Category Archives: Theoretical Articles

Theory / and / Action

The experience of working with the Sandon Point community happened in 2013 – at the very beginning of this project. First year Engineering at Wollongong University included an opportunity for students to engage with the Engineering Without Borders (EWB)  mChallenge – a project-based approach to learning about design, teamwork and communication through real, inspiring, sustainable cross-cultural development projects (

It was decided to explore the possibility of applying that project approach to a local context, and Sandon Point was an obvious choice. However, in contrast with EWB it was possible for students to visit the actual site, which raised a number of issues about the propriety of doing so. In resolving how to address each of these issues the concept of the 5Rights© began to emerge as a coherent set of guiding principles. Their existence as a set of operating standards preceded the idea of the Sandon Point project, however applying them in this context highlighted how they simultaneously provide guidance and help to identify constraints operating in such contexts. Using them in this context set in train the evolution of this project, as well as the overall model which emerged from subsequent research, analysis and further applications of their way of guiding interactions and shaping connectedness.

The term ‘Abductive’ may not yet be as familiar as ‘inductive’ and ‘deductive’ in describing types of research but is the one most applicable to how this particular research has been evolving. In effect our work emerged from the theories embedded in the combined practice of those involved, rather than from application of theoretical concepts to those practices.

There is nothing so theoretical as good practice, nor so practical as a good theory, and these two inter-related concepts have been the guiding forces shaping the progress of our work.

As we move into the next phase there is opportunity for  co – creating theory and practice through engaging students and staff in the journey of re-discovering Aboriginal Engineering achievements, in the manner of the recent posting at

Which explores some of the science of Aboriginal civilisation, in much the same way we are re-discovering the engineering.

Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into Engineering Education (Part Three)

Engaging with Aboriginal Perspectives using 5Rights© Jade Kennedy

The 5Rights© are, collectively, a guide to our recommended approach to integrating Aboriginal perspectives into engineering education. These are responsibilities – not entitlements – and their origins are anchored in that Knowledge Gap outlined in the first of this series of entries. When people on each side of the knowledge gap are ignorant of the others’ body of knowledge, and do not appreciate its underlying values and principles, at least three possible avenues are available for action. The most damaging of these is in play when knowledge is assumed to be absent from one side. Conversely a ‘deficit model’ assumes the superiority of one set of knowledge, and operates ‘as if’ problems are solved by use of its ‘more progressive’ solutions to relevant contexts.

The 5Rights© recognise that different knowledges are involved, guides a process for acquiring the requisite knowledge to ensure that planned activity is based on adequate awareness, and even-handed acceptance of, the whole of the context. At the beginning of any collaborative process there is agreement that no one has ‘more’ – or ‘better’ – knowledge of how to define a ‘good outcome’, and each has sufficient curiosity about what everyone else brings to the setting.

Like the elements of an Aboriginal perspective these five factors must be initially considered in the sequence presented below. And, just like those other elements, they are closely interconnected, such that any one may prove to be a good starting point for preliminary exploration, while this sequence represents the order in which to proceed –

  • Right People
  • Right Place
  • Right Language
  • Right Time
  • Right Way

Each of these is described in more detail in the Blog entry titled Describing the Five Rights, (June 10th) and you are invited to explore their meanings by reading about them there.

The 5Rights(C) in Action

The case study below describes a time when all five rights aligned to create a most successful learning experience for a large group of engineering students, while simultaneously providing a wealth of options for the local community’s consideration and demonstrated that an adequate understanding of how to address the knowledge gap benefited all those involved.

Right People

In this project the people involved were SPATE members, local government staff, academic staff and university students. The most vital ‘right people’ were the SPATE members involved, a fact which was highlighted 12 months later, when the absence of those same people meant the project could not be developed further. (see the note on Right Time)

Right Place

Sandon Point is near the university campus and readily accessible. There is quite a lot of readily accessible information about SPATE and the history of its activities. There was a strong need to address the various engineering related topics for the students to exercise their creativity. The students met SPATE representatives on site, enabling them to get a deeply personal sense of what is involved in establishing and maintaining such a place.

Right Language

The situation at SPATE was discussed with the people on site, using their own words to identify their priorities and needs. Similarly discussions with the local government staff were conducted in terms of their perceptions and priorities. While the academic staff involved were the one most directly involved, the students were kept well advised.

Right Time

2013 was a moment in time when everything was aligned for such a project, as noted in ‘Right People’. And this fact emphasises the interconnectedness of all five Rights. By 2014 the series of changes that had occurred meant that Sandon Point could not be revisited in the same way.

Right Way

This is perhaps the most complex factor and is both first and last in terms of sequencing. As with so much else in life there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to get things done. Approaching a project like this while using an entirely Western worldview would have failed, because that kind of framework seldom allows scope for attending to philosophical and social beliefs  prior to taking action. Taking time to visit and sit with the Embassy people, providing detailed information about appropriate ways to treat the land. Setting technical criteria to replicate local traditions ensured that students experienced the ‘right way’ of approaching such a context, and their feedback reflected enhanced awareness of what it means to be Indigenous.

Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into Engineering Education (Part Two)

All human cultures have unique features, as well as characteristics shared with all other humans. Being human involves a range of physical factors including managing family and group life, engagement in social and individual activities like work and play, and making sustained efforts to provide for basic health and safety needs. How all these elements are enfolded into particular cultures is uniquely shaped by intangible factors called – variously – beliefs, values systems or philosophies. These intangibles are powerfully strong in shaping actions and reactions, yet also very subtle and therefore hard to discern either from ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ their sphere of influence. Those for whom a particular set of beliefs and values are the ‘norm’ find it hard to consider that anything else could be viable, while those for whom it is unfamiliar and even ‘strange’ often have a highly judgmental view of what is unfamiliar, based on their comfort with what they know.

Given this very human condition it is not so surprising that Aboriginal culture and society was not well regarded by Europeans arriving on Australian shores from the 18th century. These new arrivals were used to living in large well-built structures, traveling on surfaced roads using wheeled vehicles, and residing ‘permanently’ in one location while having the capacity to move between cities and smaller towns. They expected to own property including land and houses, and did not understand that they were meeting a culture that had little time, or need, for material possessions and certainly did not ever consider that any one might ‘own’ the land.

Aboriginal culture as it had developed within Australia’s shorelines from around 40,000 thousand years ago, had taken a very different path from that which had evolved in Europe. Its philosophical underpinnings created a different set of actions in regard to land and property and relationships with land and each other.

In Europe, as on other continents, some beliefs are held in common across a wide span of land, while each national grouping, within that space, has its own highly specific characteristics. It was no different on the Australian continent. Aboriginal nations had delineated lands whose boundaries were more or less clearly understood by all involved. Similarly their social and cultural beliefs shared a large body of common knowledge, while there were also highly specific and distinct sets of localised knowledge and beliefs. This fact is not well understood, even in the 21st century, and there continues to be a widespread tendency to assume a complete absence of variation among Aboriginal peoples in Australia.

Localising this Aboriginal Perspective

Accepting that ‘difference’ does not mean ‘less than’ or ‘more than’ requires acknowledging the existence of this diversity of beliefs and cultures. It also means understanding enough about the underpinning differences. Such ‘understanding’ is not expected to extend to unquestioning adoption of specific beliefs and values, however it is essential for sustaining respectful attention to their implications for achieving effective communication.

To achieve this within the constraints of the Engineering Across Cultures project we have drawn on a specific set of beliefs based in the Illawarra region of Australia. While anchored in the wider traditions of Aboriginal Australia, and grounded in the proposition that applications of our model, outside this region, uses of this perspective must be calibrated with perspectives of the region where it is to be used. As far as possible we have formulated this perspective to align with the broader framework of Aboriginal beliefs as we understand them. However it is vital for users of the model to establish for themselves the local perspectives of the region where they will be working.

An Aboriginal Perspective

The five items are listed in this order to indicate their cumulative impact on the behaviours and relationships among Aboriginal people. While they are presented in sequence here, even a superficial inspection will show that they are in fact a cycle wherein each one leads to the next, and back to the beginning. Connectedness leads back to country and country points in the direction of inter-connectedness. From this perspective there are no singularities.

  • Country – refers to ones connection to place. The intimate relationship one has with the surroundings, one’s nature.
  • Kinship – one’s connection to people (family, kin, people of significance). There are roles and responsibilities/obligations that evolve with these relationships, over time shaping how they bind you to ‘your’ place.
  • Culture – there is a core understanding that culture is a lived day-to-day expression of who had how to be. This culture is a reflection of the history (story) experienced within a place (country) and is particular and specific to that place and people.
  • Journey – one’s lived experiences (these can be shared, and regularly are). They are one’s lived and experienced connections over time to place, people and day-to-day happenings.
  • Connectedness – All things are inter-connected! There are inter-relationships among all things, and the harmonisation of concepts creates one’s true sense of belongingness

Keeping these five elements in mind means that non-Aboriginal parties involved in negotiations, shared learning experiences or other collaborative activities can become more adept at appreciating how Aboriginal participants engage with both people and the land.

Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into Engineering Education (Part One)

At the recent Aboriginal Engineering summit in Melbourne, we presented the model underlying our recommended approach to integrating aboriginal perspectives into engineering education. – (open link here) EAC Flyer 2015-1

This entry is part one of three entries exploring the model itself and introducing underlying principles and philosophies that inform the work of the ‘Engineering Across Cultures’ project.

As the culmination of a great deal of thought, analysis and discussion, we are finding that the simplicity of the sequence represented in this single image is both attractive and readily creates curiosity and conversation. Different people are tending to zero in on one or other aspect of the whole as they link our ideas to their own interests and understanding.

The model has the capacity to generate conversations and enquiry in ways that are both exciting and challenging. A brief description of each ‘step’ in the image of the model must begin with an understanding that it is a cycle, or spiral of development. Each step opens up avenues for exploration of the knowledge and concepts it represents. And no single visit to the model provides a complete or comprehensive understanding of its detail.

