Colleagues fighting in the office

Social engineering

We debrief a team that specialises in improving the sometimes uneasy working relationship between social scientists and engineers.

Professions love poking fun at one another. There's a mean joke, for instance, which goes: How many social scientists does it take to change a lightbulb? None, because it's not a social scientist's job to change lightbulbs; they're there to figure out why the last one went out.

Now, don't let anyone tell you that engineers don't have a sense of humour.

It is of course easy to mock from a distance; it becomes more of a minefield when the target is your colleague. As ethical considerations become an established part of engineering, one of the practical dilemmas is that people working in fields and industries that rarely overlap under normal circumstances have to collaborate with one another. How easy is it for engineers to work alongside social scientists, ethicists and philosophers? And what do these partnerships look like in practice?

"Ethics can be seen by some as a dry, dusty and philosophical subject," admits James Dempsey, a teaching fellow at the Inter-disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre at the University of Leeds, and a consultant on ethics to institutions including the Royal Academy of Engineering and the IET. "The biggest reaction from engineers is not hostility as such, but not knowing where to start. It's a big step into the unknown. The barriers people place are along the lines of: 'This isn't relevant to my job' 'This is not something I ever have to deal with' or 'I've got by so far without having to use ethics'."

Case studies

In reality, Dempsey says that ethics can be surprisingly accessible to those of a practical disposition. One imaginary case study he uses when working with teams of engineers, to encourage them to think more rigorously about ethics, is a procurement problem. "The example we use is the renovation of a listed building, which limits the materials you can work with," he says. "In this case, the material is a hardwood. So there may be environmental issues in obtaining the hardwood, how it's sourced and the impact on local communities. The question for engineers is how to balance the different ethical and commercial pressures. How far would you go to do the deals you need to do?"

This may sound like familiar territory to someone whose job involves procurement, but Dempsey says it's important to reason out these decisions and document each one, in case a clear explanation is needed in the future. The aim of his workshops is to give engineers the skills to do that.

Dempsey's team in Leeds also takes on bigger projects to help firms review their ethical practices. One project that has just got underway is with the National Nuclear Laboratory, a nuclear technology services provider with six locations across the UK. Chief engineer Richard Taylor, based in Warrington, Cheshire, says that he is submitting the design stage to an "ethical auditing process" to find out where things might be improved, in the same way as a company might do a quality or safety audit. To help engineers grapple with the issues, they have also used the case-study approach.

"It's early days but they're certainly engaged with it," says Taylor. "There has been some resistance only in that it's costing us money, adding to our bottom line. And that runs the risk of adding cost to whatever we deliver to our customers. But it's our hope that ethics will rise in importance. We're really getting in at the start."

Another company that has found case studies useful is energy and petrochemicals giant Shell. According to its ethics and compliance programme director Wendy Harrison: "Scenarios are very powerful as a training method. The most successful debates come around case studies and dilemmas." Since 2007, as well as face-to-face training, Shell has offered online courses in areas such as anti-corruption, anti-trust, data privacy and human rights, using scenarios that can be applied to real working situations. Employees are given the chance to see the outcomes of their decisions and get feedback on them.

Social questions

The scenarios are targeted at the kind of environment an engineer is in, and the job he or she does. They have proven to be particularly important in high-risk parts of the world, where corruption is an issue. One example Harrison offers is when dealing in a foreign country through an agent. "You have to be fully aware of who you're doing business with. If that intermediary dealing with the government doesn't behave ethically, then that reflects on you," she says.

Larger university collaborations are emerging too, encouraging engineers to think not just about the philosophical ramifications of their everyday work, but the deeper social questions too. Sociologists are bringing a new degree of empiricism and academic rigour to engineering ethics.

The fire safety arm of the engineering giant Arup – a division that has around 200 specialist fire engineers around the world – became involved in one such partnership two years ago. Luke Bisby, a senior research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, with joint funding from the Ove Arup Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering, was asked to work with sociologists for the first time. A structural engineer for 15 years, researching ways to prevent structural collapse during fires, he couldn't see any relevance to his work initially. "When I was first approached with this topic, I thought, 'Here we go, what a waste of time. I'm a technical guy, this can't possibly help me'. I don't want to stereotype, but I thought the social scientists spent their time sitting around drinking coffee," he says.

