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Donovan Guttieres spoke to Melanie & Dominic De Gioia about how society has been very good at diagnosing our global challenges. And it is up to engineers to break these challenges down and create some purpose-driven innovation…


Engineers have a very important role to play in addressing a lot of the societal problems or challenges relating to sustainable development


About Donovan Guttieres

Donovan Guttieres is a research scientist for the BioACCESS Initiative within the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation.

Donovan received an M.S degree in Technology and Policy from the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) at MIT. Before that, he received a B.S. degree in Biomedical Engineering from Boston University, with a focus on global health technologies.

He is the former Science-Policy Focal Point within the UN Major Group for Children and Youth, the General Assembly mandated, official, formal and self-organized space for children and youth to contribute to and engage in certain policy processes at the UN.

Donovan is a member of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations’ Young Engineers / Future Leaders Committee, Engineers Without Borders, and serves as Global Public Entrepreneurial Policy Liaison on the 2021 IEEE Entrepreneurship Steering Committee.

About Ramaley Media

Melanie & Dominic De Gioia, from Ramaley Media, are also the hosts of the podcast Engineering Leaders.

Dominic is a mechanical engineer and the Director of a multi-disciplinary engineering firm in Sydney, Australia.

Melanie is the Director of Ramaley Media, a specialised media company promoting STEM. She is the Producer of Engineers Australia’s podcast, Engineering Leaders and is the project manager at The Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering, within the University of Sydney.


This is a “close” copy of the words that were spoken during Ming-Ming’s interview

It is not 100% accurate.

Welcome to the WFEO’s podcast, Engineering Heroes. This is season 2, especially made to promote World Engineering Day, engineering for a healthy planet.

Your hosts are Melanie & Dominic De Gioia.

Dom: In this episode our guest is going to speak about his research into bio-medical research. He is working on increasing access to biological therapies, which has become a critical activity in these covid times.

He will ask how can we ensure equitable access to medical treatment for all who need it?

Mel: Our guest realises that engineers have a very important role in addressing the societal challenges relating to sustainable development. They must be empowered to innovate and are the bridge between the problem and the solution.

Dom: Our guest today is Donovan Guttieres. Donovan is a research scientist for the BioACCESS Initiative within the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation.

He received BS in Biomedical Engineering from Boston University, with a focus on global health technologies, and a M.S degree in Technology and Policy from MIT.

Donovan is the former Science-Policy Focal Point within the UN Major Group for Children and Youth. This the General Assembly mandated, official, formal and self-organized space for children and youth to contribute to and engage in certain policy processes at the UN.

He is a member of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations’ Young Engineers / Future Leaders Committee, Engineers Without Borders, and serves as Global Public Entrepreneurial Policy Liaison on the 2021 IEEE Entrepreneurship Steering Committee.

Mel: Donovan didn’t really know much about engineering. In fact, when applying for universities he was going more towards the sciences. But as he was applying he was getting curious about the engineering programs. He particularly liked the focus on demystifying complex systems….

(00:00:00) Donovan: What I was particularly intrigued about is how engineers aren’t only trying to understand the systems, but also trying to find solutions to them.

(00:00:09) My program at Boston university actually has a tagline, which is the societal engineer. And for me, that resonated quite strongly because I was particularly interested in contributing or working on concrete problems that benefits society benefit the planet.

(00:00:28) And so I thought that engineering was the perfect way to integrate both, intellectual pursuit in the sciences, but also concrete problem solving and innovation.
(00:00:38) Mel or Dom: So you didn’t have any people you knew when you were growing up, who were engineers, parents or relatives?

(00:00:42) Donovan: Yes. I don’t have many people in my close surrounding my family that are engineers, but, in high school got exposed to physics, biology, chemistry classes , and I was always interested in this idea of designing innovations and solving problems.

(00:00:59) And so when I was applying to colleges those programs, those engineering programs resonated much more strongly with me, than others. And so that’s what attracted me now, of course, you know, my appreciation for engineering grew with time. I got involved very quickly in a student organization called engineers without borders. You know, I would say that, that, that actually catalyzed a lot of my interest in the engineering field and trying to find ways to work with others, with NGOs communities to design appropriate technologies, innovations that solve various types of society driven problems, and doing so in a way that is with hubris, right?

