Engineering Our Way to a Sustainable World

23rd May 2017

How do we ensure that as a global population we all have access to energy, clean water, safe shelter, quality education, health and employment, whilst also preserving the natural world? Can our planet sustain human development on this scale and how can engineering influence this?

These are the global challenges which the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) hope to solve. The goals, launched in 2016, define the global development agenda for the next 15 years, ambitiously laying out 17 targets to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.  Different from their predecessors – the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which focused on developing countries – the SDGs place an emphasis on sustainable consumption, climate change, economic inequality and innovation for all nations, in addition to traditional development areas.

Importantly, the political will to achieve the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, within which the SDGs sit, is strong and more than 150 world leaders have adopted the framework. The timing is also key with the 2030 Agenda agreed shortly before the signing of the Paris Agreement in April 2016 at the COP21 Climate Summit. Both of these groundbreaking pieces of legislation have brought the human and environmental development agendas to the forefront like never before, tying governments to their duty to protect people and the planet. What we must now see from governments, business and the third sector is action to achieve them and here engineering must play a central role.

We can see how traditional engineering (energy, transport, buildings, clean water and other key infrastructure) relate to global development. However, the sector is also vital in meeting the SDG targets in many other ways, for example around zero hunger through smarter agricultural practices; improved healthcare through technical innovation; and quality education by improving the way STEM subjects are taught so we can meet skills gaps in key sectors.

Organisations acting to achieve the SDGs must seek engineering input and expertise and in return, our world-renowned UK engineering firms must work in partnership, in both a pro bono and for-profit capacity, to help these initiatives succeed. We have seen this trend grow, with both Arup and Mott McDonald  now having well established and respected International Development teams.

Despite these forward steps issues of global development must exist within the mainstream and environmental conservation and social impact have to be weighed equally alongside profit. If these issues can be brought centre stage in the next 14 years, before the SDGs expire, then we can hope to achieve them.

So what do we do next? We need to see governments, companies, charities, individuals and entire sectors come together to meaningfully adopt the SDGs. Business must incorporate them into their practice and shape policies around them. We need to see governments committed to initiatives like large scale renewable energy and a public willing to demand it. As individuals we need to not just recycle and think we have done our bit, we must consciously consume (and consume less) and not think that the problems are too big to be solved by our own individual actions.

Because most importantly we need to form a movement of collective action in both developed and developing countries, if we are to create a truly sustainable future.

By Annabel Fleming, International Programmes Coordinator at Engineers Without Borders UK

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Comment (1)


30 May 2017
I totally agree with you and I would like to ask you some suggestion on how I could spend my academic background (Environmental Engineer) and my strong commitment in a professional way. My biggest dream is to find out a work place to innovate, share and find out solutions for sustainability. I hope that this not remain just a dream. Thank you for sharing your toughts.