In this respect it somewhat resembles an Aboriginal approach of revealing knowledge through repetition and revisiting concepts and principles as understanding evolves. Therefore this summary of the elements within the model is not intended to be comprehensive or complete. Readers are invited to explore the image, question the model it represents and explore the elements that interest them most. The whole model is then likely to take on new meaning as emerging thoughts and ideas are integrated into an understanding of how we propose that Aboriginal perspectives on – and knowledges of – engineering can be integrated into modern engineering education.

Beliefs informing the model

Underpinning convictions that inform many efforts to redress past wrongs in regard to Aboriginal peoples are based on a superiority/inferiority dichotomy. Applying this view to the status and capabilities of Aboriginal peoples produces a ‘deficit model’ and positions European achievements – in regard to such things as health practices and engineering – as the goal to be sought. In doing so, it ignores equivalent Aboriginal achievements. In fact it does more than that – it actually denigrates and denies them, and very effectively conceals the possibility that pre-contact Aboriginal society was capable of complex thought. (see the Blog entry on ‘what is wrong with this question, to see just one example of an otherwise smart man trapped in that negative view).

Realisation of this problem emerged from exploration of the question ‘what is Aboriginal Engineering?’ This question was prompted by the puzzled enquiry from many people about ‘what engineering did Aboriginal peoples have?’ Exploration of archaeology and anthropology sources revealed the simple, and very powerful response that ‘Aboriginal people had exactly the same kinds of engineering skills and knowledge as any other civilisation. The difficulty in finding it lies in the fact that it was applied in a very different manner, in accord with a quite different social and moral philosophy summarised by the phrase ‘cause minimum harm’.

Thus the new philosophy informing our approach to integrating aboriginal perspectives into engineering education is simply – but profoundly – to begin with the concept of a knowledge gap. Conventionally educated engineering educators have not learned about Aboriginal engineering – in the same way that Aboriginal school kids do not learn about either their own traditions or more evident western engineering practices.

The knowledge gap is equal – both sides are ignorant of what is available to be learned. Acknowledging this leads to a panorama of learning opportunities that simultaneously remove the stigma of a ‘superiority/ inferiority dichotomy’, and invite collaborative exploration of how engineering principles can be so similar in conceptual terms yet create such divergent outcomes.

In short – the knowledge gap opens up learning opportunities that position all parties as equal and locates ‘knowing’ as something to be achieved through collaborative exchange of information and beliefs.

Three perspectives

For more on this aspect of the model see the Blog entry ‘Intersecting Worldviews with which to explore Aboriginal Engineering’ (May 8th 2015).

At this point the key fact to be emphasised is that the Venn Diagram presents a coherent and yet complexly challenging way of representing three overlapping Worldviews – identified respectively as Aboriginal, Engineering and Dominant. At the central point of intersection arise many opportunities for understanding more about both the Worldviews themselves, as well as exploring how over-reliance on one perspective can blind the user to the existence, and contributions of the other two.

The Dominant perspective contributes heavily to the ‘deficit model’ described above. It assures those who hold it that theirs is the ‘right view’ and forms and shapes much of what is ‘taken for granted’ in daily social interaction. Paradoxically, it is probably the ‘least obvious’ of the Worldviews given its dominance. To use the analogy of fish in water, the Dominant perspective is so integral to the surrounding social context that its influence is largely invisible, simply because it is ‘what we know’ and what we do not question.

An Engineering perspective is usually acquired through sufficient time and study within the carefully controlled conditions of an academic environment. It enables those who become familiar with it to see the world in terms of such things as measurement, construction, and problem solving. Regardless of whether an ‘engineer’ was trained in ‘Western’ or ‘Aboriginal’ concepts the perspective applied to any given set of problematic conditions will be an ‘engineering’ one unfamiliar to those who have not had equivalent training.

An Aboriginal perspective is gained through familial and social engagement from birth. Like any other social grouping, Aboriginal families assist their children to learn about the world in particular, and specific ways. This perspective is learnable, but usually restricted in the first instance to families with an Aboriginal heritage. In our model we pay particular attention to this perspective, since it is the one least known or understood by the wider community.

One Intersection

The central point of Intersection, in the Venn Diagram, provides opportunities for any two individuals to explore how the differences in the ways they view the world offer exciting opportunities for extending their understanding of all three perspectives. For engineers this is especially important, since a good understanding of both their own views, and those of Aboriginal owners of land, who are possessors of a very different set of insights into how the world works.

The next Blog entry will explore five aspects informing that insights, along with 5Rights © that provide a behavioural and knowledge map to guide interactions among all those involved in engineering projects.

Describing the 5 Rights

The 5 rights are presented here in a logical sequence likely to be the one most frequently applied to engineering projects. However it is important to realise that all five are interconnected, and any one may turn out to be the beginning point for any particular project. They were developed by the ALTC project team with Jade Kennedy


The key factor here is learning how to be confident that the people with whom you are engaging in conversation are the ‘right people’.

While it is important to find and connect with the ‘Right People’ – doing so will be complex, difficult and at times quite opaque. A general focus is on ‘elders’ – however these are not always readily distinguishable from ‘olders’. And each term and group members will need to be explored with care. Elders are acknowledged for their contributions to community, their knowledge and leadership and their ability to influence decision-making.

