Demystified: Design Engineer at Buffalo Grid

Written by Imran Yusuf | Demystified | Tuesday 7th May 2013 14:07:00 GMT

Stefan Dzisiewski-Smith is the Indiana Jones of engineers. He brings power to poor Africans, creative electronics to rich Europeans, and his advice to you is: work hard, but make sure you have a life!

Still a young man, Stefan Dzisiewski-Smith has had a career as multifaceted as his name.

Still a young man, Stefan Dzisiewski-Smith has had a career as multifaceted as his name.

Stefan Dzisiewski-Smith graduated from Imperial College with a Masters in Electronic and Electrical Engineering before doing another Masters in Industrial Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art. 
You seem to be doing two things at once. Describe your working week.
Three days a week I work at the Buffalo Grid, which was started in 2008 by Phil Shluter, who’s head of a coffee company which has traded in Africa for 165 years. Their mission is to bring prosperity to Africans and Europeans through mutual trade. Phil realised that millions of Africans have mobile phones, but very few have the ability to charge them effectively and cheaply. So he envisaged a bicycle which could arrive at a village, and then charge phones. That’s how it started, and since then we've received investment from the Royal College of Art Investment Incubator among others, and now occupy space in the Dyson building.
Two days a week I freelance in the field of creative electronics. I used to work for Jason Bruges Studio, who do interactive artworks on an architectural scale and also experiential marketing. I made a lot of contacts and learned a lot - I have a number of clients, but I don't think I'm allowed to name them! Essentially, I help companies work out how they can engage with their customers more creatively.
So these two jobs are quite different, both in the work I'm doing and also the demographic I'm doing the work for. But the two feed into each other.
How did you make the spectacular Westfield digital fountain?
When I was still at the Jason Bruge Studio, Westfield approached us with a budget and an idea for using the central plaza. Historically, fountains have changed space which was dead and dull to space which is enlivened. So it was a modern approach to a classical idea. I worked in a very talented team, and we looked at using single panel LCDs, which are reliable (they’re normally used in welding masks), but we put a particular ink inside there. We started up with small scale mock-ups, and worked our way up. Then we looked at detailing with the metalworks experts. The circuit-board side of the project was fairly minimal; the greater challenge was the huge number of things which needed to be acquired and put in place. 80% was project management.
And before doing this you were at Spellman High Volatage?
I worked for them while at Imperial College. I was working in an old people’s home when I thought, 'Wiping people's arses - literally - is not going to get me that much experience in industry." So I applied to Spellman and started working for them in pretty much every holiday. I learnt an awful lot there in terms of humility, but also simple stuff like purchasing large quantities of goods - the kind of dull stuff that if you get wrong can make you look like a fool.
Did you know what you wanted to do after Imperial?
Well, I finished Imperial, and wasn’t sure what to do, so I applied to the RCA on recommendation by a friend. I got a place but had no money. I applied to a bursary – and got it, somewhat to my surprise. So then I had to do it! I went from being very good at what I did to not having much clue at all. I couldn’t get over how people were thinking. There were some seriously crazy ideas - you’d want to shake the silly out of them.
But this was great, because you realise that you need that kind of freedom to evolve and innovate as an engineer. You have to allow the crazy in, and then try your hardest to make it work. People who don't know their electrical engineering will ask, "Why cant you do this?" And if you can't answer the question, maybe you’re not as good an engineer as you think.
Do you have any advice for an engineering student reading this and thinking, 'That sounds like an interesting career'?
Get good at not needing much money to live! If your aim is make a lot of money - firstly be sure that’s your aim - that’s fine. But if you do want to do interesting new things with engineering, get good at making a lot of stuff for very little. Also, watch youtube videos on industrial processes, because you need to be able to cover a massively broad area and you’ve got to understand the processes.
For example, you must know things like: How do cables run? How does a PCB get made? Speaking of PCBs, I make them in my flat – these things matter. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Even if you’re on a Masters course, make mad things, however tired you are. Make clocks and alarm systems, you’ll learn so much.
Having said that, it's also important to have a life. If you want to bring electronics to a wide variety of people, you need to understand those people. Go out and look at stuff! Get drunk if you have to! Have experiences. You have to ask yourself, critically, "What do I want to add to this world?" Otherwise you’ll end up designing stuff for people who don’t leave their house very often.
(All photos by Claudio Orozco Quirarte.)


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Tuesday 7th May 2013, 11.07 (UTC)

Sian Morley-Smith

Love it Stefan!! "you’d want to shake the silly out of them" haha!! S

Tuesday 7th May 2013, 19.00 (UTC)

Stefan Dzisiewski-Smith

Thanks Sian! Glad you liked the interview - it was a lot of fun and Imran really knows how to make a proper article out of my ramblings.

As a matter of fact, I've had a few people approach me recently with electronic engineering vacancies in the creative industry - if anyone is interested in finding out more they can message me through Engineering Because or via my personal (and rather outdated) website at Obviously I'll be letting them know about posting job opportunities here too, but if anyone wants to jump the gun...

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