The time is right for the engineering profession to collectively address the destruction of global ecosystems and the current failure to deliver universal, basic human rights, says Emma Crichton, head of engineering at Engineers Without Borders UK.
Doctors have a moral duty to their patients, first and foremost. Lawyers have a moral duty to justice, first and foremost. But what about engineers?
For a sector that employs 5.7 million people in the UK alone, we continue to have a surprising lack of clarity on how we deliver on our commitment to people and the planet. We have the Professional Engineering Institutions individual codes of conduct and the Statement of Ethical Principles, but a professional commitment to enabling a better world is about putting principles into action, every single day.
As we look ahead to the 2030 deadline for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is time for the engineering sector to proactively consider how we can collectively address the destruction of global ecosystems and the current failure to deliver universal, basic human rights.
Engineering has played a positive and negative role in getting humankind to this point. It has been fundamental in improving lives around the world through facilitating innovative, scalable solutions that have significantly decreased rates of poverty, however, there is a continued reliance on unsustainable practices and materials, with limited consideration of the broader impact. At the same time, engineering education needs to adapt, with a recent survey finding 93 per cent of UK engineering companies with a sustainability strategy do not have staff with the skills to fulfil it.
For many, embedding a globally responsible practice that ensures engineering serves all people, may be far easier said than done. There is a common assumption that engineers are at the mercy of the client and therefore ability to embed this practice is limited. However, in recent years examples such as Google employees protesting against a contract with the US government to improve the targeting of drone strikes through AI, has proved the potential impact of collective action in an engineering setting. After over 4,000 employees signed a petition stating ‘Google should not be in the business of war’, Google pulled out of the deal. Many may argue it was a knee jerk reaction to protect brand reputation, others may see a decision that was made as a result of nuanced and ethical consideration. Google followed the decision by publishing a set of ethical principles that ‘set out our commitment to develop technology responsibly.’
Engineers need to conceptualise their work within a wider social, multi-disciplinary and environmental ecosystem
It is not enough for individuals or companies to focus on client demands, only seeking out the simplest, quickest or cheapest option. Instead, the sector must prioritise the most globally responsible. As outlined in the UNESCO 2021 Engineering Report, if we’re to meet the SDG’s, engineers need to conceptualise their work within a wider social, multi-disciplinary and environmental ecosystem.
This shift requires urgent changes to the sector to reach the tipping point where global responsibility becomes integral to the way engineering is taught and practised. The Engineers Without Borders UK 2021-2030 strategy is ambitious in its scope. But the scale of the challenges we are facing demand a vision to match. The strategy will guide the movement and wider engineering community through a Decade of Action to radically transform the culture of engineering.
As an organisation, this means a move away from local projects with positive-but-limited impact, towards influencing broader change via three core strategic aims. To inspire the engineering community to commit to global responsibility. To upskill 250,000 engineers, equipping them to put purpose into practice. And to drive change, collaborating with the whole sector to accelerate globally responsible engineering becoming mainstream. By 2030 we will build a movement of over half a million people, powerful enough to reach the tipping point for globally responsible engineering.
To achieve this, we need the commitment of those working in the sector and are calling on the community to act on these four principles:
Responsible. To meet the needs of all people within the limits of our planet. This should be at the heart of engineering.
Purposeful. To consider all the impacts of engineering, from a project or product’s inception to the end of its life. This should be at a global and local scale, for people and planet.
Inclusive. To ensure that diverse viewpoints and knowledge are included and respected in the engineering process.
Regenerative. To actively restore and regenerate ecological systems, rather than just reducing impact.
By committing to these principles of responsible engineering, you will be supported to enhance and embrace innovative, ethical and sustainable ways to collectively improve our profession’s ability to deliver on our commitment to all of society.
Whether you are an engineer, academic, university student, or involved with engineering in any way, we want and need you to be a part of this movement for change.
To find out more and join the movement go to ewb-uk.org/2030.
Emma Crichton, head of engineering at Engineers Without Borders UK