National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Prof Andrew Thatcher

For his work on extending our understanding of Human Factors Ergonomics or “green ergonomics” to consider the entire Earth system, which has included theoretical developments, empirical investigations, and systematic reviews of the impact of these activities leading to mutually supportive human-natural environment systems.


A psychologist by training, Prof Andrew Thatcher is today one of the leading global experts in a field called ‘human factors and ergonomics’, or HFE. 

Simply put, HFE is a holistic discipline that looks at how our wellbeing is affected by the systems around us. 

“We are not just the thinking-feeling part,” says Thatcher, a professor in cognitive ergonomics at Wits. “We are also made up of an anatomy and a physiology, that engages within an environment.”

In South Africa, that environment was shaped by the political and socio-geographic consequences of apartheid, with many people still living in extreme poverty because of it. 

Thatcher says the poorest of the poor in South Africa live in constantly changing environments, where many complex and dynamic systems interact to affect their well-being.

In the Setswetla informal settlement of Alexandra (Johannesburg) for instance, Thatcher’s team looked into nature-based solutions to collect and treat grey water as part of the URBWAT project. But, they quickly had to adapt their thinking as new houses went up every couple of weeks, and the sewerage system kept breaking. 

“We were trying to fix a grey water problem but you’ve got raw sewage running through people’s houses.” 

Thatcher’s team then worked with, and learned from, the community to design and build small wetlands for greywater treatment, but also to redirect sewage away from people’s houses. The intervention addressed other community needs too, like flood water protection, raised pathways, and cleaning areas that were more ergonomically suitable. 

The City of Johannesburg was excited about how much the URBWAT project improved residents’ lives, says Thatcher. He adds that with the risk of further human displacement due to climate change, more informal settlements should get involved in creating such low-cost, nature based solutions.

Thatcher has already started working towards URBWAT:2, which will work with the Setswetla community to develop a black-owned business to design, construct and maintain these systems. 

His team is also looking at applying a similar co-design strategy for nature-based treatment solutions to deal with acid mine drainage, while extracting rare earth elements from this hazardous mine waste.

It is innovative projects like these that have led to several job offers from international universities over the years, but Thatcher has turned them all down. 

“The type of work I would be doing in another country … wouldn’t have the type of impact on people and society that it could have here,” he says.

Prof Andrew Thatcher won the Green Economy Award for an outstanding contribution towards achieving biodiversity conservation, environmental sustainability and a greener economy over the last 5 to 10 years, sponsored by the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA). — ScienceLink

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

Subscribe to our eNews

Sign up to receive news on what is happening in science, engineering, technology (SET) and innovation in South Africa

Copyright © 2023 All Rights Reserved | National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)