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Engineering change: Engineers have great power

Engineers have great power: the solutions we create shape our society, environment, and the lives of people across the world. And with great power comes great responsibility. Or does it?

In many professions where the individuals are in a position of power, where their actions can seriously impact the lives of others, they are guided by a moral code. Doctors have moral duty to do what’s best for their patients in all circumstances, and lawyers to do their very best to get justice for their clients. Engineers, on the other hand, are not bound by any such codes and have no set of rules to adhere to during the study and practice of their degree.

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This lack of existing consistent guidelines for professional conduct in engineering is both surprising and concerning, not least for the number of people it affects both directly and indirectly. In the UK alone, the engineering sector employs 5.7 million people. On top of that, we have to consider the millions who use and experience the solutions the industry generates. Engineers shape the world we live in, yet there is no clarity on the commitments they should demonstrate to the people and the planet.

To work towards enabling a better world, it is vital that we understand not only professional duty, but also its ecological and societal consequences of it. True, companies and various professional bodies set codes of conduct to determine professional commitment. However, the guidance is inconsistent and often doesn’t extend outside the description of professional duty: many areas that are key to sustainable development and the advancement of society are omitted. Without this guidance, how can current and future engineers be expected to consider globally responsible principles in every project they work on?

Engineers as enablers

Perhaps the issue links to the perception people have of engineering. Engineers are seen as people who solve problems and fix things. Yet this problem-centred definition restricts the potential of the entire profession. What if we took a step back and started thinking and positioning engineers as people who always look for ways to improve, build on existing strengths, and enhance what is already working well? This allows us to challenge the assumption that engineering is focused on problems, not solutions, enabling us to introduce a more sustainable approach from the outset.

We must also make sure that the engineers don’t work in isolation. For truly sustainable, ethical, and economically viable solutions, the engineering process needs input from diverse people from all walks of life. To successfully address the global challenges engineering has the potential to resolve, we must perfect the art of collaboration. Who else can better understand what makes a smart city liveable than its citizens or identify where the challenges in food supply lie, if not consumers?

Introducing the principles

If we want to play a role in helping the world achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals by the 2030 deadline and ensure the discipline delivers on its potential, we have to rethink the principles of responsible engineering. The first step is to invite engineers, and the wider engineering community, to commit to the four key principles of global responsibility. Only then can we work towards achieving social and environmental justice.

The principles shape not only the perception of engineering but also its purpose:

  • Responsible. To meet the needs of all people within the limits of our planet. This should be at the heart of engineering.
  • Purposeful. To consider all the impacts of engineering, from a project or product’s inception to the end of its life. This should be at a global and local scale, for people and planet.
  • Inclusive. To ensure that diverse viewpoints and knowledge are included and respected in the engineering process.
  • Regenerative. To actively restore and regenerate ecological systems, rather than just reducing impact.

 

If successfully adopted by the engineering community, these principles could revolutionise how engineering is taught and practised, allowing us to generate outcomes that help us more effectively address various challenges including climate and biodiversity emergencies, poverty, and food inequality. In short, it would enable us to work towards building a safer, more just, and sustainable world for all.

To find out more about responsible engineering, visit Engineers Without Borders UK.

Engineers Without Borders UK are working to reach the tipping point to ensure a safe and just future for all. Part of a global movement of over 60 Engineers Without Borders organisations, we inspire, upskill and drive change in the engineering community and together take action to put global responsibility at the heart of engineering.

Comments

May 9, 2022 12:55

As an engineer, I am very conscious of the challenges presented by issues of sustainability and climate change and I would argue that both myself and the broader engineering community is already guided by a strong set of principles including those listed above. However, I do strongly agree that the perception of engineering needs to change more than anything because despite our best intentions, engineers are rarely in a position to exercise these principles. The UK in particular has an image issue compared to other countries where the title of engineer has a status equivalent to that of a doctor or lawyer, the importance of STEM subjects is broadly understood or the title is protected by institutions and law. It is my understanding that engineers want to make a positive change but at present are limited by a lack of respect, representation and authority.

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