(00:01:45) Where we as engineers come in and say, well, this is what we think the best solution is, but actually working side-by-side with community members and say, okay, you understand your system better than we do. Let us work together. Do an assessment. Design and go through the design process, the innovation process, and try to come up with a solution that is fit for purpose.

(00:02:06) Right? And for me, that was particularly important because when working with EWB, we were doing a project in Zambia around telemedicine, water, health, sanitation. What we really needed to keep in mind is how to design innovations and technologies that are fit to local communities, right. So we have to keep in mind that the unique needs and also the constraints that are presented by those unique context.

(00:02:33) Right? What types of materials to use, what type of maintenance is appropriate? So on and so forth.

(00:02:39) Mel or Dom: so with the work you’re doing, what are some of the key issues for engineering, a healthy planet in your region?

(00:02:45) Donovan: So my work currently a, to provided a little bit of context. I’m currently a research scientist at, MIT, in particular, the center for biomedical innovation and my work is focused on increasing access to biologic therapies. Particularly for noncommunicable diseases, but we’re also working on infectious pandemics COVID 19 in particular and making sure that people can access complex therapies, whether it’s immunotherapies vaccines, et cetera, uh, around the world. Right. So how do we ensure equitable access for all those who need it? And so my work has I would say very, very relevant. you know, we’ve seen on the news, we’ve heard about there’s challenges around vaccination and how do we distribute it in a way that will lead to population-wide immunity? And eventually eradication of the pandemic. And so I work is really around that. There are various levels of challenges that we try to address when it comes to ensuring a healthy planet. So on one side you have more logistical and operational challenges of making vaccines for everyone, whether it’s in the US or around the globe. Then there are issues of distribution and supply. And how do you ensure a fair allocation system, which takes into account different value systems across different countries. And then finally there’s really this aspect of the societal aspect of hesitancy around vaccines or other therapies. And, you know, how do we ensure to effectively communicate the science engineering to the wider public and to policymakers so that they can get behind the innovations that are coming out.

(00:04:26) Mel or Dom: Yeah. I actually heard recently somebody explaining who works for, or worked for the CDC, that she discovered that While you’re creating a vaccine, you need to actually be out communicating to the wider public about what you’re doing because almost 50% of the vaccine success comes down to the community uptake and the community awareness and things like that.

(00:04:50) So you can’t build the vaccine and then go out in the community, you actually need to do them both at the same time. So it’s a really complex issue there. What do you see as the priorities for engineers moving forward?

(00:05:04) Donovan: From my perspective, engineers have a very important role to play in addressing a lot of the societal problems or challenges relating to sustainable development and in particular, right. Advancing towards the sustainable development goals. The SDGs, the way they were conceptualized and ratified was really in this spirit of collective responsibility and opportunity.

(00:05:34) It really gives everyone an opportunity to contribute in their own unique way. And I think engineers in particular and what world engineering day provides is really an opportunity to shine a light on how engineers can work in their communities to promote and ensure progress around the STGs.

(00:05:54) So just to give a few examples engineers can work to design more climate resilient buildings. Engineers can help move towards more renewable energy systems. Engineers can help tackle a lot of the problems that have been identified.

(00:06:13) The broader collective community have been very good at diagnosing what the challenges are, but not necessarily so good at finding those solutions. And I think engineers have this way of taking these complex systems, trying to break them down and working on what some have called purpose driven innovation, where you’re not developing technologies just for the sake of, but you’re designing them in a way that tries to fit a specific objective to some extent, as you mentioned, the societaly defined because you need that participatory process and an acceptance by communities. And so right, engineers, I think are the bridge to go from identifying the problems to putting in place concrete solutions.

(00:07:01) Mel or Dom: Yeah. I definitely agree with that. I think that by empowering engineers to innovate, then that’s going to be the easiest way to come up with the solutions as they arise, because there’s obviously in, COVID shown us that there’s just a whole range of new issues that seem to appear when we least expect it.

(00:07:19) And it’s then a matter of adapting to find the right things that we can do in order to overcome those problems. Yeah. One of the things I’ve actually loved about the UN SDGs, is that to what you were saying, Dom is that, empowering engineers to innovate in a way is. Yeah, they could go innovating and, you know, do all sorts of wonderful, magical things with their engineering skills.

