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Engineering a better world | How prepared are you?

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In 2015 the United Nations, with input from 194 member states, launched The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

(Do engineers understand development goals? Take our survey here)

They are a set of 17 aspirational “Global Goals” with 169 targets between them, covering a broad range of sustainable development issues.

These included ending poverty and hunger, improving health and education, making cities more sustainable, combating climate change, and protecting oceans and forests.

The UN SDGs were developed to help guide the future sustainability of the planet. With continued population growth and climate change it is going to become more challenging to sustain the world’s population. As such we need to find new efficiencies and innovative ways to live more sustainably.

Do engineers understand development goals?

But how well do civil engineers understand these goals? New Civil Engineer wants to find out and has launched a survey to gauge its readers’ awareness of the SDGs and what role they think they might play in achieving them. Your input will help us understand where civil engineers believe they can have the greatest impact and what support they might need to get there.

The campaign is the brainchild of New Civil Engineer 2016 Graduate of the Year Brittany Harris, who clearly has a passion for the topic. In her short career she has taken senior roles at Engineers Without Borders and spoken to the UN in New York on the issue.

But what about the rest of us, where do we start?

“It depends where you’re coming from,” says Harris.

“Somewhere like the UK, we need to be looking at innovation in infrastructure, clean energy and sustainable communities, a lot more than reducing poverty.

Ours is the last generation that can have an impact, but the first with the knowledge and the skills to do so

Helen Clark, United Nations

“If you’re in a developed country, you’re not really worried about things like reducing poverty, hunger, but you are now massively concerned about your carbon emissions.

The SDGs predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, were written targeting developing countries. They typically relied on philanthropic donations from richer countries. The SDGs take on a broader, more inclusive strategy, focusing on getting all countries to be more sustainable.

But should we take our focus off tackling poverty which has been the main priority for international organisations for so long?

Poverty reduction

“Although we might not be directly focused on reducing poverty, the other goals such as water sanitation, education and healthcare, will be contributing to reducing poverty,” says Harris.

Harris says the lack of awareness of the SDGs movement within civil engineering is “concerning” but those who do know, are enthused. And it is not just a sympathy vote.

“People like PwC and Mott Macdonald are pretty latched on to the idea of achieving these goals and how they can generate more business,” says Harris.

“BuroHappold [Harris’ employer] has started to make a move on this, and we’re looking to see how we can contribute through bids, and asking how these projects can contribute.”


But beyond civil engineering, Harris says there are efficiencies to be made.

“Every person, not just civil engineers can make a difference.

“If you look at the plastic bag tax, that was something brought in two years ago and has now resulted in a 50% reduction in plastic bags washing up on our coast. Which is amazing. And it’s such a small change to our lives but it can have a massive impact.

“For civil engineers, a lot of what we do already has a positive impact. What we can do though is highlight to our clients and our senior members, about how to add value.”

Being bold

Part of the challenge is being bold enough, says Harris.

“Helen Clark [UN leader, former New Zealand prime minister] said at the launch of the SDGs, ‘Ours is the last generation that can have an impact, but the first with the knowledge and the skills to do so.’ She called for ‘fearless leadership’ and I think that’s what civil engineers can bring… in the way we lead our projects and use our resources and knowledge.”

And along with courage, in the face of apocalyptic climate change scenarios, the other part of the equation is maintaining hope.

“To be able to look forward with hope you have to look backward a little bit,” says Harris. “Take the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs]. People forget how much progress was made. They had one goal: ‘the environment’, it was pretty vague, but the one issue they did specify was ‘tackling the ozone problem’.

“Which we don’t even hear about anymore,” she continues. “No one talks about the hole in the ozone layer. That’s because the MDGs were a key driver in reducing the amount of ozone depleting substances – 98% of them are now gone, we don’t use them. And the hole in the ozone layer is repairing, it’s now actually shrunk over the past five years.

“That was a huge global issue that everyone was terrified of – ice caps will melt, we’ll die of radiation – and now we’ve gone a huge way to fixing it.”

To confront the issue further, a series of investigative pieces will be launched in New Civil Engineer examining the role of civil engineers in achieving the SDGs.

We will be interviewing heads of projects and exploring how iconic 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.

Click here to take part in the survey



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