Our drive for growth and economic prosperity ignores too many things. We have investors and governments and an economic system that have sustained themselves on not worrying about the long-term impacts on, and health of, the planet, or whether or not it will always be a fit place for humans to live.

In order to fix that, we need radical approaches in economics and government. 

Alone isn’t going to get us get us far. Engineers need to be a decent-sized voice at the table to be able to help make sense of, and to join up, all the causes and effects.

Building a movement

We’ve been talking about climate change for years, but recently it’s become a strong movement. The people are on the street telling us that they want something different.

The engineering declarations have helped focus our minds on it. The architects declaration was a strong commitment to the way that they would work with each other and ensure net zero outcomes. That inspired us.

It doesn’t have to be framed as preventing catastrophe. It’s about making a planet that more people can live good, productive lives on. That has positive outcomes for everyone. 

Even in a commercial sense, companies need customers to be fit and healthy and alive and flourishing and positively contributing to a healthy, just society.

Mike Cook is a partner at Buro Happold. He’s a consulting engineer interested in the development of holistic engineering solutions. Most recently, Mike has been instrumental in the engineers declare campaign.

We need to be sure that this is a total movement. I think that’s what’s exciting about it: the grassroots, the people on the street, the students recognising that the time’s come to get vocal.

More and more of us need to get together – in our individual disciplines, in our collective businesses – and be generous with the sharing of good practice and data so that we can all get better.

We need to improve our work, and even more importantly, we need to get better at articulating the need for change and the positive outcomes of change – to our clients, to administrations, and to governments.

We need to be more than engineers; be more than what engineers have traditionally been thought to be. We have to go beyond the technical into the social and ecological impacts of what we’re doing, create more powerful narratives.

Re-engineering and revitalising Riyadh

I was struck – and moved – by a project I was involved in a few years ago in Riyadh.

The city of Riyadh, which is expanding extremely rapidly, is not an easy place to live; it’s outgrown its original oasis origins. Wadi Hanifa had once been the forming point for the city; the wadi being where the water was and the purpose of people stopping there in the desert. But it had been neglected and had completely disappeared. It was just a flood risk and a nuisance for the city.

We were part of a team that re-engineered it so that it became a charming water course right the way through the length of the city, about 30 kilometres.

Rediscovering a historic vital piece of the ecosystem that first created the city and making it important again had a big impact. Now, amongst arid conditions, there’s this beautiful trickling water, with reed beds which filter the water, and little fishes in the rippling water that reflects the sky. Having areas where young kids can play in the water and enjoy the experience of nature in their city is powerful.

It’s a compelling picture of what good engineering, working with enlightened city patrons and administration, can do. That’s going to affect millions of lives.

Engineering is integral

There’s a lot that we already know, but of course there’s more to be discovered. We need to do more research. We need to have a deeper understanding of the relationship between how we live and how our planet responds.

Technology needs to develop and develop fast. I don’t want to underplay that, but I also don’t want that to be seen as the big thing. I think as engineers we owe it to society to use our technical understanding to dive deeper. And to not waste time. We need to connect up with others’ knowledge and research and understand how engineering is integrated with that.

The outcomes that we’re looking for are deeply positive: a better place for people to live and to live better lives. Those better lives aren’t necessarily going to be needlessly high consumption lives. They’re going to be more responsible, more community-related and ultimately more fulfilling lives.

It’s quite a transition that people are going to have to make. It’s certainly hard. It’s not all about big engineering nor only about engineers doing it all, but engineers need to be in every piece of the conversation, helping clarify the way to go.

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