(00:07:42) But by having that declaration, those 17 goals of the United nations, sustainable development goals. It almost focuses their attention and it’s like, Hey, if you want to be really innovative and really change and help the world, then pick one of these goals or pick some of these goals and go towards that.

(00:08:00) And that’s why I was kind of asking before about where do you feel the priorities are? Because, I mean, there are 17 goals out there, are any of these goals that you feel that engineers should really be focusing on to ensure that they’re really changing the world?

(00:08:15) Donovan: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, from my perspective engineers can contribute to all of the goals, right? It depends a lot on their expertise. Mechanical engineers might be better suited to support certain infrastructure goals. Biomedical engineers might be better suited to support Goal 3 around health.

(00:08:36) you know, so it really depends. I think the approach that I’ve had, and this is informed by a lot of work that I’ve done with different youth organizations doing advocacy and policy in the UN around the SDGs and science policy, is that we really need to take a whole system approach when we think about the SDGs, it’s, it’s hard to sort of dissect them and things like that. And actually engineers in a sense can contribute to things that are pretty cross-cutting. And I’ll give you an example about a challenge that we’re seeing emerge more and more , but it’s not actually identified in any one SDG, but it’s actually true throughout, and this is specifically around digital technologies. So if we think about digital technologies with a greater dependence on everything that’s digital and this has been accelerated by the COVID 19 pandemic and the need for physical distancing and things like that.

(00:09:32) There’s been a huge transition to digital modalities. But sometimes with not enough infrastructure that leads to widening digital divides. There are many, many, you know, millions of children who don’t have internet connection which restricts their ability to access quality education.

(00:09:52) It restricts their social development. And it’s important to think about digital technologies not as standalone products or services, but really think about the way that those technologies and also everything around them, the data, the algorithms are designed, in a way that ensures access to different human rights that ensures that people can get the services that they need.

(00:10:19) And engineers have a role to play in building appropriate digital infrastructures, building new technologies that will enable more people to get connected and then ensure safe and conducive digital spaces.

(00:10:32) ICT is information technology. Technologies are listed as SDG17 but this notion of digital can be an enabler for all of the SDGs if it’s done well.

(00:10:41) Mel or Dom: Just going back on what you said earlier as well, in regards to different people and different SDGs. And I know that last year for the first World Engineering Day, we were lucky enough to speak to 17 engineers. Each of which were dealing with specific sustainable development goals.

(00:10:57) And I suppose trying to pick one goal is a bit like trying to pick a favorite child. The more we discussed it with people the more that you sort of went, Oh, that’s extremely important. And then you speak with the next person you go, Oh, that’s extremely important. And you just, you can’t differentiate. They’re also critical and they’re all intertwined, that you don’t seem one is as important as the next, but they also, you need to get one right. To get the other one, right? Yeah. And I love the way Donovan actually said like digital technologies. I mean, I defy you to find any human on this planet who over the past 11, 12 months, hasn’t had to rely on digital technology to connect.

(00:11:35) That’s a broad sweeping,

(00:11:40) but yeah, it’s still, it’s, it’s, it’s a big thing. Like it has really changed because it’s. there’ve been entire nations that have had children that have been pushed into learning from home. you know, With working from home, learning from home, everything is basically been sped up online in such a short space of time as well.

(00:11:58) It was amazing the, the speed in which it needed to be done.

(00:12:01) Donovan: Exactly. No, no, absolutely. And I think, you know, often we, you know, as a society we can be a bit reactive and look back after we sort of understand the implications of certain technologies. But as, as engineers, I think we have this unique again, responsibility, but also opportunity to contribute to these SDG’s by thinking very much proactively about designing systems that are fit for purpose.

(00:12:27) Making sure that the variables that are optimizing for are the ones that will bring the most benefits for people and planet. And of course there are other aspects as well that are important, business sustainability and all that, but there needs to be a compass that ensures that technological progress and innovations are driven towards achieving the SDGs in one way or another.

(00:12:52) Mel or Dom: You mentioned working with young engineers and I’ve found that’s a very interesting space. Yeah. So just on that, are there certain areas that young engineers are sort of gravitating to and issues that they’re feeling most passionate about?

(00:13:07) Donovan: I am on the young engineers, future leaders, committee of WFEO. Through that we’ve had some very nice discussions, a lot of what we try to do in our activities, our webinars among other things, I bring together Communities of young engineers and more experienced engineers into a sort of intergenerational dialogue.

