Why engineering is vital to solving complex global and local challenges

Thought
26th May 2016

What do the recent climate talks in Paris aiming to collectively limit global greenhouse gas emissions, the UK Government target of providing 1 million new homes by 2020, and Apple pay all have in common? And no this is not the beginning of a joke. But if it were, the punchline could be ‘engineers’.

The point being, that there is no global political debate, local policy issue, or day to day decision that doesn’t involve engineering. (Good and bad. But let us stay focused on the good). From meeting global CO2 emission targets to delivering solutions to the housing crisis in the UK. Take the development targets as set out in the new 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a case in point – engineering solutions will be part of the response to achieve provision of healthcare, energy, housing, you name it. No policy, as ambitious and politically shiny as it may be on paper, can be implemented without the creative logic and technical capacity to do so.

As an organisation we may be biased, but ‘engineering’ is truly all around us.

Globally, approximately 1.2 billion people still have no access to electricity1. Although progress has been made in increasing the provision of clean drinking water, at least 1.8 billion people use a source of drinking water that is fecally contaminated2. Natural disasters have required engineers to be deployed in response scenarios as well as becoming more involved in preparedness and resilience planning for vulnerable cities and communities. The forecast for urban growth is frightening (an estimated 9.2 billion – 2.2 billion higher than today, living in cities by 20503) and the engineering solutions for waste, transport and housing infrastructure are changing rapidly. Regionally, triggered by the upcoming EU referendum, the Institute of Civil Engineering is raising concerns about how the result of the  ‘Vote Leave’ or ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign will impact on the UK’s ability to secure the high performing infrastructure that is vital for our future wellbeing4. And looking at a more local issue – the recent floods in the UK – a BBC revision guide for Geography GCSE couldn’t put more clearly the impact of the recent floods in the UK ‘Floods can cause damage to homes and possessions as well as disruption to communications’5. And guess who and what is part of the solution?

There still unfortunately appears to be a perceived division between those (engineers) working on issues like climate change, renewable energy, or humanitarian relief in an international context and those working on visionary engineering solutions closer to home. As an organisation we are working hard to show people that designing innovative housing solutions, whether it be for urban areas of the UK or rural parts of Rwanda, are equally important. In the words of the UN (in relation to the SDGs) we need action from everyone, everywhere to provide access for everyone, everywhere. Or, to quote our own strategy, at Engineers Without Borders UK we believe that engineers, everywhere, need to apply a globally responsible mindset to all that they do and invest their skills and talent in engineering that benefits our global community.

If you are an engineer, you are a global engineer, whether you like it or not. You are part of a global community of practise. Whether you are fresh out of university designing footbridges for your local council, or based on an offshore windfarm. You are constantly presented with opportunities to provide services for people. To challenge the norm. To learn. Improve. Push boundaries. Influence.

I would love to see engineers – and those involved in the engineering sector –  be proud of what they do, keep tinkering with kit if they so wish but also start telling great stories of their work. Be politicians, thought leaders and curious to understand the bigger picture political economy and global community that we are all part of. Let them infiltrate the political decision making corridors, become educators and inspire the next generation.  Have them understand that they have a huge responsibility in the legacy that we leave behind as we make way for the future. Our future is shaped by the abilities of our engineers today.

Read more about our new five year strategy.

Written by Anya Boyd, Head of International Partnerships, Engineers Without Borders UK, May 2016

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