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Making a sustainable difference in the developing world

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Engineering a better world. It’s what civil engineers spend their careers doing, isn’t it? Directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man and all that. That terminology may now be a bit old hat (Royal Charters are hard things to change) but the broader sentiment is still right.

It’s certainly refreshing to be focusing this month on the people who, through their projects, here in the UK and around the world, are striving to make a difference to society; to harness those forces of nature for the good of people and communities.

And it’s particularly refreshing that this focus does not rely on mega-projects, and the interminable debate that they seem to throw up.

That is not to say that mega-projects do not make a difference to societies – clearly they do, even if evidence to quantify what that difference is remains frustratingly hard to find.

Mega-project flaws

But they are noisy, they are controversial and, despite all the column inches they demand, they are relatively few and far between. And for every mega-project in planning right now there are thousands of smaller ones being developed and implemented by civil engineers around the world that will have a swift, calculable and immediate impact on the societies they are there to serve. That’s particularly so in the world’s developing economies, where civil engineers often have skill sets that are very much in demand.

It’s reassuring then, that considerable time and effort is going into this kind of work. And it is reassuring that Britain remains one of the biggest spenders when it comes to backing international development projects.

Project evolution

But – and this is the big but – is that money finding its way to the right projects and to the right civil engineers? Is the civil engineering fraternity doing the right things?

Our research reassuringly suggests that they are. We discover that these projects have evolved and the skills needed are different, but civil engineers are still in demand and still doing hugely valuable work. Hugely sustainable work.

And there’s that word – sustainable. It’s simple reality that climate change and population growth impacts are felt first and hardest in developing economies. Take Haiti. Take the Philippines.  

Projects in these developing economies are often, therefore, rooted in sustainable development. Those that work on them are often, therefore, much more attuned to what makes for sustainable development. That’s what we suspect anyway.

Twin devils

But it is not always going to be Haiti that gets hit. No-one, anywhere can hide from the twin devils of climate change and population growth. Engineers everywhere have to start to really “get” sustainable development.

So while, we suspect those who dedicate themselves to developing economies will be ahead of the curve, all engineers have a need – a duty even – to get up to speed. So we want to benchmark where we are at as a collective – how well do we understand sustainable development? So this month, once you’ve read this issue, we would like you to take part in a short survey.

This survey launches a series of investigative pieces in New Civil Engineer into the role of civil engineers in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We will be interviewing heads of projects and exploring how engineering is making a difference to sustainable living. If you think your project is contributing to the SDGs, then do get in touch for the opportunity to show us your great work.

We will re-run the survey later in the year and see if our coverage has made a difference. We hope it will.

Click here to take part.

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