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On World Engineering for Sustainable Development Day (4th March 2021) UNESCO released their second Engineering for Sustainable Development report. Both the report and the day acknowledge the critical role engineers can and must play if we’re to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

In 2015, 193 countries signed up to the SDGs which represent a global commitment to tackle urgent global challenges, from poverty to climate change, by 2030. The UNESCO report highlights how engineers in every country have a critical role to play, be they co-designing appropriate technology with communities experiencing disadvantage or delivering major transport infrastructure in Australia.

Decade of action

Now 6 years on it’s clear we’ve still a long way to go to achieve the SDGs and the need to act on the challenges is becoming more urgent with every year that passes. Even more economically developed countries like Australia have stalled or gone off-track to meet their targets. Business-as-usual isn’t going to be enough to get us to get the goals and the UN has declared a Decade of Action, challenging countries and sectors around the world to step up.

UNESCO highlights a number of ways in which the engineering sector can help accelerate the changes needed. Some of these relate to specific areas where engineering and technology innovation are urgently needed including water management, clean energy, climate change adaptation, sustainable mining and big data. 

However, the recommendations extend beyond innovation and concern how engineers and the sector need to change to play the role only engineers can.

The need to redefine engineering

Sustainability is often framed as a wicked problem – a social or problem that is very challenging to solve. Recognising this, UNESCO highlighted key shifts engineers need to make to move from being problem solvers to wicked problem solvers.

They highlight that we need an engineering sector with practices and standards that ensure engineering processes and outcomes are genuinely inclusive, to ensure no one is left behind. They say that to do this we need a more diverse workforce and a workforce that collaborates across disciplines to address the SDGs in a more balanced and holistic way. 

At EWB Australia, we couldn’t agree more and the proposed updates to graduate attributes and professional competencies by the World Federation of Engineering Organisations and International Engineering Alliance recognise how the sector needs to change. These bake inclusion and sustainable development into what it means to be an engineer, as well as the need for the sector to anticipate and take greater responsibility for the environmental and social impacts of its work.

UNESCO recognises that to do this Engineering Education needs to shift to create engineers that understand engineering Differently. Engineering education needs to foster engineers with the mindset and skills which helps them embrace their role as a socio-technical professional rather than a purely technical one. The implications of this are great, creating engineers who think beyond the project and client obligations to anticipate the impacts of their work on society and the environment as whole.

EWB has been supporting the development of engineers that think this way for over a decade and will continue to do so as we deliver our 2030 strategy. The difference is that now the need for this kind of engineer is being recognised globally, and we need engineering education courses that help nurture them across the board.

We need engineers that don’t just see themselves as technical professionals and problem-solvers, but wicked problem-solvers and technology stewards. 

A new engineering paradigm – creating a world where technology benefits all

The concept of technology stewardship refers to technology in the broadest sense, all the ways humans adapt their environment to meet their needs. From smartphones to basic pit latrines to major road infrastructure. Stewardship recognises that engineers who develop and apply these technologies, and best understand them, have a unique role to play in ensuring that they benefit all. 

When we say ‘all’, we mean not just all people, but all generations past, present and future as well as the environment that supports us all and the living things that form it. Really, it speaks to all the goals captured in the SDGs. It requires a diversity of engineers that can think beyond their discipline and collaborate to understand the positive and negative impacts of their work to deliver genuinely equitable and sustainable technologies.

Towards 2030 – our decade of action

As an organisation we will be looking to equip engineers and engineering organisations with the knowledge and perspectives they need to do this. EWB Australia has over a decade of experience innovating and helping to shape engineers who think differently about their work. 

Now we want to support the sector with tools and mindsets that can help us embrace the role of Technology Stewardship. We have many of these from our years of experience working alongside communities. To help we’d love to hear your stories! What examples have you seen of great, inclusive and sustainable engineering in your role? What might get in the way of committing to creating Technology that Benefits All?

We want to hear and share great stories and understand the barriers facing engineers who would like to deliver equitable and sustainable work. We learnt so much even from our World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development Facebook live event and we’ll be holding more events like this to think through these big questions. If you’re interested in joining the conversation, email us – comms@ewb.org.au.