Global responsibility in engineering
We need new ways for all human life to flourish so that other species and our home planet can too. A new engineering approach is an important part of achieving that.
Global indicators inform us that the way we live is creating huge challenges for humanity and the planet we live on. We live in a time where millions continue to live without access to the basics for a safe and just life, yet in providing for the few that have, we’ve already overshot the ecological limits of planet Earth. If we want a future where everyone’s needs are met for generations to come, we need radical reflection on what has been business as usual and ingenious new ways for all human life to flourish so that other species and our home planet can too.
More than at any other time in human history, the future is ours to shape. We have some serious choices to make.
There is a place for looking for alternatives – the search for ‘planet B’ – but at Engineers Without Borders UK we share the choice many others are making to focus on saving planet A. We believe that for the vast majority of people this is the only viable option. Unfortunately, time is not on our side. The global consensus is that we have to have addressed these enormous issues by 2030, a short ten years away.
Engineers, and the engineering community, have an important role to play. Our practice is the one that builds, manufactures, processes and reshapes planetary resources in response to human demands. We have a disproportionate impact on how all people’s needs are either met or not met, and whether that is within or not within the limits of the Earth. It is within the ingenuity and skill of the engineering community to bring forward the real alternative technologies that can enable a more positive future. In many ways, our greatest limitation in achieving this is the limit of our imagination.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals, the greatest global consensus on what humanity’s attention should be focused on, highlight both the social and environmental challenges we face. More familiarly known as the ‘UN SDGs’.
Raworth's doughnut economics is an alternative economic framework by which we could measure and value human development (beyond the simple metric of GDP). The model visually highlights that we should aim to live in the ‘safe and just space’ for all humanity, this means meeting everyone’s social foundations (these have been built from the UN SDGs) within the ecological ceiling (defined by the nine planetary boundaries identified by the scientific community (Rockstrom et al))
Analysis of 'the doughnut' undertaken in 2017 shows that we are not meeting the social foundations of all people but we have already exceeded at least four of the nine planetary limits.
We need a shift in the engineering mindset to one that fully embraces global responsibility. This means critically reflecting on the role of engineering in society and understanding the social, environmental and economic impacts engineering has, both locally to where it is implemented and globally through supply chains and operational outputs.
To implement global responsibility in engineering, we also need a change of approach. If we are to find new ways for all human life to flourish within planetary limits, we need to move from an approach of ‘engineering without people and nature’ to an approach of ‘engineering with people and nature’. This means two key things: i) pushing back the engineering envelope so that we’re not just focused on solving problems, but so that we’re also better identifying the problems in the first place; and ii) to do this effectively, recognising the importance of including diverse views and insights.
Today, engineers are often described as problem solvers, in doing so we have emphasised jumping in too late in the process when we should be going further back to also thinking about what problems need to be solved. And should we even describe our focus as working on problems at all? If we were to reframe our perspective to one that is continuously looking for opportunities for improvement, building on existing strengths what is already working well then we challenge the assumption that everything needs to be fixed by starting from scratch which can lead to unsustainable results from the outset.
Equally, the inclusion of a diverse range of people’s views and insights in the engineering process has never been more important. We cannot question how else we might build our cities if city citizens are not involved in shaping that vision; we cannot rethink food supply unless the consumers of food are part of the debate; we cannot consider whether or how we travel unless those who need to get from A to B are also redefining that need. To fully embrace a globally responsible approach, recognising that engineers cannot address the significant global challenges we face alone but need to work in collaboration with others is key.
What we’ve been doing
We’ve been working hard to develop the idea of global responsibility in engineering for the last five years, building on our twenty year heritage of focusing engineering attention on some of the most acute human needs in the world. We made this shift to focus on creating a paradigm change in all of engineering because we recognise that due to the interconnected nature of the way we all live today we cannot tackle poverty and social injustice without also tackling climate change, resource consumption and biodiversity loss. Our lives all impact on one another and engineering – as a very global industry – has a pivotal role to play in that.
So far we’ve reached at least 35,000 aspiring engineers, 40 universities and academic staff and a growing number of engineering companies and organisations with the message that there’s a much bigger contribution engineering has to make to society. We’ve set them on a course with the skills and knowledge they need to make a difference and we’re now working with our international family to drive a global movement for change to take that agenda further.
We’re excited to see so many other organisations in the engineering community embracing global responsibility in their policies and practice but we know there is still a long way to go. That’s why our work is not yet done and we continue to demand that the engineering community redefines itself to be one that serves all people and the planet better than ever before.
We have no planet B and time is running out. We need a fundamental shift in the engineering mindset and skill-set to ensure that engineering is beneficial for all.