To mark the Global Climate Strike on Friday 27 September, we invited Mike Cook from BuroHappold to participate in a live Q&A with our chief executive, Katie Cresswell-Maynard. During which they discussed the climate emergency and the steps being taken by industry leaders to address it.

The interview began with Katie reflecting on the strikes that took place on Friday 20th September, in alliance with young climate activists who are highlighting the ongoing and rapid use of fossil fuels. Mike Cook himself took part in the strikes marching in London with members of his own office;

“it felt really important and as a firm I was so pleased with all of the members of the firm that wanted to be out on the street…it’s so important that the climate emergency is recognised as such across the whole spectrum, it’s everyone on the streets, it’s the people who  are going to be living in the buildings we are going to be designing, it’s about the people in the schools we are designing…”

Not only did BuroHappold employees strike in London, but so too did those in the USA and Asia. Mike went onto explain that events were also being held to stimulate conversation surrounding the climate crisis within the offices. He hoped that this would translate into tangible changes in the coming months, some which may coincide with the organisations prospective Action Plan.

After Katie enquired, it became clear that the headlines of this forthcoming Action Plan featured ideas of holistic environmental impact reflection, considering the effects of day to day running, in addition to a consideration of the work being carried out by the engineers within the organisation. He also suggested that there may be a mention of education, stressing the knowledge gap in institutions on sustainable engineering and its effects on biodiversity. Mike also touched on the power of influence large organisations hold, specifically when working with governments.

It is no secret that engineering is a large contributor to the very issue we are trying to solve, as Katie pointed out; engineering is involved in at least half of all greenhouse gases in the UK alone, calling into question if the engineering community is aware of its impact. Mike proposed;

“I think we are, to a large extent. But [engineers]… haven’t been admitting enough to that fact because in the day to day business of being an engineer often you are responding to someone’s questions or someone’s needs, who will define what they want and expect us to deliver it and generally speaking the criteria of delivery are on time and on budget…”

Mike admits that for many years’ engineers have been stuck in their specialist silos competing with each other, and more collaboration is needed to build better briefs, with climate responsibility at its forefront. Katie agrees saying, “…historically there has been a little bit of a sense that we deliver what the client asks us to do. But actually, the professional position is to perhaps push back a little bit on some of the things that we are entrusted by the public to deliver on…” The push for future collaboration has been evident in the rapid investment that individuals and organisations have given to the Engineers Declare initiative that Mike introduced. He revealed how the initiative began,

“I happened to be on a train journey with one of the architects who was about to launch the Architects Declare website getting sign up of architectural firms across the UK…and it struck me that if architects think that’s the right thing to do and I agree totally with what they’re declaring, [it] shouldn’t be too difficult to get engineers to do the same. I started by translating their declaration to slightly more meaningful words for engineers and worked with some of the major engineering institutions…and off we went… We’ve got 600 architectural firms, 100 structural engineering firms, about 50 civil engineering firms because that launched a bit later and when you add up the people working in all of those firms – that’s very powerful.”

Mike highlighted how the declaration is only one part of a larger picture, which involves everyone from investors, tenants and the government members who “need to want to see change”, causing a butterfly effect across the whole spectrum of those involved in the industry. Katie agreed highlighting the need for a wholesale shift including our relationship with nature, arguing that if we can understand the role nature plays in the climate crisis, we can go some way in managing or in some cases, mitigating the crisis that otherwise seems inevitable.

During the the live Q&A an audience member asked how both Mike and Katie thought the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are going to be achieved by the 2030 deadline. Mike mentioned how the SDGs themselves are a powerful way to demonstrate just how fundamental engineering is as a force for change, as well as creating a common language that can be recognised across a variety of disciplines. Katie agreed suggesting

“…that is something that is really positive about engineering…that as a really practical subject there is a very practical link between each of the sustainable goals by becoming an engineer, becoming a better engineer and continuing to improve your engineering skills and expertise as you move through the profession.”

The interview drew to a close with Mike considering what advise he would give to executives who can implement change; “It shouldn’t be the sort of thing that you just dictate from your boardroom chair.” He continued:

“…people across all the generations in any organisations will want to be making changes and that will help guide where the organization should go and have a bit of confidence in the fact from my experience, from client, investment, funding, or of course the government…is looking for change from us as well. It’s not as scary as it sounds at first, we’ve just got to have confidence in what our people are telling us and have confidence that…people are hungry for change and we know how to deliver it.”

If you missed the live Q&A you can still watch it here.