The Engineer

US - Responsible engineering will deliver social and environmental justice

The time is right for the engineering profession to collectively address the destruction of global ecosystems and the current failure to deliver universal, basic human rights, says Emma Crichton, head of engineering at Engineers Without Borders UK.

Doctors have a moral duty to their patients, first and foremost. Lawyers have a moral duty to justice, first and foremost. But what about engineers?

For a sector that employs 5.7 million people in the UK alone, we continue to have a surprising lack of clarity on how we deliver on our commitment to people and the planet. We have the Professional Engineering Institutions individual codes of conduct and the Statement of Ethical Principles, but a professional commitment to enabling a better world is about putting principles into action, every single day.

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As we look ahead to the 2030 deadline for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is time for the engineering sector to proactively consider how we can collectively address the destruction of global ecosystems and the current failure to deliver universal, basic human rights.

Engineering has played a positive and negative role in getting humankind to this point. It has been fundamental in improving lives around the world through facilitating innovative, scalable solutions that have significantly decreased rates of poverty, however, there is a continued reliance on unsustainable practices and materials, with limited consideration of the broader impact. At the same time, engineering education needs to adapt, with a recent survey finding 93 per cent of UK engineering companies with a sustainability strategy do not have staff with the skills to fulfil it.

For many, embedding a globally responsible practice that ensures engineering serves all people, may be far easier said than done. There is a common assumption that engineers are at the mercy of the client and therefore ability to embed this practice is limited. However, in recent years examples such as Google employees protesting against a contract with the US government to improve the targeting of drone strikes through AI, has proved the potential impact of collective action in an engineering setting. After over 4,000 employees signed a petition stating ‘Google should not be in the business of war’, Google pulled out of the deal. Many may argue it was a knee jerk reaction to protect brand reputation, others may see a decision that was made as a result of nuanced and ethical consideration. Google followed the decision by publishing a set of ethical principles that ‘set out our commitment to develop technology responsibly.’

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