The Washing Machine Project

EWB asks for ‘globally responsible’ engineers

Image credit: The Washing Machine Project

The UK chapter of Engineers Without Borders is taking a new direction: to get engineers to commit to being ‘globally responsible’. Len Williams finds out more.

Engineers have, arguably, shaped the modern world more than any other profession. From railways to aircraft, computer chips to telecoms networks, batteries to new materials, their creations have dramatically improved our collective quality of life. But, by the same token, they also bear a great deal of responsibility for the world’s biggest problems. Whether it’s the threat of nuclear disaster, human-caused climate change, or the spread of hate speech on social media, engineers have had a hand in making these things possible.

Part of the issue is that engineers are very good at delivering technical solutions to problems. Want to propel a car forward? Power it with petrol and emit the waste from an exhaust pipe. That’s an effective solution, but done at scale, it wreaks havoc on the planet.  It’s this approach that Engineers Without Borders UK (EWB) is trying to change. In 2021, the London-based membership organisation (which mainly, but not exclusively, targets engineering students) announced its strategy for 2030 – a large component of which is to get 250,000 engineers to commit to becoming ‘globally responsible’.

EWB’s CEO, Jonathan Krauss, reckons that “if you’ve got 250,000 people in an industry who really want to change to more sustainable approaches, that could be enough for a tipping point”. While quarter of a million engineers is by no means the majority of the profession, “if you’ve got people who are running projects and commissioning projects who are in that mindset, then that’s enough to tip the balance” to create systemic change.

Encouraging the engineering profession to be globally responsible seems like an obviously positive thing. But what exactly does this mean, how would it work, and are there any possible pitfalls?

As a very simple definition, Krauss defines being ‘globally responsible’ as doing engineering that balances the needs of people and planet. To make this more concrete, the ‘people’ side can be measured against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 targets the UN announced in 2015 to encourage policies which would make the world a better place for all (think ending poverty or giving educational access to all).

While the SDGs do touch on the natural environment, for Krauss the notion of ‘planetary boundaries’ is the most useful measure for engineers. This is the idea that there are various Earth systems which humans can tinker with a bit, but where going beyond certain limits would cause catastrophic damage. Emitting some carbon dioxide is tolerable since the planet can reabsorb it. Spewing out billions of tons of it pushes the planet over the edge.

Being a globally responsible engineer means taking all these factors into account when designing and building things.

Krauss’s organisation is well placed to get this kind of thinking into the profession, through its relationships with students, academics, engineering businesses and professional engineering institutions. 

One of EWB’s main activities is running design challenges, which see around 12,000 (mainly) undergraduate students participate every year from universities across the UK and abroad. Krauss explains that the students are given very detailed briefs about some sort of development problem – typically upwards of 60 pages of research and notes. “We give that to undergraduates, and we say to them: ‘your task is to really understand the people and the place. Once you’re satisfied you’ve done that, [only then do] you think about an engineering approach’.”

Besides getting students to work on a real-world engineering problem, the goal here is to make them think of the bigger picture and local context, not just on a technical solution.

As an example, one of the design challenges sees students build energy-efficient, off-grid appliances. Past winners have come up with things like crank-powered washing machines that save women in developing countries from spending hours kneeling on the ground, handwashing clothes each day.

EWB also runs several volunteering programmes for students, mainly in developing countries. In a similar manner, the goal is to get students to understand the local context, then work on a solution to a community’s problem.

But it’s not just about getting idealistic young students engaged. EWB has worked with engineering firms that are looking to embed sustainability thinking into everything they do. The organisation is also working with the Royal Academy of Engineering to look at how engineering education can be tweaked to incorporate sustainability thinking into every module.

What does this all look like in practice? “I received an update a couple of months ago saying we’d just hit 10,000 poos.” So says Brittany Harris, an EWB member and one of the organisation’s ‘change-makers’. In 2013, Harris volunteered for four months with EWB on a project in Peru to deliver a new and improved sanitation system, hence the faecal feat mentioned above.

She worked in partnership with a local charity called EcoSwell and spent a lot of time getting to know about one community’s sanitation challenges before using her engineering chops. One finding was that local people mainly used western style flush toilets, which were a hangover from when British oil extraction firms were based in the region. The trouble was that in a place with low rainfall, it made little sense to use litres of water flushing the loo every day. What’s more, untreated sewage was getting flushed out onto local beaches.

The solution that Harris and EWB helped develop was to use drop toilets with composting units. The composted waste could then be used as manure for planting trees and have a positive net effect on the local environment. The prototype EWB designed is still running and appears to have been a real success.

The project is a good example of the globally responsible approach EWB is advocating. During her time in Peru, Harris realised “when you’re studying engineering at university, they focus a lot on the maths and the hard technical side, which I love. But really, that’s the more straightforward side of engineering.” The harder part is “understanding the community and the context of how that hard science is being applied and whether it’s appropriate”. This insight has fed directly into the engineering business Harris runs today (see box).

Getting engineers to consider global issues seems perfectly benign. But it’s worth digging a little deeper into the potential issues too.  

First up is the problem of good intentions. For Dr Cristian Birzer, an engineering scholar at Australia’s University of Adelaide, some kinds of volunteering are highly questionable in their efficacy and benefits. “The quintessential example is where voluntourism [volunteering and tourism] organisations send people overseas to build an orphanage,” he says. “You have a group of students who aren’t qualified to do the work, and the community may not actually need an orphanage.”

This sort of project “sounds good, and it makes people have this warm, fuzzy feeling. But from an engineering point of view, if you’re sending students from a civil structural engineering course to a community and they’re going to dig trenches, pour concrete or do the carpentry work... that’s great. But none of that’s relevant to their degree.”

