Engineering ethics was conceptualised during the 19th century after a succession of catastrophic incidents including the Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster, Tay Bridge Disaster and the Quebec Bridge collapseThese events highlighted the reality of an engineer’s role in public safety and gave rise to ethical commitments made by those joining the engineering profession, to serve the public good. Those commitments are still made today during the likes of iron ring ceremonies in North America and through oaths such as the Confession of Engineers in Germany and codes of conduct held by the various Professional Engineering Institutes (PEIs) in the UK.

However, in the 21st century, the scope of what qualifies engineering ethics has become much more complex; alongside ongoing threats such as structural collapse and the resultant loss of life, there are now less obvious cases of ethical responsibility. For example, the implications of an engineer’s own unconscious bias on engineering and technology, which is acutely evidenced through instances of racist algorithms and gender specific design. These personal biases held by the engineer or engineers do not only result in day to day annoyances for the end-user, but in these examples, result in higher levels of false imprisonment and even fatality.

So how is the UK engineering community responding to this increased complexity? Some might assume that after fatal incidents such as Grenfell and awareness of crises such as the climate and biodiversity emergencies grow, that the urgency to revise our understanding of engineering in society would have accelerated- but currently that is not the reality.

On the other hand, others may highlight that engineers in the UK are already encouraged to read the Statement of Ethical Principles alongside their PEI’s code of conduct and ethics that appears in the accreditation criteria for engineering undergraduate degrees, in addition to appearing in the criteria for professional qualification, begging the question, what could be improved?

Comparisons have been drawn from alternative sectors such as medicine where concurrent ethical codes of conduct are abided by and upheld by a public body. Others have questioned whether enough support is provided to our professionals and whether the culture of engineering best supports people to not turn a blind eye, and instead call out wrongdoing and take the time to consider the unintended or intended consequences of the decisions in engineering projects.

It is clear, there are many things the engineering community could do to upgrade engineering ethics, but there is one thing that is a must – leadership.

The engineering landscape in the UK is complicated and leadership is needed from a collective, not just a few. This makes it challenging but not impossible. To accelerate ongoing conversations happening on engineering ethics, we recently facilitated a workshop for chief executives from the Engineering Council, Royal Academy of Engineering, and all 40+ professional engineering institutions as part of their quarterly meet up. With more than 40 hours of chief executive time available during the session, this was an opportunity to shape the conversation further and help them identify their common ground for working together on leading on this important issue. Throughout the session we encouraged a focus on action, which has resulted in consideration now being given to the next steps and we await the outcome early next year.

Internationally, we have also been leveraging opportunities to influence deeper comprehension of ethical issues inherent in engineering. We have been working with Engineers Without Borders organisations from across the globe to address the recent proposed updates to the international engineering framework. Engineers Without Borders organisations from Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, the Netherlands, the Philippines, UK and USA have collaborated on an open letter setting out the amendments we would like to see in future international engineering frameworks. We are calling for three core competencies to be given greater prominence in the framework including deeper comprehension of the ethical issues fundamental in engineering due to the relationship between engineering, people and the planet. In addition to a greater focus on developing the skills necessary to navigate these complex issues. Although we hope our open letter goes some way to influence an update to the competencies required of engineers, we need to do more to address this century’s complex problems; engineers must also be able to reflect on and think critically about the role of engineering itself.

One thing is for certain, to ensure engineering serves all people and the planet better than ever before, we must guarantee that engineering ethics are not just upheld but central to that practice.

To learn more about the unique position of engineers and the significance of engineering ethics, listen to episode 59 of the Engineering Matters podcast, where Head of Engineering, Emma Crichton provides her thoughts.