Shane McHugh, Head of International Partnerships at the Royal Academy of Engineering, explains how a disconnect between grassroots engineering and how the global profession viewed itself led to the Academy collaborating with Lloyd’s Register Foundation to found Engineering X.
Two years ago, in the run-up to the 2019 Global Grand Challenges Summit, the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation were comparing experiences of international engineering partnership programmes. We agreed that many of the most severe threats to our civilisation were wicked problems—complex socio-technical issues with many interdependencies and no right or wrong answers.
It seemed natural that engineers, with their problem-finding, problem-solving and systems-thinking habits of mind, should be to the forefront in addressing these challenges. After all, engineers are society’s innovators and integrators. They design, build, and run the infrastructure and systems our societies rely on. Engineering is also a very global profession—a community of problem solvers present in every country. But their aggregated impact on humanity’s greatest challenges has often not been recognised or consolidated. Too often, the global profession has seemed more comfortable positioning itself as a follower—effectively carrying out government policy—and not a leader, setting the direction for how society faces up to its challenges.
Green shoots from grassroots
This didn’t mean that engineers as a whole were shirking their global obligations. On the contrary, the challenges of the 21st century seemed to have revolutionised the way individual engineers— especially earlier career engineers —approached international collaboration. There was more inter-disciplinarity, a greater emphasis on equitable partnership with colleagues from developing countries, and more commitment to listen to the voices of those most at risk. Promoting innovation and industry–academic partnership in the global south wasn’t just viewed as a way to build skills and improve the quality of teaching, it also catalysed partnerships that brought together cutting-edge research and industrial might to tackle the most acute local challenges.
So what could our two organisations do to bridge this disconnect between how engineering collaboration was changing at the grassroots and how the global profession viewed itself and was viewed? And how could we ensure that inclusion, international collaboration and a global mindset were at the core of engineering responses to our challenges, and not viewed as add-ons?
Out of these conversations was born Engineering X– a new way of designing international engineering programmes, with the vision that engineers would be empowered to play their key role in addressing global challenges. In other words, we wanted to ensure engineers' problem-solving and systems-thinking skills were prominent in the global response to humanity’s greatest challenges, and that the engineering profession was fit for purpose to take on these responsibilities. That meant engineers working across international boundaries and with all parts of society to develop an inclusive, safe and sustainable future.
Developing a fresh approach to tackling global challenges
In designing and delivering our work under Engineering X, we have tried to avoid creating silos between policy development, research and innovation collaboration and capacity-building work, or between academic, business, policy-making and civil society stakeholders. Instead, we have developed cross-cutting missions directed at pressing challenges, where an engaged global network of experts work in partnership to share best practice, explore new technologies, educate and train the next generation of engineers, and build capacity.
Since 2019, Engineering X has designed and implemented five such missions that are tackling pressing safety, preparedness and sustainability challenges. In each case, we collect evidence, create diverse and global expert communities around the challenge and amplify unheard voices, particularly in the global south. By listening to what our communities tell us, we are able to craft unique programmes and partnerships that have impact where it matters most.
Over the past few months, readers of The Engineer may have caught some of our updates on Engineering X’s achievements so far—from tackling the shifting challenges of complex systems to the egregious safety problems caused by open burning of waste. And we are delighted to see the impact we are already having— just this week we learnt that we will be hosting the first official COP26 side event on open burning in Glasgow, with our partners the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, and WasteAid.
Wider collaboration will support an ambitious vision
But what comes next? We are about to launch an Engineering X strategy that will include an ambitious vision for the next five years. In that time, we hope to scale up our work by bringing onboard new funders and partners to launch new missions, optimising our delivery model in the process, so that more of our partners’ resources can be focused on solving problems. We will build on our reputation for inclusion and good governance because we realise that trust is the most important element of partnership.
Perhaps most ambitiously, we hope to embark on a new programme, Engineering NeXt, inspiring the next generation of engineers by creating connections, skills and knowledge for younger engineers across the globe who are motivated to solve our most serious challenges. And in the process, we are sure that we will generate many more deep conversations about how the profession adapts to the challenges of the next century—and perhaps, the century after that.
We’re open to hearing from any individual or organisation interested in joining us.