Jo O’Brien

FIEAust CPEng EngExec NER

Environment Protection Authority Tasmania

Jo O’Brien has degrees in Civil Engineering, post graduate Environmental Studies and Fine Arts. She has used her qualifications to work in varied and exciting roles from Antarctica to post tsunami Indonesia; from the Tasmanian off-shore natural gas pipeline to post cyclone Vanuatu. She has also lectured at the University of Tasmania in Environmental Impact Assessment and post graduate Environmental Management, and loved being able to bring her real world experience to teaching. After a number of RedR Australia deployments to countries after natural disasters, Jo served as a Director on the Board for six years. Most recently, Jo has worked with EPA Tasmania in the waste management section. She has just started a new role with the ‘Waste Initiatives, Policy and Business Branch’ to establish a container refund scheme for Tasmania.

How long have you been a member of Engineers Australia?
I have been a member for three years most recently, and intermittently in the past.

Why did you pursue a career in engineering?
I wanted to be able to contribute both to environmental sustainability and in the field of humanitarian work.

How can Australian communities/people/society benefit from your work now and in the future?
Right now, I am working for the Tasmanian Government in a policy position, working to increase recycling in Tasmania and reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill or is littered.  I think Australians have become far more aware of the issues of waste in the last few years thanks to shows such as the ABC’s War on Waste, increasing concern of plastics in the ocean, and since the ban on the export of contaminated recyclable material that resulted from the China Sword Policy in March 2018. Waste is very much at the forefront of Australian politics too. For the first time in history,  the Australian Government has created a portfolio for waste in the appointment of Trevor Evans as Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management.

As an engineer working in policy, I like to think that I can bring technical experience to the table and a capacity to distill complex issues down to workable, achievable solutions. There is so much potential to improve waste processes in Australia and create robust policy to both assist and drive industry development and innovation. Ideally, this will build a truly circular economy, where we value the resources in products and use them to the utmost of their capacity before looking to recycle them.

The thing that I like about waste is that it is tangible; people can understand it, which makes it an area in which we can change our behaviour and make a very real and positive contribution to reducing our impact on the planet. I intend to continue working in the waste field – be it in policy, education, innovation or a combination.

What is the most challenging or interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
This question really talks to my other interest and key area of work. The standout project for myself was working in Aceh Jaya Province, Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. I was deployed by RedR Australia, contracted to UNHCR as Assistant Project Manager on a shelter program to build 1,500 homes. The devastation there was enormous. The timing of the tsunami on Boxing Day meant many people from multiple nations were on holidays in the region, and the burgeoning multimedia industry meant the disaster was well covered in the media, so there was a huge financial contribution to multiple organisations to assist in both the disaster response and the recovery. The response effort was larger than the world had ever attempted.

The challenges lay in so many areas: the logistical challenges of accessing remote areas where typical transport routes had been severed, the skills shortage, and the building material and labour shortage – particularly as an earthquake in Yogyakarta had drawn a lot of resources toward this response as well. The governance was also challenging, and different cultures and the imposition of so many well-meaning humanitarian respondents on a population led to its own societal pressures. The complexity of stakeholders was also interesting; be it beneficiaries, local communities, regional and national governments, RedR Australia, UNHCR, or the donors to UNHCR, each had their own reporting and response requirements. For all this, was also one of the most rewarding roles.

What do you see as one of the biggest issues facing the engineering profession?
Surely the biggest issue facing the engineering profession is the single biggest issue facing all humanity – the impending climate breakdown and biodiversity loss? I recently attended the World Engineering Convention (WEC) in Melbourne and a group of concerned engineers declared a Climate Emergency, so it is not lost on the profession by any means. How do we contribute to the solution? As a profession, we are ethically bound to acknowledge what the science is telling us; to actively support the transition of our economy toward a low carbon future, and to evaluate all new projects against the environmental necessity to mitigate climate breakdown.

What excites you about the future of the profession or what opportunities do you see for the future?
Having an entire world engineering convention geared around the United Nations Sustainability Goals really excited me earlier last year. I had stepped out of the collegiate engineering world for a number of years, and at times have felt quite disenfranchised by the profession.  However, my renewed membership to Engineers Australia, encouraged by Vicki Gardiner, a past Tasmanian Engineers Australia General Manager has been both rewarding and inspiring.

Feeling the collaboration at WEC with respect to Engineers Declare excites me, as does seeing the number of impressive women presenting – real leaders in their field.

Seeing the current enthusiasm for STEM and STEAM in education excites me, as we need the ingenuity, creativity and passion of people from diverse fields to work together for a better future.

There are also challenges – I have often found the juxtaposition of incredible technology and cutting-edge innovation alongside still trying to provide clean drinking water or basic services to a large percentage of the world’s population perplexing.

Who is your engineering hero?
Off the top of my head, I think the structures that Santiago Calatrava creates are beautiful; I have worked alongside Elizabeth Taylor as she chaired RedR Australia with a steady hand; and I am in awe of the wizardry of Professor Veena Sahajwalla.

Image: provided by Jo O’Brien