It’s time for change
Earlier this year we embarked on a new adventure to try and change the face of the engineering profession. A bold and ambitious statement some might say, perhaps skeptical of the ability of a few to create big changes. Others might say ‘bravo, it’s time for bold ambitions, please carry on’.
In the face of the challenges we now face as a global community a bit of boldness and ambition is needed. Change is needed, and needed quickly. Many are tired of protracted international political processes that are making headway on issues such as the effects of climate change, resource constraints, population growth and increasing urbanisation but not fast enough. Equally, why should we be laying responsibility solely on national and supranational politics to sort it out? City governments are getting on with it, so why not professions too? At Engineers Without Borders UK we know that engineering is vital to human development, crucial to transforming lives and unique in shaping the human relationship with the environment. It is logical, therefore, to conclude that engineering has a key leadership role to play in addressing the global challenges we face.
Back to this new, bold and ambitious adventure. Working in collaboration with Dr Helen Morley and Dr Rob Lawlor from the Interdisciplinary Ethics Applied Centre at the University of Leeds, Engineers Without Borders UK started exploring the idea of a Declaration of Global Responsibility for Engineers. With funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), we hosted two workshops with stakeholders who were interested in looking at some of the opportunities, barriers and key issues to resolve if such a Declaration were to be developed.
The idea for a Declaration of Global Responsibility for Engineers draws on the analogy with the medical profession and the Declaration of Helsinki. In the 1950-60s there was a call from within the medical profession to put an end to unethical medical research practices (e.g. of performing medical research on non-consenting individuals). Rather than wait for anyone else to prevent it, ban it or condemn it for them, the medical profession took matters into their own hands and established the Declaration of Helsinki, a set of ethical principles regarding human experimentation for medical research. It has consequently been adopted into law by many national legal systems and has significantly changed the profession and medical research practice. The analogy drawn here with the engineering profession suggests that engineers, given their pivotal role in shaping the environment in which we all live, should surely have some mechanism by which to hold themselves to account. The suggestion is therefore a Declaration to do this.
The concept of a Declaration of Global Responsibility for Engineers is proposed in recognition of the interrelated nature of global challenges and the need to think about them in tandem, not separately. Climate change is a major issue but it is not the only one. Poverty and inequality persist, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss is increasing, access to vital resources such as water is becoming a conflict between people, industrial needs, food production and maintaining the natural environment. Engineering is often about the art of compromise, trying to account for many competing factors to find a better solution, it therefore makes sense to talk about a Declaration that is encompassing of multiple dimensions, albeit pushing engineers to make consideration for the social, environmental and economic alongside the technical and financial.
This short project has sought to engage stakeholders in initial debate around the concept and content of a Declaration of Global Responsibility for Engineers. We are currently writing up those findings to inform any future work, but we can already reflect on some key learning:
- Working in collaboration, in particular with academics specialising in philosophy rather than engineering, has been hugely beneficial to the robustness of the project and helped ensure that the ambition of a Declaration for all engineers is representative and understood by all. Whilst exploring and accounting for different views/understandings can slow things down, to get buy-in and a result that is not seen as one sided, is time well spent.
- Different cultural and linguistic lenses are powerful ways to highlight issues. As part of the project we engaged with Ingénieurs sans frontières France and the differences in language highlighted some interesting discoveries. In English we use ‘engineering’ as both a noun (the engineering product) and a verb (the process of engineering), whereas in French they have different words for the noun/product and the verb/process. The effect is that in the English there is confusion between the noun and the verb and, anecdotally, a resultant focus on the product rather than the process of engineering whereas in the French there is a focus on the process as much as the product.
- Despite a recognition that engineers should take more responsibility towards their profession being more globally responsible, the tendency to externalise the responsibility was surprisingly high. On numerous occasions the discourse resulted in pointing at ‘others’, such as politicians, the law, their clients or the public, to shape the engineering environment for engineers so that engineers could be more globally responsible, rather than feeling that engineers should/could do it for themselves.
- There was repeated reference to the young professional who, emboldened by their awareness of the issues in the world, raises concerns in project meetings about environmental or social issues but is swiftly stifled by their superiors, in turn themselves learning this behaviour or leaving the profession completely through disenfranchisement.
- There is a need to engage with more stakeholders outside the engineering community, not least because everyone is affected by the practices of engineering.
As we look at how to develop the concept of a Declaration of Global Responsibility for Engineers further, we are establishing a baseline of areas that need to be further explored and added to. To date, we have taken the temperature of the engineering community in the UK and found that there is certainly a desire for something like a Declaration of Global Responsibility for Engineers to drive the change that is needed. There is more to do to further the concept and implement it at national and international scale but we’re excited about the possibilities, change could be just around the corner.
Written by Katie Cresswell-Maynard, Head of Education, Engineers Without Borders UK, July 2016