Over the centuries, catastrophe has had a profound effect on engineering as a profession and how engineers are expected to act.
From the Ashtabula River Railroad and the Tay Bridge disasters in the late 19th century, right through to Grenfell, tragic events have always highlighted the reality of an engineer’s role in public safety and given rise to ethical commitments made by those joining the profession to serve the public good.
Now, thanks to advances in scientific modelling, we have a fair warning of the systemic issues as well as current and future trends, not just individual events in plain sight. It is no longer just a case of reacting to disasters, but proactively creating a better future. We have just under ten years left to meet UN Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – avoiding irreversible climate change and biodiversity loss and achieving a better and more sustainable future for all. The clock is ticking, and time is running out.
Ethical considerations in the spotlight
The concept of ethics within a profession is nothing new. Doctors have moral duty to their patients, first and foremost. Lawyers have a moral duty to justice, first and foremost. So what about engineers?
Some standards already exist, such as the Statement of Ethical Principles from the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council.
But in light of the current crisis, there is a need to more fully update engineering ethics to encourage engineers to reflect on and think critically about their impact on people and the planet. This must also be applied more effectively to influence decision making – allowing engineers the opportunity to embed global responsibility into their work.
This is critical because it is often too easy to disregard the wider impact of engineering decisions in pursuit of the quickest, cheapest or most obvious solution. Sustainability goals are often seen as a ‘nice to have’ rather than a core tenant of design. The erection of flood defences, for example, is becoming more important in a world impacted by climate change. But what if they restrict access to rivers and food for local communities, and therefore significantly impair quality of life?
Ethical considerations are not restricted to the environment, either: they are linked to broader social and economic issues, too. Take the development of new technology as a case in point. Autonomous vehicles, for instance, raise significant questions around the interaction with human drivers and the displacement of pedestrians and cyclists in town and city centres. And what about the impact on job opportunities for people employed in the transport sector?
In academia, too, ethical decisions come to the fore. Lecturers and other teaching staff are under pressure to facilitate critical conversations with engineering students and update learning that deals with really challenging issues. This might involve decolonising engineering education and placing a greater emphasis on the consideration of racial justice.
In short, it is not enough to teach engineers how to design and build. As demonstrated by the UNESCO 2021 Engineering Report, if we’re to meet the SDGs, they must also learn how to conceptualise their work within a broader and multi-layered social, disciplinary and environmental ecosystem and think more holistically about the regenerative benefits that it might bring to the world. It is a moral duty to address social and environmental injustice, given the position of privilege we hold in the impact we have on people’s lives, livelihoods and our environment, with the solutions we help create.
How do we make that change?
At Engineers Without Borders UK, we have launched a new nine-year strategy that will guide us through the Decade of Action to 2030. Alongside our workshops, the strategy aims to put global responsibility with four core actions:
Act Responsibly. To meet the needs of everyone within the limits of our planet. This should be the primary purpose of engineering.
Act with Purpose. To consider all the influences on and 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.
Actively Inclusive. To ensure that diverse viewpoints and knowledge are included and respected in the engineering process.
Regenerative Action. To actively restore and regenerate ecological systems, rather than just reducing impact.
Join today and take this global responsibility pledge because together we are redefining the borders of engineering.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.