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Katie Cresswell-Maynard

‘Everything engineers do affects the public’: Katie Cresswell-Maynard, EWB UK

Image credit: Nick Smith

With its mission to put global responsibility into the heart of engineering, charity Engineers Without Borders UK is working to find the next generation of professionals. CEO Katie Cresswell-Maynard explains some of the initiatives that will get the job done.

“You can see engineering in everything we do as human beings and everywhere we go,” says Katie Cresswell-Maynard. And yet, she continues, “that relationship and that link between engineering and people is often forgotten”. This lapse of memory happens particularly, says the CEO of Engineers Without Borders UK, “when we are training and educating engineers”.

There is, or should be, “a social purpose narrative when it comes to teaching engineering. It makes me incredibly sad to realise that there are people who think engineering doesn’t have any aspect of social interaction. We are making things in the real world and this has an impact on the people of this planet.” As a result, we simply can’t run the risk of choosing to ignore the social and environmental aspects of engineering. “Everything we do affects the public,” says Cresswell-Maynard, “and so we have to serve all walks of life. Engineers Without Borders is here to serve all people and the planet we live on.”

Cresswell-Maynard, who has been in post for three years, with three years before that as head of education with the organisation, thinks the reason people are attracted to join the Engineers Without Borders movement, “is we haven’t seen anyone else talking about, or helping us to understand that social and environmental side of engineering. That’s why I wanted to come here.” The current challenge for the UK arm of the organisation is how to take engineering attitudes to issues such as climate change or the UN Sustainable Development Goals, “and make them mainstream. A big part of what we do is to portray that environmental narrative of purpose in engineering because we recognise that it is incredibly important,” especially when it comes to getting a more diverse generation of young people to want to become engineers. “Whatever you are interested in as a human being – whether it’s saving the planet or just helping out with the lights at your local theatre – there’s an engineering aspect to it.”

Cresswell-Maynard says one of the schools of thought she brings to her attitude towards inclusivity and social responsibility in engineering is the ‘doughnut economics’ pioneered by Oxford economist Kate Raworth, whose visual framework for sustainable development is depicted in a pair of concentric boundaries (hence, ‘doughnut’). In Raworth’s model, an inner circle represents the social foundation of needs (energy, water, food, health etc), while an outer circle represents the ‘ecological ceiling’ beyond which there is ocean acidification, climate change, ozone layer depletion, biodiversity loss and so on. The ground between them – the sugar-coated part of the doughnut – is the ‘safe and just space for humanity’, a ‘regenerative and distributive economy’. This is something Cresswell-Maynard strongly identifies with in that, “in terms of carbon production, we’ve overshot by 20 per cent on the planetary limit, and yet one in seven people don’t have access to electricity”. Which means that an equitable ecological future has to be, “about re-shaping the engineering mindset. To do that, you must have > < sustainability at the centre, rather than have it as an add-on.”

One of the main public effects of Engineers Without Borders is that it brings what was once termed ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) into sharp relief. Perhaps it’s something that is slowly disappearing into the past, but as Cresswell-Maynard says, companies treated CSR as “something nice to add on to what you were doing that took place in the background. Maybe it’s something you only do when you have the will of the client to do so... or something you only do when you can afford to do it, because it’s perceived to be expensive to be sustainable and environmentally friendly.” The difference with Engineers Without Borders, contends Cresswell-Maynard, is that “it is all under one roof and the idea of sustainability is in one mindset. We are here to serve all people, not just people who can afford it.”

Cresswell-Maynard describes Engineers Without Borders as coming from a “grass roots movement background”, and she admits there’s a certain amount of folklore attached to how the organisation came into being: “These things happen. People get inspired and the stories get passed on.” Yet her understanding of its origins dates back to the early 1980s, when there was a much-publicised famine in Ethiopia that was the catalyst for the Band Aid and Live Aid response by a loose collective of musicians fronted by Bob Geldof. Meanwhile, one international NGO responding to the crisis contacted one of the prestigious French engineering colleges (a ‘grande école’) with a request for help paraphrased by Cresswell-Maynard as: “You’re engineers. Come and help us.” And that, she confirms, is what the essence of Engineers Without Borders “was back then. It’s true to this day. It’s all about how engineering skills and expertise can be used for good in the world, to address acute social and environmental challenges.”

Fast-forward a couple of decades and a Canadian student is on an exchange year in Cambridge in the era of the Millennium Development Goals and Make Poverty History. This, says Cresswell-Maynard, is important because social and environmental injustice was now becoming focal to the daily reference for young people, which meant that Engineers Without Borders was part of a “compelling narrative, particularly for people who were aware of these global challenges and wanted to do something about it, but didn’t know how. So, to have an organisation that was basically saying the skillset you have chosen to develop is exactly the way to address those issues is a really powerful thing.”

