The lasting impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are starting to become apparent, to which the engineering sector is not immune. Subsequently, we are now challenging the way we live; from working remotely, to changing jobs completely, our new normal has caused an economic downturn, and global policy makers are scrambling to encourage economic growth.

During this unprecedented time of pause, that has brought much pain and loss, many are looking to policy makers to take steps for a more sustainable future; leading economists have highlighted the myriad positive implications of environmentally sound investments, pointing out how targeted green policies can be developed to decrease inequality whilst meeting environmental or social objectives. One contributor of such change is engineering. Engineering is a significant driver of the economy, but also a significant contributor of national and global emissions levels. To successfully embed real change we need a shift towards global responsibility in engineering, alongside the changes needed in the overall approach to how our economies are driven.

One such model that offers an alternative outlook is Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics. The model, illustrated as a ring (doughnut) calls for humanity to focus on living in a safe and just space (within the doughnut), meeting a social foundation for all whilst not overshooting the Earth’s planetary boundaries (outside the doughnut), resulting in planetary breakdown. The model is guided by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals which include food security, access to energy and water, health and gender equality.

The ecological ceilings of the model are defined by the internationally recognised nine planetary boundaries which include climate change, freshwater withdrawals, and land conversion. Currently, we have not met the social foundations for a large number of people across the world and yet we have already overshot at least four of the nine planetary boundaries (as shown in diagram 2). The engineering community is primarily responsible for utilising the planet’s resources to meet society’s needs, but as the doughnut economics model clearly illustrates the impact of how we’ve done this so far is both unjust and unsustainable. If we want to live in a safe and just world, it has to change.

Having first published the concept in 2012, Raworth has received the same question from communities around the world: How can we apply that in reality? This year, the answer to that question became an actuality, after an international team called the Thriving Cities Initiative worked on downsizing and personalising the model for the city of Amsterdam. They began by asking the question; How can our city be a home to thriving people in a thriving place, while respecting the wellbeing of all people and the health of the whole planet? This was broken down further into four questions combining the local and international priorities of the city, as well as considering the UN Sustainable Development Goals and greater mission of working within planetary boundaries. After compiling responses to these questions, paired with the statistical analysis of the city’s relevant contributing factors, the group produced the city’s portrait, illustrating the city’s priorities within the doughnut framework.

During an interview to launch the city’s new economic framework, Amsterdam’s deputy mayor, Marieke van Doorninck commented on the positive impact the model could have in a post pandemic society, whilst being realistic about the model’s limitations; “The doughnut does not bring us the answers but a way of looking at it, so that we don’t keep on going on in the same structures as we used to.” The model encourages an interrogation of ongoing global relationships within a society, including imports and exports; Amsterdam’s port is the single largest importer of cocoa in the world, arriving largely from west Africa where labour can be exploitative.  “Who would expect in a portrait of the city of Amsterdam that you would include labour rights in west Africa? And that is the value of the tool,” declared Raworth.

Raworth’s model has been central to our understanding of global responsibility in engineering; a concept where we encourage ourselves, our members, students and partners to fundamentally shift the engineering mindset to one that considers: How can engineering be beneficial for all and the planet we live and rely on? This means taking time to review the social, cultural, environmental and economic implications of our design, construction and outputs. When breaking down the categories within the doughnut model it is clear how engineering can play a direct and indirect role to the excess use and facilitation of these resources. For example, engineering is critical to delivering the social foundation of housing that provides safety and security to people. To provide housing we use the planet’s resources such as: land which can negatively impact on biodiversity; construction materials such as cement, the manufacture of which contributes to climate change; and, bringing in water for daily use, which can impact on freshwater withdrawals. Engineering is at the heart of whether we do, or do not deliver on the social foundations whilst staying within the planetary system limits. Doughnut economics provides a useful framework to clearly explain our engineering design parameters, which is central to global responsibility in engineering.

As we look ahead to what the end of 2020 will bring, it is clear that we must adapt to our new state of uncertainty whilst also considering the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The next ten years are crucially important as we strive to avoid catastrophic climate change and create a sustainable, safe and just home for all. We all have a role to play. Challenge the status quo and advocate for real positive social change whilst working within the limits of our home, planet Earth.

Join us for our panel discussion, Global responsibility in engineering: An approach with industry where we will analyse real life case studies and unpack economic models to understand how industry can effectively embed global responsibility into engineering, whilst continuing to drive business forward. Sign up to attend here!