On Wednesday we hosted a panel discussion, Global responsibility in engineering: An approach with industry, providing the opportunity for our panelists to 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.

Engineers Without Borders UK Chief executive Katie Cresswell-Maynard who chaired the discussion, was joined by Brittany Harris CEO and cofounder of QualisFlow an environmental risk management platform that holistically tracks, monitors, and predicts project environmental risk; Andrew Mines, Manager Director at Watson-Marlow Fluid Technology Group part of Spirax Sarco PLC, the world leader in niche peristaltic pump manufacture and associated fluid path technologies for the food, pharmaceutical, chemical and environmental industries; and Julia Safiullina, Investment manager at Iona Capital which manages funds for institutional investors which provide equity and subordinated debt into renewable infrastructure projects in the BioEnergy sector.

The panel discussion comes at a pertinent time of pause. A by-product of a devastating global pandemic, this pause is providing space to consider the lasting change we could make now, to avoid catastrophic climate disaster in the future, as we creep ever closer to the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goal deadline. 

Katie began the panel discussion by using the Doughnut economics model to illustrate how we are currently exceeding planetary boundaries such as land conversion and freshwater withdrawals, whilst under-serving millions in social foundations such as housing and access to food and water. Engineering plays a central role in both of these categories as a sector that utilises planet resources to build the facilities that we live, work and play in. However, although essential, the construction and building sector is one of the largest contributors of carbon emissions levels, globally. To build a sustainable future, companies across the world must consider their impact, challenge the status quo, and embed global responsibility into their engineering, to ensure we are serving all people and the planet better than ever before.

The panelists began by describing how their organisations were beginning to embed global responsibility into their practice. Brittany explained how sustainability is not just social, but economic; QualisFlow aids teams in construction to appreciate that sustainability is not just about the materials consumed and the waste generated, but how it impacts their economic bottomline and employee engagement. Andrew explained how Watson-Marlow Fluid Technology Group is on a journey and recognises their role in the global sustainability drive. Currently the organisation is working with customers to reduce waste and energy, and have recently announced that they are committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 in addition to establishing a 2030 biodiversity net gain target. Julia explained how Iona Capital was set up specifically to develop bio energy infrastructure and has adopted a Environmental Social Governance to inform their projects, assessing impact against all three areas.

Brittany used a carrot and stick analogy to illustrate the combination of elements that are encouraging companies to consider their impact; the stick is governmental policy including taxes on waste disposal and environmental agency fines. The carrot is the outside influences such as private investors driving capital into green infrastructure and sustainable buildings, encouraging construction companies to achieve high levels of sustainable building certifications. In addition to private investment, there is also the introduction of green bonds and mergers between public and private investment on significant projects such as the Thames Tideway Tunnel, which are holding large construction projects to account and encouraging them to set a new standard for others to follow.

“I think that carrot approach is slightly more compelling to the construction industry because the stick approach hasn’t been wielded very consistently.”

Julia agreed that financial incentives were essential driving change, but so too is the want to leave a better future for generations to come. Driving change because of values held personally or company wide, was also touched on by Andrew after explaining how the value of respect held at Watson-Marlow Fluid Technology Group isn’t limited to employees but also for the environment. In addition, he emphasised how customers and employees now expect to see a sustainability agenda as common practice.

This suggestion that employees could drive real change was considered, bringing into question the common assumption that it is only senior leadership that can truly make a difference. Although Andrew agreed that sustainability needed to be high up on the senior leadership agenda, he also appreciated that it is now an imperative part of staff retention and recruitment as the public becomes more environmentally conscious. Brittany expanded on this, highlighting the purchasing power employees hold, claiming that if you raise something to your managers that you believe needs to be addressed and it is not addressed, you have the ability to go elsewhere and find a company that aligns with your values, or in her case, cofound a company that addresses a problem area in the sector from scratch.

All three panellist spoke of the diverse ways in which the companies they work for are embedding global responsibility in engineering, from engaging employees in the process to embedding innovative new technology, but one thing they all had in common was the knowledge that they did not have all the answers. Katie flagged the importance of working with teams with a diversity of thought and background to effectively inform how to build back better and secure a future where engineering serves all people and the planet better than ever before.