A radical change in culture is required

4 min read

John Kraus, the new CEO at Engineers Without Borders UK, talks to Neil Tyler about the responsible engineering movement.

Back in April, Engineers Without Borders UK, a movement that was established to put global responsibility at the heart of engineering, appointed a new CEO John Kraus.

Previously, Executive Director of the International Geosynthetics Society, Kraus has over 30 years of experience in international relations and leadership in sustainability. He was head of Sustainable Urbanisation at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and spent almost 20 years at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with roles that included Chief of Staff (Climate Change) and Head UN Human Rights Team.

Kraus played a key part in driving initiatives to help move the climate debate beyond environmental forums and to embed it more firmly in broader foreign policy thinking.

As Kraus explained to New Electronics: “I have spent much of my career trying to bring sustainability into wider, structural conversations. Today, we stand at a crossroads where the planetary boundaries are being tested as never before and our response must be nothing short of a sustainability revolution.

“I believe that engineers can lead the way and at Engineers Without Borders UK, our aim is to equip and embolden professionals and to encourage them to embed responsible choices into their work. We want to ensure an equitable environment for all people and a sustainable future for our planet.”

Engineers Without Borders UK was set up to engage and encourage the engineering community to serve all people and the planet better and with over 60 Engineers Without Borders organisations around the world, it is working to encourage the engineering community to take action to put global responsibility at the heart of engineering.

An example of its work is the ‘Engineering for People Design Challenge’, which every year educates 6,500 students so that they understand their responsibility and develop the skills to act more responsibly.

“Our aim is to create a generation that is entering the workplace ready to tackle global challenges,” says Kraus.

Kraus’s appointment comes as Engineers Without Borders UK has launched a new 9-year strategy, the aim of which is to broaden partnerships within the sector and upskill 250,000 people in globally responsible engineering practices over the next decade.

“What Engineers Without Boarders is looking to achieve is to put responsibility at the heart engineering, and to bring into balance the nine planetary boundaries with the needs of people.”

These planetary boundaries include issues such as: stratospheric ozone depletion; the loss of biodiversity; chemical pollution; climate change; ocean acidification; freshwater consumption and land system change.

“If we exceed those boundaries - we’ll undermine human health and civilisation, but while we need to respect those boundaries, we do need to take into account the needs of people who are looking to develop and improve their own quality of life.

“Engineering has been very successful in terms of development and improving that quality of life, but in too many cases how it’s been achieved has been detrimental to the environment,” according to Kraus. He continues, “Typically, the engineering community has, and still to some extent, relied on unsustainable practices and materials, with limited consideration of the broader impact and we’ve now reached a tipping point when it comes to sustainable and responsible engineering.”

The organisation’s recently published strategy document calls for the urgent rebalancing of the needs of the planet with those of people.

“We’re calling for a move away from outdated working methods and the prioritising of profit over people and planet,” adds Kraus.

“At the heart of our strategy is the ambition to create a global community of over half a million people, that will be powerful enough to radically transform the culture of engineering.”

The strategy, as society moves towards the deadline to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aims to inspire the engineering community to commit to global responsibility through driving change, and using and encouraging collaboration with companies, universities and organisations to deliver a more globally responsible form of engineering.

“No mean challenge,” Kraus concedes.

The strategy policy sets out for key principles which include being responsible and meeting the needs of all people within the limits of our planet. Purposeful, and considering all the impacts of engineering, from a project or product’s inception to the end of its life – and this should be at a global and local scale. Inclusive, so ensuring that diverse viewpoints and knowledge are included and respected and, finally, regenerative, with the aim of actively looking to actively restore and regenerate ecological systems, rather than just reducing our impact on them.

Kraus concedes that there is much work to do and argues that what is needed is systemic change rather than the current approach of doing things the same, but more efficiently.

“We’ve all recognised that the automotive industry is no longer sustainable as it is. But is the move to electric vehicles itself sustainable? While it may be smarter, we believe that there needs to be a radical new approach. What I mean by that is that there needs to be fewer cars, more shared ownership, for example, but also more affordable green public transport systems and better designed cities.”

Engineers without Borders aims to encourage the engineering community to look at their practice differently.

“We want to help students, academics, and engineers to recognise their role in challenging current practice and creating positive change. While on their own there is little, as individuals, they can do together they can create real change in the broader ecosystem,” he believes.

“Our target, therefore, is to inspire at least 500,000 people to adopt the principles of globally responsible engineering through a series of presentations, workshops and campaigns.

“Our aim is to use these platforms to increase the number of people that are introduced to a broader understanding of the role of engineering and through that engagement raise awareness about the pressing need to commit to globally responsible engineering,” says Kraus.

“We want to expand the number and reach of our activities and resources outside of curriculum so that more people can learn about global responsibility, whether that’s students, mid-career professionals, senior leaders, entrepreneurs, innovative thinkers, or experts.”

Crucially, Kraus wants to see the creation of competency frameworks that will build on the principles of global responsibility.

“We want to develop and provide specific competencies required in engineering practice. These will be designed with the potential to integrate with existing frameworks and provide progression pathways and a clear roadmap from basic to advanced ability, equipping the engineering community with the necessary engineering skills and expertise to be globally responsible.”

Finally, Engineers Without Borders, is not just about educational transformation but also collaboration.

“Our strategy also looks to engage with companies and organisations, as they are the ones who make the critical decisions and shape industry cultures and standards,” says Kraus.

The organisation already works with the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council influencing their approach, policy and interactions with government and has also established partnerships with major companies and universities.

“Over the next decade, we want to significantly expand our influence, and to persuade more organisations to commit to global responsibility,” says Kraus. “We believe that only through greater collaboration will we accelerate progress towards the UN SDGs and ensure global responsibility is a strong cultural feature in engineering.”