is occurring and it is engineers who are making it possible.

Having grown up in India, I know first-hand of the impact of engineering. My father, an electrical and mechanical engineer, led projects to electrify the west coast of India in the 1970s.  In the same period, my father-in-law, a civil engineer, developed water supplies for Bombay and later developed four new cities including Navi Mumbai.

My ancestral home, some 400 years old, in a remote village in Goa, has changed as a result of engineering. It received electricity in the 1960s and our first tap, supplied from the public system, was installed only in 2011.  We still do not have a public sanitation system installed. Nevertheless, with smart engineering, this village is a global player with access to high-speed broadband and mobile communications now possible to nearly every part of the world. This has had profound implications on the economy and on the quality of life.

In my own career as an engineer, the changes I have been able to make have been empowering and sustaining. For example, I developed the first land use safety criteria for hazardous industries for the State of New South Wales, which were later adopted throughout Australia and in New Zealand in 2016 and Singapore in 2017, without much change. These criteria guided government planning departments on the siting of hazardous industries insensitive and populated areas. I am proud of my contributions to process safety engineering that has made a better world.

My leadership roles in engineering as National President of Engineers Australia, enabled me to make changes for improved governance and a new vision which became my Ashoka pillar, setting the compass for the organisation and still in use today.

In Australia, I travelled to various remote areas where I was a curiosity, people had never actually seen a woman engineer until I arrived.

As a woman engineer, I was constantly leading change. I was the second woman to graduate in Chemical Engineering from IITB, and I am sure I forged a pathway for others to follow. In Australia, I travelled to various remote areas where I was a curiosity, people had never actually seen a woman engineer until I arrived. I had to set the terms of engagement, in particular to visit sites that involved my work, to ensure that I could get my tasks done, always to a very high standard. Making a mistake was never an option. I even had to argue the case for the most basic facilities such as toilets for women in remote work-sites and for child care close to work.

As President of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations I have a unique opportunity to lead change by engineers. The Federation is internationally recognized and trusted as the leader of the engineering profession and can work with international bodies at the United Nations and World Bank to apply engineering to constructively and to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. My goals are for capacity building in engineering where it is needed most, in Asia and Africa, and improving the standards of engineering education and continuing professional development through shared action. Another priority is to ensure that engineering is a diverse profession that provides opportunities for participation by all, irrespective of gender, ethnicity or age, so we have the best intellects engaged in engineering.

As I take up my role as President of the World Federation of Engineering Organisation, I remain as committed to making change as my teenage years at IITB. My years at Powai transformed me from a shy quiet young woman to someone who is ready to take on global challenges. There is a great deal to be done. However, I have a clear vision of the task ahead and the role of engineers to make change for a better sustainable world. The next chapter unfolds.

[1]  https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2014-Highlights.pdf [accessed 28Jun17]

[2] http://www.livemint.com/Companies/RwcwV8fmZJIkAOljuywblK/Indias-urbanization-is-like-a-revolution-McKinseys-Jonath.html [accessed 28Jun17]

[3]  http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/resources/energydevelopment/ [accessed 28 Jun 17]

[4]  http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/publications/2012/jmp_report/en/ [accessed 28 Jun17]

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Pradeep Anand November 1, 2017 - 1:21 am

Congratulations, Marlene, for all your accomplishments and best wishes for great success in your current and future roles. Proud of you and all that you do.

Homi Kapadia November 1, 2017 - 8:54 am

Marlene, great to read this article and congrats on your upcoming role. I’m sure you’ll continue to have a great impact! Sorry I missed meeting Rustom and you when I was in Sydney a few years ago.

Parul Gupta November 3, 2017 - 6:22 pm

Inspiring article, Marlene! We need more role models like you 🙂

Sharookh Lala December 21, 2017 - 4:10 am

Congratulations on your new challenge! Best wishes for success in your future endeavors.


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