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Dalek or Doctor Who, what type of engineer are you?

What made you want to become an engineer? It is commonly stated that engineers are avid problemsolvers, motivated by wanting to make the world a better place. But when we are under pressure to solve the problem immediately in front of us, to deliver a project on time and within budget, the ambition to contribute to a greater good can be difficult to maintain.

If COP26 has taught us anything, it is that our relationship with the planet and our use of finite resources is unsustainable and demands an urgent change in approach. To use a sci-fi analogy, what would you rather be? One of the Daleks – whose single-minded attempts to rule the earth are likely to result in mass extermination – or Doctor Who, who approaches each challenge creatively and always puts saving the planet and the people on it first?

Time for change

The challenges we face as a species are highly complex and daunting. The world population continues to grow, and increased urbanisation is leading to greater social inequality. Richer nations produce more food than they need, while over 800 million people globally are food insecure. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model clearly illustrates the economic and social impacts of climate and biodiversity emergencies, the global water crisis, damage to the world’s ecosystem from nitrogen and phosphorus loading, housing shortages and injustices, rising living costs and other factors. What it doesn’t show is how little time we may have to reverse or improve the situation.

The speed, scope, and complexity of human activity opens up unimaginable risks and opportunities. Our future depends on how well we meet the challenges, mitigate the risks and seize the opportunities. For example, the UK government has committed to a 45% reduction in emissions from 2018 to 2030. However, UK Fires in their Minus 45 report provide an evidence-based assessment by engineering leaders at our top universities which indicates that current policies will not meet this target. It goes on to say that achieving this reduction by 2030 only comes from using today’s technologies differently: not from developing new technology or just planting trees.

In other words, engineering is a key to the type of transformation required. But the right type of change is not inevitable: each of us within the engineering community needs to commit to challenging the norm and finding better ways of meeting society’s needs – without detriment to people or planet. But how can we do that?

Making choices

Engineers Without Borders UK actively promotes globally responsible engineering: an approach in which engineering principles are applied to actively restore and regenerate ecosystems and promote societal inclusion. In practice this entails critically analysing the role of engineering in society and understanding engineering’s social, environmental and economic impacts; both locally, where it is implemented, and globally through supply chains and operational outputs.

Attempts to apply a different approach are gaining traction: though there can still be a gap between the aspiration and the application. Tree planting with the intention of improving carbon capture is one example. Businesses and individuals adopting this approach may be sincere, but they are not always aware of how much or how little carbon dioxide is being offset, because no independent monitoring is undertaken. Nor do they always check whether the activity is being performed in the right place, using the right trees and the appropriate method.

By contrast, the National Trust is using Lidar technology at its Wallington 13-hectare estate in Northumberland to help decide where to locate 75,000 British native trees as part of ambitions to plant 20 million trees by 2030. The lidar-created map found evidence of archaeological sites dating from 2000 BC to 1900 AD, including traces of historic, healthy woodlands dating from the mid-eighteenth century which were cleared and not replanted. This information will help the Trust to position new woodland without causing unintended damage to archaeological sites, as well as restoring woodland that has been lost.

The switch to more responsible engineering must address current human needs, not just future existential threats. It will take initiatives that include – but go well beyond – solar power, electric vehicles and tree planting to include such solutions as the twenty-minute towns and cities, nature-based solutions, finding ‘no build’ responses that look to societal answers (e.g. car-sharing, not more cars), decommodification, rewilding, and reshaping the systems we depend on: such as removing our dependency on fossil fuels.

Conclusion

Unlike our Doctor Who and the Daleks analogy, saving the planet is not a binary choice between good and evil. Nor is it a binary choice between unproven technologies and painful behaviour change. Engineers have the unique capacity and obligation to help steward change in a positive direction to address the challenges of our time. But we need a culture within engineering in which we act to restore healthy, selfregulating ecosystems in which humans act with nature to ensure biological abundance. A culture that truly enables things we produce to be globally responsible and truly regenerative.

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