The good in engineering

Materials World magazine
,
1 Jul 2018

Alastair Marsh, University of Bath, UK, Cecilia Isvén, Senior Technical Consultant at IBM, and Peter Gates, Associate Structural Engineer at Giraffe Engineering, UK, talk about how engineers can support the greater good. 

We engineers are driven by the desire to make the world a better place, and positive impacts such as clean drinking water, quick public transport, and safe buildings are all around us. But, how we can do this in our own careers, or how big of a difference are we really making – is not always obvious. 

We’re going to suggest a pick-and-mix of ways in which you can have a positive impact through your work in engineering. By positive impact, we mean saving lives, reducing environmental impact, and improving people’s quality of life. Whatever your sector, role, level of experience, amount of free time, employment status, we hope there’s something helpful for you.

When we say ‘making a difference’, what we mean is ‘what difference do I make compared to an alternative universe in which another person was doing this role?’ This perspective can seem counterintuitive, but it is logically sound. For example, what career do you think does the most good? A doctor, perhaps? Given that (in the UK at least) medicine is a highly competitive career with a very high entry standard, if you weren’t a doctor, there’d be someone else who could substitute in, who would probably be just as good, and therefore the relative impact of your contribution is smaller than you think. Of course, we don’t have an alternative universe to hand, but our imagination and common sense is enough to give us a good idea. A simplified way of describing impact is through this equation: 

Impact = efficiency (number of people ‘doing’ + duration + geographical reach  + number of people impacted)

With efficiency taking into account the substitution effect, how much better or worse are you or the group you are working with compared to someone else doing the same thing.

As we’ll show, there are many different ways to have an impact – as a group and as an individual, direct and indirect, global and local, one off and on going, and short and long term. The impacts also don’t have to be local to where you live – we can have an impact in places across the world through our actions. We’ve included recommendations throughout, where you can find more information if you’re interested. Our suggestions will be divided into three sections – big, one-off impacts, smaller, progressive or cumulative impacts, and anytime, anyplace impacts. 

Big impacts

Deepwater Horizon, Bhopal, Grenfell Tower. In all engineering disciplines, an integral duty to avoid catastrophe is at the forefront. Whether it is structural collapse, explosion, electrocution, flood, fire, meltdown or other disastrous events, the engineer’s role in disaster prevention is acutely understood by practitioners themselves, says the UK Engineering Council, despite perhaps not being an aspect that is fully appreciated by society.

We have a duty 

The role of the engineer, as an individual in charge of public safety, is acknowledged through responsibilities reflected in the Construction Design and Management Regulations 2015, and is highlighted specifically in the codes of conduct for professional institutions. 

For instance, for practicing structural engineers, members shall ‘have regard to the public interest as well as the interests of all those affected by their professional activities,’ according to The Institution of Structural Engineers, Code of Conduct and Guidance Notes (2014) – find the Institute’s code of conduct at bit.ly/2LuRgOD

Beyond the construction industry, the Institute’s code of conduct (rule 2) requires all members to be prepared and vigilant for the possibility of disaster. Training, experience, professional guidelines, and quality assurance procedures for good practice, all serve to ensure that day-to-day engineering activities are conducted accordingly. Training in relation to one’s conduct and actions in rare events however, is generally less readily practiced.

Despite major accidents being, fortunately, very rare, they are so devastating that simply preparing yourself as best you can, in terms of both avoidance and response, for the unthinkable, could be a very effective way to prevent harm.

Avoid hitting the moose

In Sweden, learner drivers are tested on how to avoid colliding with a moose. The likelihood of this hazard occurring is very low, however as the consequences can be very severe, the learner has to pass the test to obtain a license. 

Engineers might base their response to less common hazards, or concerns for such arising, on judgement stemming from similar instances in their own experience, or from published case studies. Following completion of the Citicorp Centre in New York, USA, now called 601 Lexington, the project’s Chief Structural Engineer instructed emergency strengthening works to the newly completed skyscraper following investigation of a query received from an undergraduate student interested in the design. 

The student had adopted the building as a dissertation case study, and contacted the designer when their appraisal appeared to show that the structure was inadequate to deal with a quartering wind, wrote Sean Brady, Managing Director of Australian structural engineering firm Brady Heywood, in Citicorp Centre Tower: failure averted. 

A wind directed towards the corner of the building would not be critical for many structures, but owning to the unique nature of the building’s footprint, in this case it had been erroneously overlooked. 

In tandem with the emergency strengthening works instructed, the structural engineer liaised with both the local meteorological department and state police force to monitor forecast wind speed and formulate an evacuation plan for the tower and other buildings within a surrounding radius of the tower, should a wind warranting such action threaten.

The UK Engineering Council advises that if you have a concern about a danger, risk, malpractice, or wrongdoing that affects others, you should inform your immediate employer or manager. Concerns of the structural engineer 99% of the time can, and should, be discussed with colleagues. Means for confidential reporting on safety, in situations where an engineer’s employment could be compromised, does exist. Confidential reporting on structural safety (CROSS) serves just this purpose. Reports submitted to CROSS are completely confidential and neither personal details nor information that could be used to identify a project or product are seen by anyone other than the director.

The construction industry, and professional institutions, see CROSS as a great means to work together to prevent catastrophe. ‘The Institution of Structural Engineers and the Institution of Civil Engineers recognise that the lessons highlighted by CROSS should be disseminated amongst their members and used for educational purposes,’ writes Alastair Soane in CROSS Spotlight on failures, 2007.