Each community has different lines of relationship, and no two communities are ever the same, nor will they stay the same in any one place. While this may seem complicated think of the local sports club, P&C society or political party!

Questions here include

  • Do we have the Right People for our project goals at this time?
  • How do we know?
  • What steps have we taken to assure ourselves of this?
  • What risk assessment have we done to be ready in the event that things have/are changing and we no longer have access to the ‘Right People’?

Key to success is transparent honesty about actions and intentions, avoiding reliance on ‘useful’ but inappropriate links.

Also included is valuing the people on their own terms – which will need to be discovered. Be prepared to be quizzed, and challenged.


This has four components.

  • ‘meeting places’ where discussions and negotiations occur

Meetings – will be affected by factional issues. When planning where to meet, take into account the people with whom you want to engage. One community had three possible locations – Health Centre, Community Centre and Lands Council. While everyone could access them all, planning a meeting in any one these clearly signalled a factional bias. Reaching out to the community as a whole required using a ‘neutral space’.

  • an ‘artefact place’ – when the project is based on a physical location

If the project involves a physical ‘place’ there will be sensitivities about it. Listen carefully. Respect what is said about the place – avoid expressing personal opinions about it. Observe it carefully – there is much to be seen that will probably not be evident on first viewing.

  • intergroup connections place/s

when an ‘artefact place-based’ project involves significant boundaries to be crossed consider how Aboriginal traditions dealt with such crossings and work out how to model that as far as possible.

  • Place for the work of the project

Most of the work about an ‘artefact place’ will occur on campus, not on site. Keep in mind the fact that the project itself will, to some extent sensitise participants to the importance of ‘place’, since that is part of what they will be working with.

It is vital to be highly sensitive to all these issues of ‘Place’ as it influences all that follows. The aim is to find, and ‘climb over’, the invisible wall of ‘taken for granted’ social/community mores.

Questions may include –

  • Where are all the possible places?
  • What is the appropriate place for this project? Is there more than one?
  • How do we use it respectfully?
  • If we enter other peoples’ places what is the appropriate behaviour of acknowledgement?


It is important to know the needs and timeframes of everyone involved. Being alert to the sensitivities of timing involves a lot of waiting and watching.

Patience is the watchword. Knowing the needs and priorities of the people you are meeting is vital. If they are ‘elders’ they are unlikely to be young and very likely to have needs you must find out about [e.g. ‘no meetings at 7pm to avoid interfering with a favourite TV program.’ Provide transport – a sign a courtesy. Know when – and where – they feel most comfortable.

It is likely that some meetings will begin later than you intend. And it is also likely that not all meetings will go as you intend. Allow more time than you need. Bear in mind the sequence of group development – identified by Tuckman as Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Mourning.

In Aboriginal traditions the Forming phase carries particular weight. It can take a long time to get to the point. Complexity theorists know that ‘the beginning shapes everything’ so allow the beginning to take its course and focus on what is being shaped by the combination of your patience and willingness to wait, and their interest in understanding the intentions behind your proposal.


Elders are entitle to respect – their knowledge may have no parallels in western or engineering contexts but it is vital and valuable and must be treated as such. You speech must be clear and concise, without condescension. If you are experiencing a sense of not being understood, do not impose meaning. Check for understanding – and wait for it to arrive. Eyesight, and hearing may not be what they once were. Allow for time to translate language from your terms and phrases into theirs.

An Aboriginal leader involved in the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service once described his solution to his difficulties in working with the legal jargon of white lawyers. “I hear the big words” he said “and then I listen to what follows. The meaning will always follow on from the big words.” Reversing this strategy means that good use of language begins with familiar words and terms, and only when necessary adds relevant professional terms and other jargon. Think about – rehearse – how to describe your goals without using language that is specific to your profession.

Appreciate the absence of education. The referendum acknowledging that Aboriginals are ‘people’ for the purposes of society in Australia was held in 1967! That is well within the lifetime of many people you will work with. Be alert to any unexpected prejudices you may discover about educational standards within yourself.


In some respects this is the most difficult word/concept of all. However paradoxical it may seem, it is true to say that there is, and is not, ‘One Right Way’. On many occasions it is simultaneously possible to get things ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – this may be because you have dealt with one group and got things ‘right’ only to find it is ‘wrong’ for another. The Hindmarsh Island Bridge case – – is an example of this. It has a long and well-documented history, and continues to be an example of the complexity of such issues.

Stephen Covey wrote about the important concept of ‘beginning with the end in mind’ – see This seems a viable parallel for the concept of ‘the right way’ since what you want to achieve will emerge from your management of all of the factors relevant to achieving Aboriginal engagement.

Beginning with the end in mind helps shape the ‘Way’ you operate when attending to the other four ‘Rights’. Complexity theory include acknowledgement of ‘an interconnectedness of everything’. Buddhism suggests ‘our existence only becomes meaningful through interaction with, and in relation to, others’

Mary Graham describes Aboriginal thinking on this issue in this manner –

The Dreaming is a combination of meaning (about life and all reality), and an action guide to living. … The land, and how we treat it, is what determines our human-ness. … the relation between people and land becomes the template for society and social relations. Therefore all meaning comes from land.

