Over the fence: Engineering

Posted on May 24, 2007

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In Challenge we borrowed from Cortese’s challenge to engineers to envision the future role of engineers in a sustainable future. That leads us to think about what else is happening in our sister disciplines : engineering; business; and design. Here we look at two initiatives in engineering, first at a professional level, then in education.

The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) has produced a set of principles for Engineering for Sustainable Development (Dodds and Veneables , 2005). These include the need to recognise that a class of problems exist where there is simply not enough information and there are no objectively right answers. In framing the need, a large system boundary is recommended to comfortably encompass the foreseeable influences on sustainability, but not so large that the unique contextual elements are lost. Engineers should be capable of drawing these boundaries such that they embrace – all the effects that the engineered system will have on the external world and the ways in which “people in their inventiveness use, misuse or overuse the system to meet their own needs”.

Fenner et al. (2005) describe a range of developments aimed at introducing sustainability concepts into engineering education at Cambridge University. They state that the engineering professional bodies recognise the need for “engaging with sustainable development issues” but that while some progress has been made on environmental aspects “there remained a lack of understanding, and vagueness about sustainability concepts and their implementation into current engineering practice”. They argue that what might have traditionally been considered engineering (encapsulated in the language of mathematics) needs now to be balanced with qualitative aspects:

A new pedagogy for dealing with changes from the quantitative to the qualitative is required, as the paper questions where the education balance should lie between providing access to technological knowledge which can be applied to designing hard solutions, and training engineers to rethink their fundamental attitudes towards a broader, multiple perspective approach in which problem formulation and context setting play a vital role in reaching consensual solutions.

They recognise however, that this balancing is not a simple task:

The twin dangers in broadening the remit of engineers, and consequently the range of subjects taught to student engineers, are that the additional topics will be covered, but only cursorily and superficially, and that the technical rigour of the existing courses will be dissipated by the widening of subject matter.

Fenner et al.(2005) suggest a template for development

1. Define what is meant by sustainability at the level of engineering operations

2. Challenge the orthodoxy in the traditional problem solving paradigm to refine the problem space to allow for ‘messy problems’

3. Encourage both breadth of study and depth of study for more holistically conceived solutions.

This template now underpins engineering at Cambridge. It has meant the introduction of sustainable development thinking into undergraduate teaching; the development of a MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development; formalising communications on sustainable initiatives; developing sustainable development as a key theme of departmental strategy; and the establishment of a professorial chair in sustainable engineering. They describe the process as “somewhat opportunistic” and “key features of the story including: enthusiastic and pro-active individuals, usually over-committed on time; key seed funding; a practice of “lighting many fires” and of helping existing structures before challenging them”.

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