Australian Engineers Declare is a movement that asks industry to prioritise sustainability during every conversation with every client. How is the engineering community responding?
The group Australian Engineers Declare (AED) aims to kickstart a conversation about the role of sustainability in the Australian engineering profession. Their goal is to encourage more engineers to question the current decision-making drivers with regards to projects — and in turn change long-standing attitudes.
“This is something we’ve been talking about at Arup for quite some time,” said Peter Chamley, Region Chair of Arup Australasia, one of the first major players that signed up to the AED accord.
“Really, it’s all about the type of conversation you have with your client. We want all of our work aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). So when we have conversations with our clients, we ask how we can make a project, or their business, more sustainable.”
Chamley stressed that sustainability is about much more than just climate change.
“It’s in terms of employment opportunities for disadvantaged people. It’s to do with water quality or effluent. It’s to do with biodiversity, and a lot more,” he told create.
“We’re thinking of all 17 of the UN’s SDGs. We think our clients should be looking at their project to say, ‘How can we do something to help achieve those SDGs rather than just doing the project exactly the same way it has always been done?’.”
More than climate change
In a business environment where success has been proven to be strongly connected to employee engagement, more engineering firms consider it to be vital, in terms of talent attraction and retention, that their projects make their workforces proud.
“Every switched-on engineering company is looking at this and saying, ‘Hang on — if we’re serious about retaining smart, capable, empathetic employees, we need to think seriously about the ethics behind all aspects of our work,” said Lizzie Webb, an engineer, CEO of Kindred Spirits Enterprises, company director and coordinator with Australian Engineers Declare.
In an interview with The Guardian, Robert Care, a UNSW professor of practice in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the 2014 Professional Engineer of the Year, said there’s broad recognition that most sectors are transitioning, and encouraged engineers to help shape that transition rather than focus on in-fighting.
“If we don’t act together, then at some stage in the future we will have … disenchanted, disenfranchised people, workers who have been cast aside,” he said.
Webb said the aim of Australian Engineers Declare is to create a community (“a sense of solidarity”) for individuals and organisations that want to have open discussions about what ethics-based work looks like in a modern engineering profession.
Within three weeks of its launch on 20 September, AED had signed 112 engineering organisations and more than 1270 individual engineers. Its aim is to mobilise 50,000 individuals and 200 companies.
“We believe that every engineer needs to fundamentally review their work in the context of the urgent transition our society needs,” Webb told create.
This includes the selection of climate-positive projects, and shaping project briefs and their delivery for good outcomes for society and the planet.
“We also need to play a stronger part in the critical review and development of the systems in which we work,” Webb said.
She added that she would like to see more engineers “say no when they’re not comfortable with the impact of a project”.
Some in the industry say it’s much more of a grey area, though, and ‘just saying no’ isn’t feasible — or even desirable.
As an example, earlier this month, roughly 700 professionals (including several Australian engineers) put their names to an open letter to UN Secretary-General Antonia Guterres. The group, known as the Dutch Climate Intelligence Foundation (Clintel), issued a European Climate Declaration stating “there is no climate emergency” and that the current effect of greenhouse gases is greatly exaggerated.
The AED ‘Invitation to Collaborate’ is a document that explains the goals of the movement. It states that the engineering profession has a critical role to play in strengthening and implementing sustainable practices and combatting the effects of climate change.
“The Australian community is reliant on the engineering profession’s experience, creativity, problem-solving skills, and balanced approach to enable our transition towards a more sustainable future,” the document states.
“Engineers understand the risks and the commercial implications. They are actively seeking to understand the humanitarian and ecological imperative. And, they must become an essential contributor to discussion, debate, policy and planning.”
On 20 November, a date that coincides with the opening of the World Engineers Convention, Australian Engineers Declare will shift to “Australian Engineers Act”, which aims to inspire the engineering profession to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable future. This includes the establishment of a new leadership paradigm with principles for sustainable outcomes at the core.
Engineers Australia, the peak body of the Australian engineering profession, has also said it will release an official Climate Change Position Statement later this year.
Chamley said keeping sustainability — including climate change mitigation and biodiversity loss — in mind can only be positive for the industry, for people involved in engineering, for the clients of engineering firms and for the broader communities affected by the work that engineers do.
“Engineers do have strongly held beliefs, but we tend to be pretty modest, self-effacing folk and we never want to make a fuss. That is why this works,” Chamley said.
“It is simply letting the profession know that others are coming together and saying it’s okay to express particular views, and that many are saying the same thing.”
What do you think? Let us know in the comments. If you are an Engineers Australia member, visit the members-only forum EA Xchange to read what others are already saying and contribute to the conversation thread.