The Natural Edge Project The Natural Advantage of Nations Whole System Design Factor 5 Cents and Sustainability Higher Education and Sustainable Development

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Introduction to Sustainable Development for Engineering and Built Environment Professionals

Unit 3 - Preparing to Walk the Talk

Lecture 9: Rethinking the Application of Engineering Principles

Educational Aim

To discuss the need to rethink the way engineering principles are applied to solve problems. This need is being increasingly recognised by engineering institutions, scientific communities, the corporate sector and government organisations around the world. For sustainable engineering solutions to occur, we need to reconsider engineering curricula, problem scoping methodologies and role descriptions in the workplace.


Textbook Readings

Brief Background Information for this Lecture (2 pages)

Learning Points

* 1. Although engineering achievements such as the development of automobiles, have solved one problem (i.e. shortened time to travel a particular distance), they have unfortunately created several others (i.e. air, land and water pollution, congested cities and urban sprawl). (We will focus on this in the breakout group exercise).


* 2. The World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO) recognises the role of engineers in creating a sustainable future, describing their role as contributing to a ‘closed-loop human system’. The engineering profession globally needs to become part of the solution, finding answers with multiple benefits rather than multiple negative consequences. The theme for the 2004 World Engineering Congress[1] - currently the largest international engineering conference - was ‘Engineers Shape the Sustainable Future’.


* 3. Companies are now realising the benefits and opportunities of ‘sustainable business practice’, and are calling for sustainable engineering solutions to remain competitive. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) comprises 170 of the world’s leading businesses who are all in pursuit of sustainable business practice.


* 4. Government bodies also recognise the significance of the engineering profession to sustain national economies and regional relations, by confronting pressing issues associated with energy, water, biodiversity, global diseases (such as AIDS), agriculture, education, and others highlighted by the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development.


Brief Background Information

World Federation of Engineering Organisations – Engineering for Sustainable Development[2] (Report Summary)
The World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO) is publicly calling for engineers internationally to focus their minds and abilities on sustainable development.[3] The world’s engineering population of approximately 15 million professionals can influence sustainable outcomes throughout the entire production and consumption chain, through: natural resource extraction; resources and chemicals processing; product and infrastructure design; meeting consumer needs; resource recovery/recycle/reuse; and energy provision. The combination of engineering expertise with scientific discoveries can greatly assist less-developed countries in overcoming their challenges for meeting basic needs in the most sustainable manner possible.

By applying their skills and experience in the following areas, WFEO is confident that much can be done to achieve the objectives set by the Millennium Development Goals:[4]

  • Information exchange: Information exchange: Creating initiatives to identify and provide necessary information to engineers in developing countries to improve health, food, water, access to energy and other basic needs. An example is the UNESCO-sponsored Sudan Virtual Engineering Library – Sustainability Knowledge Network (SudVEL/SKN). The SudVEL/SKN is an engineering database, providing Sudanese students, researchers, academic staff and professionals access to both offline and online information for sustainable engineering solutions.

  • Global Engineering Programs: Global Engineering Programs: Universities are mostly developing independent educational programs for sustainable development – courses could be disseminated and improved if steps were taken to implement global education programs for sustainability, through media such as the Internet. Engineering educators and practicing engineers should assist in developing education materials for introduction at secondary and primary schooling level. As an example, ‘Discover Engineering Online’ is an Internet resource for youth willing to learn about the engineering profession.

  • Engineers as Environmental Generalists: Encouraging engineers to become ‘environmental generalists’ will broaden engineering perspectives about the impact a solution might have on the surrounding environment, and incorporate such awareness into the engineering solution. Suggestions to encourage ‘environmental generalism’ include curriculum reform; engineering students could be exposed to a wide range of multidisciplinary subjects – biology, law, history, political science and leadership training – early in their studies to understand the environmental, social and economic context within which their engineering solution will be placed.

  • Engage Engineers in Decision Making: Encouraging engineers to become actively engaged in the full range of decision-making processes, as well as project management and development, can improve the effectiveness of engineering solutions. Engineers can provide sound advice in local and regional civic activities; identify and maintain stakeholder relationships; and resolve disputes or controversy regarding the project of which they are part. Involving engineers early in the project – at the decision making stage before project development begins – is critical to determining the suitability and sustainability of any engineering project.

  • Environmental Impacts and Costs: Environmental Impacts and Costs: The adverse impacts of engineering projects on the environment can be significantly reduced by improving methods for considering the costs and environmental impacts throughout a project’s lifecycle. By starting environmental impact assessments sooner in a project, areas of concern can be resolved (particularly with concerned citizens and environmental organisations) at a flexible stage of development and therefore less time, money and effort will be required to correct the problem. Project engineers should further consider all the direct and indirect environmental, social, and cultural impacts at the ‘cost-benefits analysis’ stage.

  • Inline with Local or National Strategic Planning: The engineering project should be compatible with the local or national strategic plan and achieve a balance of serving the community and respecting the environment. Environmental studies should include as much input from stakeholders as possible, to avoid time/money/energy spent in confrontation and legal action. Environmental monitoring, where applicable, should be conducted before and after project development.

  • Direct Assistance Programs: CCreating programs to share knowledge and provide assistance with projects in developing countries. Direct assistance programs include: networks of expert volunteers willing to assist in advising, planning and financing projects in developing countries (e.g. Engineers Without Borders[5]); programs to form teams of participants from engineering firms in developed countries with engineers in less-developed countries to enhance skill-sets (e.g. Water for People Program[6]); and creating regional development centres in developing countries that would coordinate regional teams of consulting engineers.

  • Policy, Principles and Partnerships: Supporting well-crafted policies, applying engineering principles, and forming new partnerships will improve the effectiveness of engineering projects for sustainable development. Engineers must understand the multidisciplinary nature of any project, developing partnerships with other professionals such as economists, scientists, lawyers, and medical experts to ensure the evaluation and decision framework will achieve sustainable outcomes.


Key References

- Johnston, S., Gostelow, P., Jones, E. and Fourikis, R. (1995) Engineering and Society: An Australian Perspective, Harper Educational, Sydney, Australia.

- WFEO (n.d) Engineering for Sustainable Development, WFEO. Available at Accessed 26 November 2006.

Recommended Websites



[1] Additional information at: World Engineering Congress (2004) World Engineering Congress Homepage. Available at Accessed 26 November 2006. (Back)

[2] Text paraphrased from WFEO-ComTech (n.d.) Engineering for Sustainable Development. Available at Accessed 25 November 2006. (Back)

[3] Ibid. (Back)

[4] Additional information at WFEO-ComTech (n.d.) Engineering for Sustainable Development – Future Goals. Available at Accessed 25 November 2006.


[5] For additional information see Engineers Without Borders USA at Accessed 26 November 2006. (Back)

[6] For additional information see Water for People at Accessed 26 November 2006. (Back)

The Natural Edge Project Engineering Sustainable Solutions
Program is supported by the Australian National Commission
for UNESCO through the International Relations Grants
Program of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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