Putting global responsibility at the heart of engineering
Engineers Without Borders UK, leading a movement to put global responsibility at the heart of engineering, has appointed John Kraus as CEO. Electronic Specifier’s Paige West caught up with Kraus to hear how he plans to introduce a new angle to the organisation, with a focus on bringing engineering into wider, structural conversations around sustainability.
Most recently Executive Director of the International Geosynthetics Society, Kraus has 30 years of experience in international relations and leadership in sustainability.
Formally of RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors), where, as Head of Sustainable Urbanisation, he originated the World Built Environment Forum, Kraus also spent 18 years at the Foreign and Commonwealth office. With roles including Chief of Staff (Climate Change) and Head UN Human Rights Team, he drove initiatives to help move the climate debate beyond environmental forums and embed it in broader foreign policy thinking.
Kraus joins Engineers Without Borders UK at a crucial moment for the organisation.
I understand that you’ve joined the organisation following the launch of its new 9-year strategy. Could you explain what this is please and its overall aim?
The headline aim is to put global responsibility at the heart of engineering. That's the key thing that we want to do. So, this is about a culture change and a practice change.
We've set ourselves two principal goals: One is to get a movement of people that will drive change, a movement of up to half a million people, and the other goal is to equip 250,000 people with the skills needed to actually make a difference. We want to get there by 2030.
What we want to try and achieve with that is a tipping point. We recognise that there are millions of people who are involved in engineering one way or another, not necessarily as engineers but the figure is something like six million. Now, we're not going to reach six million people, but if we can reach a significant number – like the half a million figure – then you can actually start to see change happen in practice.
Following on from that, how are you going to reach those people and why do you feel it’s so important?
Well, we’ve got a number of things happening. A very simple thing is that we're encouraging people to join the movement. People can join us via the website, and they can make a pledge and that pledge basically means making a commitment to four core principles that we've defined – Responsible, Purposeful, Inclusive and Regenerative. It's a very straightforward thing for people to do.
In terms of specific actions, we're very active in universities. We've got 26 university chapters at the moment, which is actually pretty good. We were at a lower number than that during the COVID-19 pandemic but as we've come out of lockdown, it's really bounced back. We've got very active student groups who are doing everything they can to make engineering more responsible and encouraging their academic tutors to help them achieve this goal.
We're also working with industry. We have for example, a programme with a large engineering company in the UK to develop a group of advocates within that organisation. Not graduates, but people who are maybe mid-career professionals or more senior people who can really be the champions for sustainability. But how do you equip those people who, right now, are able to make decisions in business? So, we're working with them on that.
Another key thing we do is our design challenges. We were putting about 10,000 people a year through one of our main design challenge programmes and that's involving dozens of universities around the world. They're coming up with challenges for students and providing the opportunity to work with professionals, community leaders and their academic tutors to solve problems that people face in the real world. Now, that’s really important.
How can the engineering community proactively consider how to address sustainability issues?
The first thing they can start to do is get out of their silos. You see the silos everywhere, it's not just the engineering profession. What we can do is start to get more cross sectoral involvement happening because I think the professions, generally speaking, tend to operate on the basis of qualifying and then subsequently training in a specialism or maybe a group of specialisms and that training tends to be individual learning. But in practice, and this was acknowledged by a report written by the Institution of Civil Engineers, engineers increasingly have to work in cross disciplinary teams – people with different backgrounds and professions and so on. The trouble is, we don't train people in that way. We're continuing to train people on their own, in their specialisms.
I think that the big difference that an organisation like ours can make is to say, well, actually, we can bring together people who are not just engineers, they might be graduates or undergraduates who want to be engineers or they might be undergraduates studying in another subject altogether. There might even be people who are environmentalists or community activists. We can bring all these people together to address an issue without seeing it wholly through traditional engineering lens. Because that's what we now need to do. We don't have the luxury anymore of saying, ‘here's a problem we'd like to solve, what's the technical solution?’ ‘Let's just deliver it and that'll be fine’. That worked 50 years ago, but it's clearly not sustainable anymore because we're using resources at a rate that's unsustainable. Technical solutions aren't enough, we need creative solutions and to achieve that, you have to recognise that no one profession is going to have all the answers.
A lot of what we do can be described as ‘design challenges’, where we bring all these very different groups of people together, and they can practice working together collaboratively on solving real solutions.
What impact do you feel the COVID-19 pandemic has had, if any, on the engineering community and global emissions as a whole?
I think it's too early to judge whether it's going to have a lasting impact, very often with these situations, you can look at the short-term impact. A lot of what I'm hearing now is people saying that they’re back to normal and it’s business as usual – by which they mean they're in the office and they're doing site visits.
COVID-19 has clearly made a difference in terms of virtual working. But the fact that people might work virtually or in person doesn't necessarily make a difference to the engineering solution they ultimately deliver.
What challenges do you foresee Engineers Without Borders, as well as the engineering community, facing, if any?
One challenge is that a lot of companies say they want to get to net zero. More than 50% of those engineering companies are not confident they can do it by 2050. Something like an excess of 90% of companies that have a sustainability strategy don't believe that they've actually got the in-house capacity to deliver. So, the big challenge there is how do we get all those companies to increase their confidence so they can deliver on sustainability and deliver on that net zero?
Part of the answer to that is upskilling. I think it's easy to try and think that to be sustainable we need to do what we're doing now, but smarter and more efficiently. There's a role here for us to challenge them and say no, actually, the answer isn't to do that. The answer might be to do something completely different.
So, I think there’s a challenge there in that capacity building to get to sustainability, building the confidence, helping the talent pipeline, but also building a cultural change, where people don't reach for the first answer as being ‘let's do the technical thing a bit smarter’. Let's actually question whether what we've done in the past is even going to be appropriate in the future.