Besides the lack of pedagogical pay-off, such projects can also cause damage to the communities they’re meant to help. Birzer has come across numerous cases of students building entirely inappropriate or unnecessary structures, which soon fall into disrepair.

Yet perhaps the biggest charge against such activities is that they present a form of ‘neo-colonialism’, in that they encourage resource-constrained communities in developing countries to become dependent on outside aid and skill. Labouring jobs that local people could do, are done for free by foreign students, while more advanced skills never get transferred to the community.

Of course, there are both effective and ineffective forms of volunteering, and Birzer, who has worked as a mentor on EWB Australia projects, says there are plenty of examples of projects that are genuinely helpful. “Volunteering and tourism are not always a bad thing, but they just need to be done correctly.”

Another issue is the sheer complexity of what being globally responsible means, and the contradictions this can entail. Professor Diane Michelfelder is a philosopher of engineering at Macalester College in the US. As a simple example, she points to the growing number of places where plastic bags are banned. At first, this seems indisputably virtuous. But the picture gets a little murkier when you consider that so-called reusable bags require much more energy to produce, and if they’re made from plastic anyway, the problem of plastic pollution is only delayed.

Of course, no one’s saying sustainability actions should be stopped, but we need to think more deeply about the consequences.

There’s also a more fundamental philosophical question about how we believe that society actually improves. Dr Pieter Vermaas, who teaches the philosophy of technology at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, explains that some engineers believe that “if we do our work efficiently and in line with state of the art and in line with what clients want, the human condition will improve” as a by-product of good quality work. You could call this the ‘Adam Smith’ approach, after the classical economist who believed the hidden hand of the market would always select the best outcome for society. Leave people to choose, and they’ll make the best choice.

Alternatively, Vermaas says, there will be those who believe that engineers should be working actively to solve defined social and planetary problems. This strand of thinking has it that we need to intervene directly to solve the world’s problems, rather than just letting it work itself out. These are clearly two very different world views.  

Traditionally, ethical questions have taken more of a backseat in engineering, Vermaas adds, with ‘values’ seen more or less as “subjective opinion”. If there are negative consequences of a design, this is ultimately seen as “the responsibility of the client”, rather than the engineer who built it.

However, this is starting to change, especially with regards to questions of sustainability. Professor Michelfelder and colleagues have recorded an “uptick in environmental and sustainability commitments in engineering societies’ codes of ethics” in recent years. Where once ethics was focused purely on things like health and safety or avoiding bribery, the planet’s health is now a much bigger focus.

More generally, she notes that “the idea that engineers ought to design technologies and technological systems while leaving issues regarding their social/political (including environmental) impacts to others is increasingly recognised as a dated notion”.

So how are ethical considerations being inculcated into the profession? University is the obvious starting point, but ethics teaching is often patchy. Sometimes engineering students receive an ethics intro course provided by their university philosophy department, Michelfelder explains. “They might learn about Aristotle, Kant, Mill, maybe Confucius, but then not be able to connect the dots between ethical theory and their engineering work, and end up forgetting about the course.”

But what about when an engineer has graduated and landed their first job? How do these ideals cope when faced with the realities of work, the need to turn a profit, demanding clients, or simply a lack of time to think about the outcomes of one design or another?

John Krauss of EWB says: “I think it’s very much up to the individual. We’re not here to preach... Our contribution is to show people how they can be sustainable.” As part of EWB’s goal to get 250,000 engineers to commit to being ‘globally responsible’, it is asking members to take an oath to do just this. But, Krauss adds, “each individual’s got to make their own decision”.

Michelfelder notes that in Canada, some engineers take an oath on graduating to follow a code of ethics and can then wear a ring as a reminder of their commitment. “Because the ring is worn publicly, much like a wedding ring, it can serve as a tangible, physical reminder that an engineer is supposed to be devoted in their work to the public good.”

It’s a noble aspiration, and not always straightforward to put into practice, but EWB’s focus on getting engineers to look at the bigger picture is surely  a good start.

For individuals, EWB changemaker Brittany Harris has some advice. “I think it comes back to finding your piece of the puzzle, which might just be a sliver of the problem, and focus on fixing that. As some people put it: eat the elephant a bite at a time.”


An engineering solution built on people and planet principles

Besides her changemaker advocacy for EWB, Brittany Harris has been the CEO and co-founder of Bristol company Qualisflow since 2018. The software is designed to help the construction industry reduce waste and provide information on the carbon footprint of building materials via a mobile app.

When designing the app, she and her co-founder used some of the principles she’d learnt through her experience with EWB, namely, spending time with end users to really understand their problems, rather than barrelling ahead with a technical fix.

“The first thing we did with Qflow was to ask the engineers, ‘why are you finding [sourcing sustainable materials] so hard?’ So actually, we spent those first three to six months, just talking to people; we didn’t build anything.”

This extensive research meant that the app Qualisflow eventually built was designed to be extremely easy to use by people in the trade. “A lot of construction technology that we’ve encountered has not started with the user first. The designers go: ‘Oh, I have this cool tech, let’s see how I can apply this to construction.’ And that just doesn’t work.”

The basics

EWB’s principles for sustainable engineering

Members of Engineers Without Borders UK may choose to commit to the following principles:

Responsible – To meet the needs of all people within the limits of our planet. This should be at the heart of engineering.

Purposeful – To consider all the 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.

Inclusive – To ensure that diverse viewpoints and knowledge are included and respected in the engineering process.

Regenerative – To actively restore and regenerate ecological systems, rather than just reducing impact.

One of EWB’s main activities is running design challenges, which encourage undergraduates to think of the bigger picture when solving a real-world engineering problem. Past winners include Navjot Sawhney, founder of The Washing Machine Project, seen here at a refugee camp in Lebanon.

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