You are not alone in the world.


All five ‘rights’ must be aligned to achieve outcomes that will benefit all parties. While any one factor is misaligned or absent, there is unlikely to be an acceptable resolution.

What is the impact/importance of a ‘Deficit Model’

Deficit Model

Let’s begin with a definition –

  • research grounded in a deficit perspective blames the victims of institutional oppression for their own victimization by referring to negative stereotypes and assumptions regarding certain groups or communities (Gale Group 209)

An intriguing thing about such a perspective is that, those who are not subject to it, will usually find it quite hard to identify what it ‘looks’ like. Grounded in the language of the more prominent community, a ‘deficit model’ appears reasonable and normal to its members, even while proposing a view of the world where those identified as ‘deficit’ are, in more or less explicit terms, defined as ‘less than’. Conversely viewers, who are members of a community identified as ‘deficient’, eventually succumb to implicit acquiescence in the ‘truth’ of the implied ‘lesser’ perspective.

Sufficient iterations of a message of ‘in-born inferiority’ will inevitably lead to beliefs – and consequent actions – that appear to prove the message. This phenomenon is summarised in the expression ‘give a dog a bad name and hang him’ – in effect

Once we have labelled someone, our – and even their – expectations of their behaviour from then on seem to be almost wholly determined by that label. (Uncommon Knowledge)

If ‘I’ – and others like me – are superior and have abundant evidence to support that fact, then “it stands to reason” that others who are ‘unlike me/us’ must be inferior. And as I enact, and speak, my superiority I simultaneously enact and speak a ‘deficit position’ for those ‘others’. I make them ‘less’ by speaking of them as such.

Arguments, underpinning such an imbalanced worldview, are often presented as ‘facts’ apparently not open to challenge, and may remain un-assailed for generations. See for example the post on ‘What is wrong with this question?’ in this Blog.

Recognizing a ‘deficit model’ perspective in operation is not simple, but is a vital first step in implementing effective engagement with Aboriginal Engineering as a valid, factual, teachable and researchable body of knowledge. In the context of the ‘Engineering Across Cultures’ project we have concluded that it is important to have prior knowledge of the danger of unthinking (mindless) labeling. Catching one’s self in the act of speaking from within a ‘deficit model’ shifts attention to the hidden assumptions unknowingly shaping it. Acknowledging that things may not be as they have been previously described becomes an opportunity to explore what might be available for discovery. It opens up avenues for exploring ‘gaps’ in knowledge that lead to misunderstandings and wrong thinking.

Understanding the nature of Aboriginal society as knowledge-based, and acknowledging the importance of bridging the gaps between false information and accurate data, is a key early component of developing the capacity to work effectively with Aboriginal knowledge, communities and students.

What is wrong with this sentence?

What is wrong with this sentence?

Why did Australia not develop metal tools, writing, and politically complex societies?

The answer is both simple, and very complex. The question was posed by Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the past 13,000 years, (first published in 1997). His thesis is that –

  • It is impossible to understand even just western Eurasian societies themselves if one focuses on them. The interesting questions concern the distinctions between them and other societies. Answering those questions requires us to understand all those other societies as well, so that western Eurasian societies can be fitted into the broader context.

Thus his book is about understanding ‘western Eurasian’ society in terms of comparisons with others that are neither ‘western’ or Eurasian’. It is in this context that he feels able to ask a question which misdirects attention and misrepresents the facts of life in pre-contact Australia.

The simple answer to the question

Only one part of the question is accurate. It is true that Australian Aboriginals (the intended meaning of the word ‘Australia’ in the question) did not develop metal tools. in different ways the remaining sections of the question imply a set of ‘facts’ that are not true, but in different ways.

Writing and ‘civilisation’

Diamond’s assertion that there was no ‘writing’ in Australia in the pre-contact era is totally false; his position is that

  • … until the expansions of Islam and of colonial Europeans, it was absent from Australia … and the whole of the New World except for a small part of Mesoamerica. As a result of that confined distribution people who pride themselves on being civilised have always viewed writing as the sharpest distinction raising themselves above ‘barbarians’ or ‘savages’.

And his writing exhibits exactly that ‘pride’ of which he writes, revealing his assumption that the ‘writing’ he knows and uses is the only form of writing. However, Australian Aboriginals did develop and use writing in several different formats and varying in regard to both purpose and geographic location. While Aboriginal literary traditions are considered verbal rather than printed even that statement is only partly true. The linguistic difficulty here is that the word ‘writing’ has taken on highly confined meanings and written means of communication used in the pre-contact era do not conform to the narrow definitions of writing. So the charge that Australia did not develop ‘writing’, and in Diamond’s thesis was therefore not ‘civilised’, is wrong. Yet it is widely accepted, and as such contributes to the continuation of the kind of ‘deficit model’ that inhibits progress towards respectful acknowledgement of the actual nature of Australian Aboriginal civilisation.