(00:13:30) I think there’s a lot of young engineers that are interested and that want to get engaged, but they’re just not sure how, and so one aspect that we want to work on, is to demonstrate to young engineers who are very diverse in themselves that there are opportunities to contribute with our expertise across many different sectors.

(00:13:51) Right. And you just have to find the right entry point. The second thing that we try to work on, which you know, is a different challenge is how to bridge the gap between the engineering community and the policy community. There needs to be more alignment between what engineers are doing and how they’re thinking and what policy makers, or decision-makers identify as priority issues and you know, eventually are the ones who take decisions on various new policies to pass or distribution of funds and so on and so forth. Um, you know, so oftentimes they work on very different timelines, they use different languages.

(00:14:30) And so, you know, I think that’s one thing we’ve tried to do a lot is as Young Engineers has traded bridge that gap.

(00:14:35) Mel or Dom: Yeah, actually what I was saying before that the UN SDGs are a bit of a target or a guide. But what you’re saying that you were doing with the young engineers is that you almost need a hook to show them or a pathway to show them how to engage in that space.

(00:14:52) So it really sounds like you’re working at a number of different levels there.

(00:14:58) Donovan: absolutely. I think there’s one aspect where young engineers, sometimes they’ll realize that the knowledge they have or the passion they already have for a certain issue is enough to make a valuable contribution. Right. And I think people can’t be I guess dis-incentivized from doing something because they think they don’t have enough skills or knowledge.

(00:15:24) Right. And You can find something that, that the contribute to, and, and, and with time you, you know, you gain more skills, you gain more knowledge that allows you to continue contributing in a valuable way. And at the same time from the more policy sphere there’s a lot of advocacy that’s needed for engineering institutions, academic institutions, other decision-making spaces, policies spheres to engage young engineers more proactively. But I think WFEO has done this very well through the young engineers, future leaders committee and in other ways.

(00:15:57) But where there’s a need also for decision makers and those who hold spaces for decision-making to ensure, right, dedicated spaces for younger engineers. To bring them to the table, to have them be part of the discussions and deliberations that eventually lead to various decisions.

(00:16:18) Mel or Dom: Yeah, I agree. And it’s amazing the amount of people or the amount of engineers we’ve spoke to over the years who sort of talk about that need to be at the table. Do we need more engineers that are sitting there, helping with those decision making processes, not just the politicians, not just the community groups, but the actual engineers who, who understand the science behind what’s going on so they can help make better decisions as well.

(00:16:40) Obviously this is the lead up to World Engineering Day, so we just wanted to find out what does World Engineering Day mean to you?

(00:16:48) Donovan: Uh, so I mean, World engineering day it’s it’s, it’s pretty exciting. For various reasons, one, I think it raises a lot of awareness on the unique contribution that engineers have already made to sustainable development and can continue to make. I think it’s an opportunity to showcase a lot of the good work that is being done and inspire others to do the same.

(00:17:11) And to find their unique entry point that aligns with their skillsets, with their passions and get started that way. And then finally, you know, world engineering day, I think is, is an opportunity to also reflect and think about what is our role as engineers?

(00:17:27) We can be caught up, as a lot of engineers are, in the details and the technical details of the design process. But World Engineering Day, I think allows us to step back and say, okay, what are we doing as engineers? What is the process by which we come to different innovations and design technologies? And how can we ensure that the way that we approach our work is most aligned with the needs of people and of the planet as well? So I think, you know, engineering day is, is really an exciting opportunity for young engineers and more experienced ones alike to come together, recognize their valuable role in this collective effort towards the SDGs and inspire more action towards that end.

(00:18:14) Mel or Dom: (00:18:14) I hope everyone listening has the 4th of March permanently marked in their diary. So, you know, put it in the day. All right. And then put, repeat every year on the same day, because it’s, it is an exciting day. And I know 2020, there were a lot of awesome activities done. And 2021 has got so much more planned as well.

(00:18:33) And every year it’s going to be bigger and better. And it’s such a great day for engineers everywhere to wave their flag and, and show the world. So thank you so much Donovan for talking to us, joining us. It’s been great.

(00:18:45) Donovan: But it’s been a great pleasure. Thanks so much.