We’re delighted to welcome Mathew Riley as the incoming Chair of the Engineers Without Borders UK Board of Trustees.
An experienced and respected leader across the property and infrastructure sectors, Mathew has held senior executive roles for client, contracting and consultancy organisations and brings a deep understanding of the value and impact of responsible engineering to the role. He has also been appointed to the Board of Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE), the Board of RICS Construction Forum and The Mayor of London’s Infrastructure Delivery Board.
You’ve worked in property, infrastructure and engineering for 30+ years, what led you there?
My career as an engineer was almost accidental. I started off in commercial property, and while working at BAA the opportunity arose to move into general management, which took me into construction and engineering. My first big project was Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport where I was part of the leadership team. It was almost a vertical learning curve because I didn’t have a technical background, but I have enjoyed engineering ever since – whether working with clients, contractors, or more recently in a consulting role.
Having worked with engineers and for engineering companies around the world, is there one challenge or set of challenges that unites everyone?
I believe so, yes. When I joined Ramboll in 2016, I was the first non-engineering MD in the role. It was very noticeable to me that all engineers love solving complex problems. They are motivated to fix social and economic issues as well as technical ones. That’s a huge common strength and part of my role as leader was to create a purpose-driven environment in which the team could fulfil their potential. Lots of professionals are passionate about what they do specifically, but I think engineers have always seen the much wider social context of their work.
Today, engineers face big challenges around climate change, energy security and social justice. General awareness of these issues is improving, but the political framework to accelerate change is often lacking. In my opinion, the Nordic countries are well ahead of their counterparts in the UK and US. Their society is already structured to tackle these issues at political, economic and social levels. For example, it is sixteen years since Copenhagen declared its ambition to be carbon neutral by 2025 – and they are going to achieve that goal. Most other Western powers can see what is coming and know what needs to change, but they still lack the political will and the application to deliver properly on sustainability.
What advice would you give to young engineers setting out in their careers who want their work to make a difference to society?
Understand what you can control, what you can influence and what you cannot yet change. Start by identifying your values and stick with them. When I came out of university in the 1980s, everything was very materialistic, wealth-driven and consumption-driven and it was easy to fall into that trap.
Take the time to think about what you enjoy and what motivates you, then find the environment, the colleagues and the culture that offers you the opportunities to do those things. Think about what expectations you have of your employer. It’s not just about what you get paid and the promotional ladder; it’s about how the company behaves in a societal and cultural context. Check out their strategy, their values and how they work. These are all things you can control and influence, and lead to a more fulfilling career.
What does global responsibility mean to you?
Global responsibility at a leadership level is about recognising that you are in a position to influence change. This means not being sidetracked by short-term commercialism or doing what is popular in the moment, but instead aiming for longer term gains that are better for people and better for the planet.
If each one of us does what we can to be globally responsible, then the momentum for positive change begins to build.
Driving the change that we can influence and control acts as a catalyst for others to do the same – and that’s where Engineers Without Borders UK comes in. Acting collaboratively as a global movement of like-minded engineers, we can achieve bigger changes, perhaps even influence national policy. Becoming Chair of Engineers Without Borders UK therefore provides me and all those within the movement with the opportunity to have influence beyond our individual efforts.
What are the main challenges to creating an organisation that is globally responsible and what advice would you give to companies looking to build global responsibility into the structure of their business without compromising on business objectives or profit?
It’s absolutely possible for businesses to be both profitable and globally responsible. Part of it is allowing people the time to innovate and undertake research and development. It is incumbent upon leaders to create the space for their team to tackle the big issues that affect us all. That means setting challenges and allowing people to think around the problem and experiment in a non-commercial way – like Engineers Without Borders UK does through its global design challenges for undergraduates. While this involves some investment, there are Government schemes including tax credits that encourage research and development.
I personally think there is a big opportunity for far more cross-company collaboration, because the big environmental challenges are at a societal and cross-disciplinary level and not just limited to one company or one client. The Engineers Without Borders UK Global Responsibility Competency Compass provides a toolkit that supports the development of tangible and actionable sustainability strategies within a business framework.
Ultimately, there is no perfect roadmap. You need to create the evidence for change, and test solutions as you go. Once you can demonstrate the positive outcomes, then the investment, processes and toolkits can be put into place. Test again, and scale up the successes until you are delivering at a global level.
What will you enjoy most about your tenure as Chair of Engineers Without Borders UK?
I’m looking forward to working with other chapters of Engineers Without Borders around the world and fostering ways of sharing knowledge and best practice. I’m proud to have the opportunity to encourage more people and organisations to embrace global responsibility.
Mathew Riley, incoming Chair of the Board of Trustees for Engineers Without Borders UK