The gap between scientific discovery and the real world first struck Dr Juan Castilla when he was working in one of the driest places in the world – the Atacama Desert in Chile.

There, he was working as a water engineer with the desert cities and communities, looking at ways of using and saving water, their most precious resource.

“I realised that the methods being applied in the real world were 10 years behind what was being done in academia,” he said.

“I decided to go back to academia to do something about that.”

Almost a decade later, he has arrived at SMART after winning a prestigious Australian Leadership Award, funded by AusAID to promote leadership skills from people in developing countries.

He completed his masters and doctorate qualifications at UNSW before he was snapped up by CSIRO as a research scientist and groundwater systems modeller.

Dr Castilla’s work centres on building what he calls ‘management flight simulators’, or software that allows people to understand how the systems they are part of work, and gives stakeholders the necessary knowledge and tools to make decisions that promote resilience and sustainability.

While the idea of developing interactive policy simulators started with the management of groundwater resources, his employment at SMART and current collaborations with SMART researchers, Dr Robert Ogie and Dr Rohan Wickramasuriya will broaden the concept to provide an easy interface for a wide range of societal problems.

Initially, he will be focusing on developing participatory simulations relating to water resources and climate change adaptation, natural disasters, flu outbreaks, and the resilience of water infrastructure to earthquakes. Dr Castilla will also exploring the use of blockchain technology to enable low-income farmers in developing countries to have better access to water-related data and information for decision making.

“This is about turning science into something interactive and something that people can play with,” Dr Castilla said.

“It’s closing the gap between science and the people who need to make decisions in the real world.”