Stand and deliver

Engineers must play a crucial role in our future, and sustainability is key to that role, agreed delegates at a London conference. Jean Leston reports.


Can engineers be instrumental in solving the big problems of today? The important challenges such as climate change and global poverty? The answer is yes – but only if they get much better at collaborating across disciplines and national boundaries, increase their visibility, reconnect with the societies they serve and put sustainability at the heart of engineering education and practice.

These were the key messages from last week’s London conference on Safety, Security and Sustainability, hosted by the world’s three largest civil engineering organisations: the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering (CSCE). The conference attracted an international audience of major consultancies, contractors, government advisors, non-governmental organisations and students, to discuss how engineers can address these three issues and have a positive influence on global development.

An important outcome was a joint protocol for engineering, signed by all three organisations, which affirms the importance of sustainable development at the core of professional practice. Each will now develop, monitor and implement an action plan for sustainable development, nationally and internationally.

With the world facing tough challenges caused by rapid population growth, diminishing resources and global warming, engineers are needed more than ever, according to ICE’s president Gordon Masterton. Seeing the devastation caused by the Sri Lanka tsunami has given him an even deeper appreciation of the value of engineers. ‘Without the things engineers create we simply have no civilisation. We’re not just engineers, we are “civilisation engineers”,’ he said.

‘A lot rests on our shoulders,’ agreed Lord Alec Broers, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He believes that engineers of all disciplines can help to restore the public’s faith in science and technology by providing solutions to today’s problems.

Climate change will see engineers growing in importance in such areas as monitoring and predicting weather patterns, risk assessment and the development of new technologies and applications, such as carbon sequestration and storage. Greater water scarcity will increase the importance of water management and distribution. And there will be increasing reliance on engineers to build more efficient and less polluting transport and energy systems. Sadly, there will also be more engineering help needed for disaster relief, which needs to be extendable, reproducible and, above all, sustainable.

Engineers will also play a critical role in achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to help the world’s poorest. These range from eradicating extreme poverty to ensuring environmental sustainability by the target date of 2015. By then there will be two billion more people, mostly living in underdeveloped countries, creating an unprecedented demand for food, water, sanitation, energy, environmental clean-up, telecommunications and other infrastructure.

According to Dennis Martenson, president of the ASCE, nations will only be able to achieve these MDGs if they receive significant funding and help from other countries. ‘Engineers need to be prepared for an increasingly complex world,’ he said.

For General Hank Hatch, an ASCE chair and previously commander of the US Army Corps of Engineers, sustainable development and capacity building are most essential to achieving the MDGs. He believes it is in the world’s best interest to promote ‘an enduring peace’ by building human, institutional and infrastructure capacity to help societies develop. This will also involve the provision of local mentoring, training and education, as well as finance, to enable people to improve their quality of life. ‘Engineers’ relevance and reputation will depend on our ability to achieve this,’ he said.

Dr Russel Jones of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations likens capacity building to an old Chinese saying: ‘Give a person a fish and you have fed them for today. Teach a person to fish and you have fed them for a lifetime.’ But capacity building only happens if you also teach people how to process and package their fish for export. This is where too many aid efforts fall down. Engineers need to be helping to develop a solid base of technologically prepared people in developing countries to stimulate lasting economic development. This can be done by supporting educational initiatives such as those run by UNESCO and Engineers Without Borders (EWB), an international charity.

Bill Wallace of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) challenged engineers to ‘raise the bar’ of their sustainability performance. He believes sustainable development is the key issue of the 21st century, which will reach criticality in about 20 years.

It’s a huge opportunity for engineers to overhaul the world’s infrastructure. But all too often they are busy protecting the status quo, perpetuating non-sustainable behaviour. ‘We mess up, then clean up and get the extra revenue,’ he said.

More project innovation, such as cost-effective technology, can help get clients to support sustainability initiatives. So can greater collaboration with clients and other engineers. But as long as engineers continue to toe the line, doing what they are told and relying on tried and true engineering solutions, they will continue to have difficulty engaging and influencing decision makers, Wallace believes.

This lack of visibility appears to be a problem at all levels of the profession, causing huge frustration. ‘It’s not enough to be led by economists and policy wonks – we must be led by those who get things done,’ said Prof Tony Ridley, emeritus professor of transport engineering at ImperialCollege. According to Ridley, 50 per cent of chief executives used to have an engineering degree, now it’s 20 per cent – a serious loss of client influence.

Lord Julian Hunt, professor of climate modelling at University College London, said engineers need to strengthen their public role. He is amazed how seldom the voice of the professional engineering societies is heard in government debates: ‘Where was the IEE when we were debating identity cards, or the ICE on sustainable development?’ To have a regular presence in Westminster would greatly increase their influence, he believes – far more than publishing reports.

Another part of the problem is low public awareness of engineering. Yet this could be raised through the enthusiasm and values of young engineers coming into the profession. Engineering training and practice must do more to support future leaders, according to several of the conference speakers.

‘Young engineers are instruments of a political system where they have no influence – and they’re not having that any more. They want to be change agents,’ said Peter Guthrie, professor of engineering for sustainable development at CambridgeUniversity and founder of RedR, which provides engineering expertise for disaster relief. He believes that engineers have been ‘brilliant’ at delivery but not change, which is all important in determining how society thinks.

Jo da Silva, associate director of Arup, says that making a difference to the community is the main reason why students ‘with the right heart and head’ want to become engineers. This should be welcomed as it will help the profession become more attractive.

Several students said they want to see more sustainable engineering coursework. Many go on to learn about sustainable development first hand by volunteering for such organisations as EWB and are ignited by what they see. Yet they find they cannot put these skills and interests into practice within their engineering firms.

‘Putting people’s problem at the centre’ should become the new engineering slogan, according to Bobby Lambert, chief executive of RedR. He believes that engineering is not just about structures but, increasingly, about people.

‘Engineers need to see the big picture,’ said Prof Paul Jowitt, director of the Scottish Institute of Sustainable Technology, Heriot-WattUniversity. Solving the planet-sized problems of today will require engineers to change their corporate and individual behaviour. What is now emerging is a more systems-based, holistic approach to engineering where environmental and social objectives have a greater importance than technological developments.

So who will be the new Brunels of the future? According to Jowitt, these super-engineers are likely to be principle based and value driven. And they will certainly be far more persuasive and supportive. With sustainability at the heart of their work, engineers will have the skills to succeed in the 21st century. But what they also need is will-power: to create the international partnerships and build the infrastructure that will reduce global warming and world poverty and deliver the UN MDGs. The challenge is clear.