Smaller, progressive impacts

While avoiding disasters and large, impactful individual action is great, not everyone will find themselves in a situation where people’s lives depend on their next action. Bringing forward innovation and improvement that would have happened anyway within your field can still be impactful. One example is improving battery storage. If you can double battery storage efficiency 10 years earlier than another researcher, that still has huge potential to accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources and a low-carbon society.

For the latest research on how to have the highest positive impact with your career, check out career advice website 80000hours.org. The advice is geared towards talented and ambitious graduates in their 20s and 30s, but we highly recommend them to anyone looking to make a positive difference with their career. 

As someone who is in research 

In general, if you work in research, you have great potential to do well with the work you do. A good place to start is to look at how you measure your impact today. Do you have a method to quantify the potential positive impact of your research? Where and how do you bring your impactful work and insights through to real-life projects and implementations? What are your links to relevant industry partners and companies? 

For example, Minimising Energy in Construction (MEICON) at the University of Cambridge, UK, has identified areas for research to enable significant energy savings in the construction industry before 2025. They work with industrial partners to develop feasible pathways to implementation in the construction industry.

In industry

As someone working in industry, read research in your area and make sure you have an understanding of what the latest developments are and how they are applicable to your work.  

Read outside of your own subject area – institution magazines – such as Materials World – are good for this. For keeping up with research, another very readable option is The Conversation, whose tagline is ‘academic rigour, journalistic flair’. 

On large projects, even small changes in materials and design can have large impacts. Optimising designs for material use and improving the salvaging and reuse of existing materials are low-hanging fruit. Autodesk Dreamcatcher is one innovative example of how to generate creative designs while fulfilling requirements and constraints. 

On a personal level, bringing change into your workplace is part being curious and part being impatient. What are things that annoy you about the industry, your company or your role? What are the bottlenecks in your organisation and industry? What does your supply chain and processes look like? What are the approval gates that your design or your work has to go through, externally and internally? Choose something you are interested in and want to learn more about. Find like-minded individuals within or outside your organisation to build momentum and get other people enthusiastic. Start looking for opportunities to get involved in events and hackathons in your industry or your local area. In the UK, there are catapults – centres for innovation – that run events and hackathons, and Innovate UK regularly funds competitions for research studies and implementation.

Being new in an industry

If you are new to an area, you will have different ideas to people with experience. This goes both for young people starting out in their careers, and the more experienced changing fields. You have a unique position to see things with fresh eyes and avoid being conditioned into particular ways of thinking.

Being experienced 

Having solid experience in an area is an amazing asset for understanding how ideas and new solutions apply to what you do. By reading outside your subject area as well as keeping up with the most recent research, you can look at how to bring the right innovation over from other fields and help shape that implementation. If you have deep expertise, you can also influence standards and policies and have a much broader positive impact on how other people design, build, or do their work.

Shakira impact

The previous two sections were about aspects of engineering that involve uncertainty and risk, but the potential for a big payoff. But, much of working life can feel, well, mundane. But here there are also opportunities to do well, as part of developing your career. A lot of workplace advice is already included in professional guidance from the Institute, the Engineering Council, and Vitae. We’ll explore two examples here of what we call ‘Shakira’ activities – ways you can do well, as in the singers hit, ‘whenever, wherever’. 

When you’re involved in a particular technology or industry, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world often has no idea what this is – let alone why it’s important and useful. Public engagement and outreach refer to activities that inform or involve other groups in society. There is a growing recognition of the value for both engineers and wider society in public dialogue about what engineers do, and why it’s useful. In research, this is now an expectation from funding bodies such as The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, as well as included in the Research Excellence Framework. There are a range of organisations to volunteer with or request volunteers from, ranging from general outreach (STEM ambassadors), the Institute’s own schemes, and encouraging people to join the profession from under-represented groups, such as the Women in Engineering Society.

Money, money, money

Money talks, as the saying goes – but can it also save lives? At a company level, sponsoring student placements, awards, or even scholarships can promote engineering education. On an individual level, one has much more choice and flexibility over how to donate. This is ultimately a personal choice for each of us, often shaped by life events and priorities. Even though we earn a little less than investment bankers – median total earnings for UK engineering technicians were £40,000 in 2012–13 – we are often still well off in the grand scheme of things. Check where you are on the world wealth curve below, or use the ‘How rich am I?’ calculator from the charity Giving What We Can. So if you have some flexibility, you can do a tremendous amount of good – even after tax. 

The world’s most effective health charities have undergone rigorous analysis, and their programmes have been shown to save the equivalent of a human life for as little as £7,500. If one donates 10% of one’s salary (after tax) to charities like these, then an engineering technician could conceivably save a human life every three years. It may sound like a lot, but thousands of people have already taken this pledge through the charity Giving What We Can. A way to make charitable donation easier is payroll giving, a workplace salary donation scheme, so that donations are taken off your payroll before tax. If your workplace does not have this, it’s worth setting up. It’s a question that’s unique to each of us, and our own situation, but ask yourself – how many lives could you save with your salary?

What next?

For anyone working in engineering who’s ever had the thought, how could I make more of a difference, we hope this has been useful for you. Give some of these suggestions a try – we’d love to hear how you get on.

We’d love to hear your opinions and experiences on doing well in engineering. Please write in to Materials World, or send us a private message.

Alastair Marsh: a.marsh@bath.ac.uk 

Cecilia Isvén: cisven@uk.ibm.com 

Peter Gates: peter@giraffeengineering.com