In 2000, a group of students at Cambridge University set up the UK chapter of the organisation, and before long they were working in Pondicherry in India, on a sand dam water access project. “The idea spread like wildfire. The students went home and told their friends from other universities that were also studying engineering. Suddenly, you’ve got all these different societies popping up in the UK. Lots of people wanting to use their engineering skills for a social purpose.” This was an aspect of the discipline not covered in UK curricula at the time, which tended to concentrate on theory and other engineering fundamentals. By 2004, the loose-knit conglomeration of student bodies had become a UK charity, established “to provide a point around which all of those bodies could focus and fundraise”. Since then, says Cresswell-Maynard, Engineers Without Borders UK has gone “from strength to strength”.

While Engineers Without Borders started with an emphasis on humanitarian crisis response and international development, “that’s shifting now towards a focus on global responsibility alongside a shift from Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals”.

So, while the organisation might have originally concentrated on problems of the few in “other parts of the world”, today it is about “recognising that our aims, particularly in engineering, occupy a global sector. So, it is as much about addressing how we do engineering in the UK as it is about acute social needs in Africa, for instance.” What this means is there has been a move away from ‘fieldwork projects’, where outsiders who ‘know best’ are parachuted in to fix a problem, to an inclusive approach where “we are working with communities and understanding their problems from their point of view, bringing their insight and expertise into the engineering process, where we see ourselves as facilitators of the engineering process and not the engineering experts”. Cresswell-Maynard says this kind of outreach no longer takes the view that “this is how Bazalgette did the sanitation system in Victorian London, so this is how we’re going to do it here. It’s about being more open-minded than that: looking at contexts, resources and how people want to live. It’s a more democratic approach to taking decisions about engineering.”

While there are other engineering charities focusing on fieldwork projects, Engineers Without Borders UK concentrates on, “influencing, educating and inspiring. What this means is we are ensuring that engineers are critically reflecting on the role of engineering in society; that they are able to identify and navigate ethical issues and appreciate multiple sources of knowledge to make effective progress.” This is expressed as outreach work in which volunteers go into schools to highlight the social purpose narrative of engineering, with the objective of encouraging career choices in favour of going into the technology space. “We also run design challenges in around 43 universities in the UK, the US and South Africa, exposing some 9,000 second-year students right at the beginning of their training to the potential impact they can have as an engineer. This is as much about scoping the problem in the first place as it is about solving it. For final-year students, there is the Efficiency for Access Design Challenge, which has 19 universities across the UK, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, working together.”

Design challenges are one of the organisation’s flagship modes of engagement with engineers of the future in the hope that there will emerge a new generation of engineers, “who will spread their expertise across the globe and find solutions to the biggest challenges of our time”. The prospectus for the challenges explains how they give “university students the opportunity to learn and practise the ethical, environmental, social and cultural aspects of engineering design. Students work on real-world problems without real-world pressures and risks. This gives them the skills, knowledge and experience needed to address global and local issues.”

Another way to ensure that the pipeline of people entering the profession doesn’t dry up is to find them when they are of school age. Cresswell-Maynard says there are enough published studies to make it a matter of objective fact that for young children, “engineering is very much an innate skill. But for some reason our education system slowly but surely tries to knock that out of them.” This is a shame because she suspects “the majority of these kids will have a lot to offer in terms of ingenuity, creativity and problem-solving in this field”. This is important for Cresswell-Maynard as it raises the question of how to regain that ability, while seeing engineering “not just as a science, but as an art and a science together”.

Engineers Without Borders UK’s work in the education space is all about “better preparing engineers for tomorrow”. Yet it is a future in which Cresswell-Maynard wants to see the mainstream engineering community “really taking up this idea of global responsibility, representing ideas that I think are well articulated through doughnut economics, recognising that these are the non-negotiable constraints on the planet we live on. So how are we going to do that? First, we’re going to continue to work in education. We’re not going to move away from that. We’re going to continue to have programmes within the curriculum and work with universities at strategic level.”

Similarly, with corporates, Cresswell-Maynard says she is seeing Engineers Without Borders UK being approached more often by organisations who are keen to respond to ethical positions of their graduate intake. “They ask: ‘How do we do this? How do we become more ethical?’ They are seeing it from that level. Yet they are also seeing it from the point of view of their investors, in that there is a financial risk associated with not being environmentally responsible.” As there is increased awareness of the need for increased global responsibility, it means that “we can do something about it. I’m an optimist.”

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