Complex societies

And finally the assertion about an absence of ‘politically complex societies’ is also inaccurate in regard to the assumption that Aboriginal society pre-contact was primitive or unsophisticated in regard to its management of internal and external relationships and exercise of power. As Sveiby and Skuthorp demonstrate in their book, it was a knowledge-based culture, highly sophisticated in its capacity to manage relationships of all kinds and operating continuously for more thousands of years than western ‘democracy’.

To demonstrate how this is so, the three words need to be considered separately. ‘Politically’ in Diamond’s lexicon refers to the concept ‘of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government’ (Merriam-Webster) and ‘government’ in terms of such structural elements as ‘elections’, ‘electorates’ and ‘voters’ was not how Aboriginal society was managed. Knowledge, capacity for learning and in depth knowledge of genetic relationships were among the key ‘management tools’ that sustained the cultures and civilisations living in close communion with their environment for 40,000 years.

Rewriting the Question

To provide a factual answer to the question requires rewriting the question along these lines

To what extent did the pre-contact inhabitants of the Australian continent create metals, employ writing to communicate and record their lives, and apply management activities to ensure the survival and continuity of their societies?

And then we can engage in a totally different conversation about the sophistication of Aboriginal society.


Diamond, J (2005) (Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the past 13,000 years,

Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorp (2006) Treading Lightly Allen and Unwin

Merriam-Webster – accessed 4/6/2015 at

‘5 Rights’ – applied to Sandon Point

Values and beliefs influence every aspect of how we suggest managing relationships among the factors in the intersection. In this regard we developed a set of principles we call the ‘5 Rights’ to guide interactions among the three worldviews.

These ‘5 Rights’ are not about entitlements. They are about appropriateness and suitability of behaviours, and are intended to guide thinking and actions in those complex situations where the Worldviews are interacting. The ‘5 Rights’ are

right People

right Place

right Language

right Time

right Way

The following story illustrates their successful application to a specific teaching context.

Sandon Point

Sandon Point is a water front site on the south coast of NSW. In 2000, severe storms revealed it was also the burial site of an Aboriginal man interred around 7,000 years ago. As it was tagged for residential development there ensued a tense tug-of-war between the local Aboriginal community and developers, culminating in the establishment of Sandon Point Aboriginal Tent Embassy (SPATE) – which has now occupied the site for 15 years. From an Aboriginal Worldview the site is sacred. From a Western Worldview it is ‘prime real estate’ and from an Engineering Worldview it is a location where various technical problems exist. The Tent Embassy is a collection of structures sitting on flood prone land that lacks many of the facilities usually associated with residential occupation.

The need to develop Engineering solutions for some of these problems, became the focus of work as part of this project and that has been fertile ground for other aspects of our work. It was not hard to see that looking at this one space from three such different Worldviews leads to very different perspectives about what is significant within, and about, the space. In 2013 Sandon Point was chosen as the context for an assessment task within a first year Engineering subject. The process was aligned with that used for Engineering Without Borders projects – with a major variation. The students were introduced to the site, given detailed information about an Aboriginal perspective on life, society and the importance of the site, and then asked to develop engineering solutions appropriate to the site and culturally acceptable to the residents. Their solutions were shared with the local government authority, which also benefited from the care with which the students attended to the cultural sensitivities of the site while developing 21st century solutions for such problems as water supply, power generation and waste disposal.

With regard to the ‘5 Rights’ here is how they were applied to this context.

Right People

In this project the people involved were SPATE members, local government staff, academic staff and university students. The most vital ‘right people’ were the SPATE members involved, a fact which was highlighted 12 months later, when the absence of those same people meant the project could not be developed further. (see the note on Right Time)

Right Place

Sandon Point is near the university campus and readily accessible. There is quite a lot of readily accessible information about SPATE and the history of its activities. There was a strong need to address the various engineering related topics for the students to exercise their creativity. The students met SPATE representatives on site, enabling them to get a deeply personal sense of what is involved in establishing and maintaining such a place.

Right Language

The situation at SPATE was discussed with the people on site, using their own words to identify their priorities and needs. Similarly discussions with the local government staff were conducted in terms of their perceptions and priorities. While the academic staff involved were the one most directly involved, the students were kept well advised.

Right Time

2013 was a moment in time when everything was aligned for such a project, as noted in ‘Right People’. And this fact emphasises the interconnectedness of all five Rights. By 2014 the series of changes that had occurred meant that Sandon Point could not be revisited in the same way.

Right Way

This is perhaps the most complex factor and is both first and last in terms of sequencing. As with so much else in life there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to get things done. Approaching a project like this while using an entirely Western worldview would have failed, because that kind of framework seldom allows scope for attending to  philosophical and social beliefs  prior to taking action. Taking time to visit and sit with the Embassy people, providing detailed information about appropriate ways to treat the land. Setting technical criteria to replicate local traditions ensured that students experienced the ‘right way’ of approaching such a context, and their feedback reflected enhanced awareness of what it means to be Indigenous.

Developing a Model and finding The Intersection

Project Goals

The primary work of this project is to assist Engineering Educators develop and sustain inclusive learning environments by “Integrating Indigenous Student Support Through Indigenous Perspectives Embedded In Engineering Curricula”. A major difference between this approach and others presently being generated, is that the focus is primarily on assisting non-indigenous individuals and groups grasp the realities of Indigenous engineering approaches to common problems, rather than on ‘helping’ Indigenous students ‘fit in’ to academic environments.

