June 15, 2023

Research Brief: Trends and Recommendations for Engineers in Sustainable Development

Using questionnaires and focus groups, we gathered data from practitioners describing where they believe our field is going and how we can ensure we’re on course. From their responses we gleaned trends that we grouped into four categories and seven recommendations.

The findings are published for anyone with an Internet connection to see in the open-access journal Sustainability. Read the full paper for an exploration of ideas presented in organized academese, or read this page for takeaways and commentary.

Full paper: Advancing Sustainable Development: Emerging Factors and Futures for the Engineering Field

In summary

We asked this question of experts in the field of engineering for sustainable development:

What are the emerging factors impacting the future of global sustainability efforts within engineering, and how can these be amplified to increase the impact of engineering for sustainable development?

Responses yielded the following four broad trends:

  • Minds are changing in response to global drivers such as the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice movements around the world.
  • New careers and new academic programs have emerged for engineers in sustainable development. More professional pathways are available.
  • Interpersonal skills such as leadership and cross-cultural collaboration are valued. Engineers with broader skillsets are sought after.
  • There is a gap between the skills engineers attain during education and the needs of the industry.

And experts offered seven recommendations to practitioners:

  • Challenge the perception that engineering is neutral
  • Broaden the goals of engineering
  • Take an interdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder approach
  • Consider dynamic and interconnected systems
  • Increase humility and intercultural competence
  • Prioritize social justice, diversity, and inclusion
  • Increase localization, and center community perspectives

How we did it

Engineering for Change worked with a team of our former fellows and trusted collaborators from US and Canadian universities and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers to gather data from dozens of practitioners of engineering for sustainable development.

Eight facilitators, 13 notetakers, and 55 participants produced the data. Participants joined from all over the world, including Canada, India, Italy, Kenya, the UK and USA.

The figure below outlines the structure.

The virtual stakeholder summit crowned the process.

“The stakeholder summit that underpins the findings of this research paper is a rare undertaking,” says Iana Aranda, President of E4C. The summit was intergenerational and interdisciplinary, and the discussions were designed to extract insight and support the subsequent analysis, Iana says.  “It is that investment in structured discourse that yields fruitful reflection and tangible takeaways.”

Trends: Engineering converges with social science

Minds are changing in the broad discipline of engineering as a whole, and that is particularly evident in engineering for sustainable development. Our field has always overlapped with environmental sciences – it’s right in the name. But over the years, our field has been evolving to encompass social sciences, asking questions and adopting concerns that would find a place in cultural studies and social justice movements.

Engineering needs to acknowledge the role that social and political factors play in engineering design, and develop more tools for engineers to navigate these contextual considerations.

What are we changing our minds about? According to the experts we surveyed, there’s a move away from the exportation of Western engineering practices and a growing emphasis on local engineering and problem solving.

The field increasingly reflects global concerns about racial diversity, multiculturalism and the climate. At the same time, there is a fear that engineers may need to catch up, according to the surveys.

Grace Burleson, a co-author of the paper, former E4C Fellow who is now at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (USA), paraphrases a concept the experts expressed: “Engineering needs to work towards not just acknowledging the role that social and political factors play in engineering design, but also needs to develop more tools and resources for engineers to navigate these contextual considerations.”

Trends: New career opportunities have emerged

Our field can trace roots back decades to movements for appropriate technology and a Wild West of do-it-yourself global development. But in recent decades we have rounded a corner and have professionalized the field. Scientific journals and papers in established publications are dedicated to the theory and practice of engineering for sustainable development. We have academic degree and certification programs, and we have a profusion of careers in our field.

Engineers should wade into policy development,

Stemming from those revelations, one standout idea that participants mentioned is that engineers should wade into policy development. A respondent recommended the American Association for Advancement of Science Fellowship as an outlet for early career engineers to dip their toes in policy at a US federal agency.

Trends: Good engineers have lots of skills

Engineers with social skills are prized, and interdisciplinary skillsets are valued, especially in engineering for sustainable development, experts said. To attain skills such as ‘leadership’ and ‘diverse points of view,’ existing technical education and accreditation programs could incorporate soft skill training to bring engineers up to speed.

Trend: The education gap is real

Academic programs steer students toward skillsets that may not align with the requirements of industries when engineers graduate, the experts said. Two examples of training gaps that were provided are environmental impact studies and the design of innovation programs, both of which are required by industry but not prioritized in academic programs.

Another training gap may be in preparations to meet changes necessary to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. Most respondents are not confident that their organizations can respond well to the SDGs.

Two recommendations

The discussion of trends suggests some of the core recommendations the experts made, and the paper organizes their advice into the seven points bulleted above. There are two, however that Grace and Iana have highlighted as standouts.

“The first was the emphasis on ‘humility’ for the engineering profession at large – that engineers need to engage, listen, and involve communities and other disciplines (e.g., humanities, social sciences) and stop assuming that engineers always know what’s best when it comes to technical solutions,” Grace says.

Engineers need to engage, listen, and involve communities and other disciplines.

In practical terms, more humility can look like newly structured financing programs that put decision-making power in the hands of the people who live in low- and middle-income countries. Grace describes the concept as the need to redistribute power and decision-making authority in sustainable development work.

The second recommendation is a consensus among the experts surveyed that our corner of the engineering world holds lessons for the broader profession as a whole.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the consensus of the group related to the value of integrating aspects of engineering for sustainable development into all professional pathways to achieve the systemic change that is required to realize the SDGs,” Iana says.

What should come of this?

One of the paper’s conclusions is that engineering for sustainable development is no longer a niche. Rather, the term describes the activities of a robust worldwide community. Albeit, a fragmented one.

“My hope is that the presented findings will serve to unify the fragmented ecosystem of engineering for sustainable development and further the evolution of the profession,” Iana says.

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