But what happened next dispersed his preconceptions. "I just sat there with the sociologists and complained. I told them, 'These are my practical problems'. One by one they gave me sociological studies to help me get over them. I found they had insights that could help make a difference to the way technology works in the real world," he says. These insights included the socio-economic reasons why fires happen in some places more than others, for example in poorer households more often than wealthier ones. "There are other studies as well, which show for example that more Scottish people die in fires than English people. In health and safety, these social issues are just as important as the technical," he says.

The collaboration has helped Bisby get to the root of ethical issues. "Much of the conversation has been about ethics and risk, and the tolerance of risk in society," he says. "The way engineers assess things that aren't covered by building code is by standard tests, which are often inadequate in fire safety. This is frustrating. But the social scientists have a huge body of knowledge. And, as a technical person, it has been eye-opening."

Lateral thinking

It's not always plain sailing. One barrier is in understanding one another's approach. "I've had a hard time seeing the world the way sociologists do. We engineers are trained to think in a certain way, a linear way, pragmatically. The way the current education system works, we're not always encouraged to think outside the box, or think in an open-minded, counter-intuitive way. We're programmed to think rationality will always triumph," explains Bisby.

"The thing about ethics is that there's no right or wrong answer. You can't plug everything into an algorithm. And that's sometimes a bit alien to scientists and engineers," agrees Taylor at the National Nuclear Laboratory.

Dempsey, though, insists that it's possible to encourage people with a practical bent to think philosophically. "It's very easy for conversations to go down a technical route, which can be difficult. But we ethicists and philosophers use the fact that we're not absorbed in the subject as an advantage. It can sometimes help to step back from the detail and make a broader, principled judgement," he says.

Indeed, as successes emerge, more firms from across the engineering spectrum are calling on ethicists and sociologists for help. "The door is just opening, but the opportunities are immense," says Bisby.

The nascent academic field of synthetic biology is one area in which these kinds of collaborations are already commonplace. Indeed, when Richard Kitney, Professor of Biomedical Systems Engineering in the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London, made the move into synthetic biology, he found a field that had incorporated ethics into its heart. "The field defined it, the research councils picked it up and we responded to them," he says.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council granted him and his team funding of '5m to help create the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial jointly with the BIOS Centre at the London School of Economics, which is made up entirely of social scientists (the research team has since moved to the new Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King's College London).

"Synthetic biology is a very new technology and it's very difficult to predict with any accuracy what the implications may be. We're trying to get a recognition and awareness of those implications into the work of engineers at every stage," explains Professor Nikolas Rose, the head of the department on the social science side, and a well-known sociologist.

He admits, though, that the collaboration has not always been easy, partly because engineers don't always understand what social scientists do, and sometimes don't regard their work as being quite as rigorous as their own. "With all respect to our engineering colleagues, we have hundreds of years of examples of how social processes work," argues Rose.

Lost in translation

Another hitch is nomenclature. Phrases that mean one thing in engineering can mean something completely different in the social sciences. "A good example of the same word that is used in completely different contexts is 'cybernetics'," explains Kitney. "In social science, cybernetics means the various strands of human society and how they blend together. Whereas in engineering it's about feedback systems and all that." Another one is the word 'model', which can mean one thing to a sociologist and another thing entirely to an engineer. Care needs to be taken in making sure misunderstandings don't happen.

But more than two years on, Kitney says that this interaction has proven useful, occasionally even aiding the fundamental design process. "We began developing a design for a device that detects these parasites in water a couple of years ago. And on the basis of discussions we had with Nikolas, we had a workshop, and that actually produced a change in our thinking in terms of the design, which actually resulted in a better design," he says.

Rose's advice to engineers thinking of pursuing similar collaborations is to start with a genuine and inquisitive interest in each other's work. "Engineers have to recognise there are forms of knowledge they don't have," he explains. "Academic funders now require you to have some consideration of social issues. But if the collaboration is just a cosmetic one, just to tick a box, that's a recipe for disaster." Kitney agrees that ethical and social issues need to be approached more seriously. "This is a trend, which we'll take to become a norm," he predicts.

For firms looking to integrate ethical codes of conduct into their business for the first time, Wendy Harrison at Shell also has some advice. She says that employees should feel supported, and ideally be given a channel to speak out about their ethical concerns. This is one reason why Shell set up a global helpline for its staff in 2007, to tackle any urgent problems or queries when people are out in the field. "But first of all," Harrison says, "understand what your risks are and focus on the major ones. Organisations can get ethics fatigue if too much is thrown at them." *

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