An Unanticipated Addition

A surprising – but now ‘absolutely obvious’ – theme that surfaced as we explored this question was consideration of the concept and products of Indigenous engineering. As previous posts have indicated this has become a continuing search, and a core element of the project, although it was not a consideration at the time the project was proposed. Taking an ‘inverted approach’ to creating inclusive learning environments has led to deep and serious consideration of reasons for the obvious absence of Indigenous students from engineering classrooms and roles. By ‘inverted’ we simply mean that we are looking at those students and staff who are not Indigenous and asking: ‘what do non-Indigenous individuals need to know, understand and be able to do, to make an environment in which they feel comfortable, just as welcoming for Indigenous participants?’

Inclusive Learning environments

What we mean by ‘inclusive learning environments’ and how they can be created and sustained will be reported as we complete the nominated project outcomes of

  1. Guidelines detailing indigenous cultural values and their relationship to engineering education and engineering epistemology and design
  2. Strategies for teaching STEM related content to accommodate different ways of perceiving and valuing ideas, objects and contexts
  • Strategies for restructuring technical subjects to incorporate these accommodations
  1. A model for developing and implementing elective course content focusing on indigenous cultural appreciation that is applicable to other design oriented fields
  2. An elective subject linking indigenous perspectives on country and connectedness to local engineering projects

An Emerging and Vital Question

The value of focusing on the role of non-Indigenous individuals and groups in finding a way to close the gap in regard to low Indigenous engineering student numbers, emerged because those low numbers begged the question of ‘what is about engineering that is contributing to the gap?’

As some team members are Engineering Educators, and others are not, an early task was exploring for definitions of engineering that might help answer the question of ‘what is it about engineering?’ creates this absence of Indigenous Engineers.

To find answers we had to look well beyond the discipline boundaries, since Engineering did not seem to perceive this ‘absence’ as a problem connected to its own disposition so much as having something to do those who were not being persuaded by the opportunities on offer. An early clue to a possible cause for the disparity in perceptions was found in the definition of engineering as provided by the founders of the Institute of Civil Engineers. They proclaimed engineering to be a profession charged with

. . . directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man.” (Jordan 2012)

However, this proclamation of ‘using Nature for man’s purposes’ differs markedly from Indigenous concepts of a close and inter-dependent relationship with Nature. A succinct summary of this interdependency is in Mary Graham’s (2008) article on “Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews” which highlights these contrasting perspectives. She write that, for Aboriginals –

The land is a sacred entity, not property or real estate; it is the great mother of all humanity.

The Dreaming is a combination of meaning (about life and all reality), and an action guide to living.

The two most important kinds of relationship in life are, firstly, those between land and people and, secondly, those amongst people themselves, the second being always contingent upon the first.

This is not to imply that Indigenous people never erected buildings, mined for minerals, harvested crops or otherwise disturbed the course of Nature. In fact they did all these things, successfully, for 40,000 years.

Defining Indigenous Engineering Practices

As this OLT project evolved we experienced a need to define Indigenous engineering practices. It was evident that Indigenous engineering is highly aligned with Nature’s needs and dictates, and will therefore operate differently to practices that aim to impose their will on Nature. To aid our thinking we characterised indigenous engineering as being concerned to

“… work with Country to develop and sustain safe and healthy living for the group, in a manner that enacts the custodial role of humans as caring for Country. This includes minimal disturbance of the land.

Thus far we have not found a more suitable definition published elsewhere, so are using this to guide our explorations of the phenomena of Indigenous/Aboriginal engineering.

Two features of these very different characterizations of engineering have taken primary concern in our work. The first is that all engineers clearly face (and have always faced) the same kinds of problems about such things as: transport, housing, health, generation, preparation and preservation of food. etc. The second is that each one describes quite different ways of interacting with, and conceptualising, ‘Nature’ and ‘Country’. The authors of the Institute of Civil Engineers definition clearly considered ‘Nature’ to exist simply for humanity’s ‘use and convenience’. How their humanity interacts with Nature is evident in the familiar forms of constructions, reshaping and reworking of the landscape for human purposes that we see around us today. Land, from this perspective, is to be owned, worked and used as convenient.

Consequences of applying a Custodial vs an Ownership Mindset

Indigenous engineers used stone to build extensive fish traps at Budj Bim in Victoria and Brewarrina in NSW, (two of many such – Jenkins, 2012). Aboriginal miners conducted extensive operations across Australia (DPI 2007) including at least one site known to have operated continuously for many thousands of years at Wilgie Mia in Western Australia. They also had an array of intensive agricultural activities, all highly attuned to using a low impact engagement with Nature’s varying geographic and climatic conditions (see for example Pascoe 2012, Gammage 2010 and Goonrey, 2012). The distinctive feature of all these activities, is that their management was built on custodial principles, rather than ownership based ones. In doing so, the engineer’s intention was always to cause the least possible harm to Nature.

