Episode 25 | 01.07.2024

Why We Need Broad Experience to Create Ethical Engineers

In this episode, John Kraus, CEO of Engineers Without Borders UK, delves into the role of ethics in engineering. He discusses the dangers of echo chambers, the importance of broad experiences, and how EWB-UK’s initiatives are fostering a new generation of ethical engineers. Listeners will gain insights into the challenges and opportunities in creating sustainable engineering solutions and the vital need for holistic, people-centric approaches.

Listen to the full podcast episode on YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.

In a recent episode of The Responsible Edge Podcast, John Kraus, CEO of Engineers Without Borders UK (EWB-UK), shared his insights into the role of ethics in engineering. With a diverse and influential career that spans roles in the civil service, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and the International Geosynthetics Society, John brings a wealth of experience to his current position, where he champions global responsibility in engineering. This article delves into the key themes and insights from the conversation, highlighting the importance of ethical practices in the engineering sector and the transformative initiatives spearheaded by EWB-UK.

 

A Journey Rooted in Ethics and Responsibility

John’s journey to becoming the CEO of EWB-UK is marked by a steadfast commitment to ethical principles and responsibility. Reflecting on his career, John recounted his early days in the civil service, where he worked on international relations, climate change, and sustainable development. Despite his passion for making a positive impact, John left the civil service in 2012 due to increasing frustration with policy decisions driven by political ideology rather than evidence-based approaches.

“I became increasingly convinced that government ministers…were becoming less and less interested in evidence-based policy,” John explained. “They didn’t really, it seemed to me at least, want to put the interests of the country first, and still less the planet for that matter.”

This disillusionment with the direction of public policy led John to seek opportunities where he could have a more direct and meaningful impact. His subsequent roles at RICS and the International Geosynthetics Society allowed him to delve deeper into sustainable urbanisation and innovative engineering materials. However, it was his role at Engineers Without Borders UK that truly aligned with his commitment to ethical practices in engineering.

 

Engineers Without Borders UK: Championing Systemic Change

Engineers Without Borders UK is dedicated to promoting global responsibility in engineering, a mission that resonates deeply with John’s values. The organisation has launched several transformative initiatives, including the Competency Compass for practitioners in June 2023 and the Reimagined Degree Map for university educators in March 2024. These initiatives aim to instil a holistic understanding of ethical engineering practices among both students and professionals.

John emphasised the importance of integrating ethics into engineering education. EWB-UK’s “Engineering for People” programme, for example, engages around 12,000 undergraduate students annually. This programme encourages students to consider the needs of communities and the environmental impact of their engineering solutions. Instead of focusing solely on technical solutions, students are urged to think about people and place first.

“We’re asking students not to think engineering and to think technology first, but to think people and place first,” John stated. “The purpose of engineering is not just about the textbooks and the lectures and the technical solution. It’s about understanding the implications of your engineering solution on the community and the environment.”

 

Echo Chambers

A key point John made during the podcast was the danger posed by echo chambers in modern society. Echo chambers, where individuals and organisations are exposed only to opinions and information that reflect and reinforce their own, contribute to a narrowing of perspectives. This can lead to a decline in ethical standards as diverse viewpoints and critical discussions are minimised.

“The best way to develop an ethical mindset is for them to be influenced by numerous sources,” John noted. “The advent of echo chambers is a modern-day symptom of people and organisations becoming less ethical.”

John argues that exposure to a broad range of experiences and perspectives is essential for fostering ethical engineers. By engaging with diverse viewpoints and considering the broader implications of their work, engineers can develop a more nuanced and responsible approach to their profession.

 

Ethical Leadership in Engineering

One of the central themes of the conversation was the critical role of ethical leadership in addressing global challenges. John argued that ethical leadership is essential for tackling issues like climate change and biodiversity loss. He pointed out the need for engineers to act with integrity and prioritise evidence-based solutions over political or commercial pressures.

“If engineers behave in a way that’s ethical and technically competent, we have a much better chance of turning around the climate crisis,” John asserted. “We have a much better chance of adapting to what is going to be a changed climate now, inevitably.”

John also highlighted the importance of holistic approaches to engineering. He criticised industries like oil and gas for their persistent reliance on fossil fuels and misleading greenwashing tactics. Instead of merely improving existing processes, John advocates for reimagining solutions from the ground up to create sustainable and equitable outcomes.

 

Challenges and Opportunities

The path to ethical engineering is fraught with challenges, particularly in navigating political ideologies and commercial interests that often conflict with ethical practices. However, John remains optimistic, urging engineers to stand by their principles and push for systemic change.

“It’s crucially important that we have an ethical approach,” John emphasised. “We have to address these challenges. We can’t just pretend, because if we do, the consequences are going to be real. There’s no getting away from them.”

He also underscored the importance of collaboration across disciplines. By involving economists, sociologists, and community members, engineers can create well-rounded, effective solutions that consider a wide range of perspectives and potential impacts.

“Engineering is not just about the technical solution. There are aspects of life that have nothing to do with engineering that engineers have to take into account,” John noted. “We need to work with communities and get their perspectives in what we’re planning to do.”

 

The Role of Engineers Without Borders UK

EWB-UK plays a pivotal role in fostering ethical practices in engineering. The organisation’s initiatives, such as the Competency Compass and the Reimagined Degree Map, aim to drive systems change through higher education and professional practice. By working closely with universities and developing comprehensive curriculums, EWB-UK ensures that engineering graduates are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and mindset necessary to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

John highlighted the significance of the mindset component in EWB-UK’s approach. This component focuses on cultivating a culture of ethical behaviour and holistic thinking among engineers.

“University is a very formative period. If we can reach undergraduates at that stage, it’s an important lightbulb moment for them,” John explained. “It’s about understanding that life is messy, engineering is messy. There are many other professions out there, and understanding how to plug into them and when to bring them in is crucial.”

 

Conclusion

John’s insights reveal the critical role of ethics in engineering and the importance of nurturing ethical leadership within the sector. Through initiatives like EWB-UK’s Competency Compass and Reimagined Degree Map, the next generation of engineers can be equipped with the tools and mindset needed to drive positive change.

As John aptly puts it,

“The people who are mad enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

His call to action is clear: engineers must embrace their responsibility to society and the planet, striving to create a better, more sustainable future for all.

Want to be a guest on our show?

Contact Us.

The Responsible Edge Podcast
Queensgate House
48 Queen Street
Exeter
Devon
EX4 3SR

Recognition.

Never Miss Another Episode.

Subscribe now to receive a monthly email featuring all new episodes of The Responsible Edge Podcast. We won't email you for any other reason.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

© 2024. The Responsible Edge Podcast

© 2024. The Responsible Edge Podcast