One consequence of this approach is that such engineering can appear to be ‘less developed’ as assessed by those who do not understand, nor share a belief in, the principles informing its operations. Like any other form of engineering, Indigenous engineering creates desired outcomes (safety, comfort, sustenance etc.) but it does so in ways that align with Nature’s needs (as well as humanity’s) and are therefore highly likely to cause uninformed observers to develop misperceptions about both the quality of the work, and the apparent paucity of the thinking behind it.

In contrast, observed through the lens of Western conditions and expectations, an Indigenous lifestyle could appear ‘primitive’ and the associated engineering ‘invisible’ and therefore non-existent. When designing solutions to problems in order to deliver sustainable solutions Indigenous engineering does not separate ‘humanity’ and ‘country’ – considering them as indivisible. The principle of inter-dependence was primary, and as Sveiby and Skuthorpe (2006) demonstrate, this leads to sustainable solutions of kinds that 21st century engineering is only just beginning to appreciate.

Framing the Connections

Bringing to more general awareness a recognition of the complexity and elegance of Aboriginal engineering solutions will be complex. After much thought and debate three perspectives gradually crystalized, using the concept of ‘ways of knowing’. These three ‘ways of knowing’ that we are incorporating into the current diagram, have both unique and shared qualities, leading to the use of a simple Venn diagram to represent their inter-connectivities.

‘Western ways of knowing’, ‘Engineering ways of knowing’ and ‘Indigenous ways of knowing’ provide the initial framework for the proposed model for ‘developing and implementing elective course content focusing on indigenous cultural appreciation that is applicable to other design oriented fields. The convention in drawing a Venn diagram is to represent the circles as having equal dimensions, but this is only a convention not a fact. Appreciating that ‘essentially all models are wrong and some are useful’ (Box and Draper, 1987) we emphasise that our image is about conceptualising a way of describing relationships among different ways of thinking. It is not a way of quantifying anything. Further it is important to identify and share basic assumptions underpinning this representation. Seeking to frame this project in a manner that acknowledges barriers, values different perspectives and provides for diversity of thinking, the Venn diagram – as presently constituted – represents a key tool for discussion, exploration and development of teaching and learning options.

A Venn diagram to connect Ways of Knowing

HOW anyone knows anything is the result of numerous interactions among many diverse societal influences. In choosing a Venn diagram to represent our model we want to engender debate and discussion at multiple levels of complexity. We begin with three key variables of Engineering, Western[1] and Indigenous ways of knowing.

EAC Concept model

EAC Concept model

Engineers learn to deal with the world, and to work out how to solve human problems, in a manner that creates a uniquely ‘Engineering way of knowing’. Non-engineering team members in the project testify to encountering numerous ways in which it differs from their own disciplinary training.

Western social constructs, built on a particular way of knowing, inform such diverse aspects as language formation, social relationships and connection to the physical world. This is, of course, manifested differently in specific sub-groups called (for example) English, German, Romanian, etc.

Indigenous social constructs, built on a particular way of knowing, inform the language, relationships and connections of more than 200 Indigenous (pre contact) Australian nations.

The three overlaps created by overlapping these three elements are respectively Western/ Engineering, Engineering/Indigenous and Western/Indigenous. The overlap between ‘Western knowing’ and ‘Engineering knowing’ represents the buildings, roads, mines and technical processes etc. that we occupy and see around us in 21st century Australia.

The overlap between ‘Western knowing’ and ‘Indigenous knowing’ represents such shared social characteristics as creation and use of language and social relationships. The overlap between ‘Indigenous knowing’ and ‘Engineering knowing’ represents the shared knowledge with which engineers in both domains, create structures, devise transport routes provide food and clothing.

The Intersection

Finally in that crucial space, where all three ways of knowing intersect and overlap, we find the core focus of the model around which the project’s work is centred. We are calling this simply ‘the intersection’. Its complexity is undoubted. As is its potential for providing effective means for

  • navigating complicated conditions
  • addressing as yet unsolved dilemmas
  • enabling engagement of disconnected and disheartened individuals and groups

There is much more to come on this emerging model!

[1] As the project is occurring within an entirely ‘Western’ mode of academic development it is logical to use this term. Were we in an Asian context a different term would obviously be necessary.


Box, G. E. P., and Draper, N. R., (1987), Empirical Model Building and Response Surfaces, John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY.

DPI (2007) Mining by Aborigines – Australia’s first miners, Department of Primary Industry NSW PrimeFact 572

Goonrey, C (2012) Report on an Aboriginal Land Management Workshop led by Rod Mason a respected Ngarigo elder from the Monaro region of NSW held at Garuwanga via Nimmitabelle NSW – report prepared for National Parks Australia

Graham, Mary (2008) Thoughts about the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews in Australian Humanities Review, Issue 4, ANU E Press Retrieved 22/8/2014 from

Jordan, J W, (2012) The engineering of Budj Bim and the evolution of a societal structure in Aboriginal Australia Institution of Engineers Australia, Australian Journal of Multi-Disciplinary Engineering, Vol 9 No 1

Sveiby, Karl-Erik, Skuthorpe, Tex (2006) Treading Lightly Allen & Unwin, Sydney

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)