Interdependencies provide a compelling sustainable development purpose for civil engineers in the UK

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) enable us to recognise interdependencies and provide an ambitious but achievable focus for action in all countries, not just those that are ‘developing’. Davide Stronati, Global Sustainability Leader at Mott MacDonald and Chair of the Sustainability Leadership Team at the Institution of Civil Engineers explains. 

Traditionally, the engineering sector has mostly focused on technical and technological solutions while overlooking long-term societal impacts and outcomes; so SDG9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) is of particular benefit as a tool to harness links with other outcomes. 

Our research in Measuring up shows that to some extent the UK is in a privileged position to achieve targets set by the UN on SDG9, and its strengths in knowledge and innovation as well as finance can play a central role in this endeavour.

Knowledge and innovation will not act as barrier to progress. The Government’s industrial strategy states that the UK is doing well with cutting edge technologies, leading the way in automotive and aerospace industries, food and drink, creative industries, financial, professional and business services, and other science and technology sectors ranging from satellites to synthetic biology.

The Treasury’s Infrastructure Carbon Review and the National Infrastructure Commission’s Data for Public Good report are two excellent examples where climate change and new technologies offer incredible opportunities to manage infrastructure assets in a much more efficient and innovative way. Cutting carbon to reduce costs and creating a digital blueprint of the UK’s infrastructure network would reduce delays and disruptions for the public, whether in roads and rail or the water sector. 

New combinations of assets, new resource flows

The integration of assets through advances in technology will blur the traditional boundaries between them, leading to novel methods for the utilisation of key resources. An example of the potential impact can be found in the energy sector, where buildings and cars become energy exporters or energy storage modules linked to the national grid.

A circular economy that reutilises assets, their components, materials and waste will ideally look to make the most out of existing infrastructure assets and implement principles of circularity at the planning and design stages of asset management.

The UK’s clear advantages as an open, stable and competitive economy for national and international private investors could mean that financial stakeholders seek to make long-term relationships in industry and infrastructure. 

Critical human skills: leadership and local highly-skilled workforce

Nevertheless, competition is fast, high and global, especially in the industrial sector, and poor or absent leadership from the political class and business sector may taint the path to success. In addition, the infrastructure sector may struggle to innovate due to a lack of urgency.

An additional, and extremely risky, barrier is the lack of a local highly-skilled workforce, which can result in employers recruiting the best talent from abroad. A fantastic opportunity exists for UK plc to attract the best international talents but would leave the unskilled (or poorly skilled) local workforce upset, wondering why foreign professionals find better opportunities to thrive. As a result, the UK is less productive than it could be.

How the SDGs can unlock this potential

The real strength of the SDGs is in recognising the strong interconnectivities. For example, promoting progress on inclusive quality education (SDG4) would provide the foundation for a workforce equipped with the necessary skills to deliver on ambitious industrial and infrastructure plans. This would also create conditions for offering better distributed and increased wealth (SDG8 on decent job and economic growth), reducing inequalities (of gender SDG5; of opportunities and results SDG11), combatting marginalisation and raising segments of the population out of poverty (SDG1 no poverty, SDG2 zero hunger and SDG 3 on health).

Strong institutions and partnership for the goals (SDGs 16 and 17) are also needed to ensure that the world of possibilities in the industrial and infrastructure sectors can come to life, holding leaders accountable for the missed opportunities that the UK, as leaders on knowledge and innovation, are in position to offer.

At that stage, conditions could be met where no one is left behind, whether it is a matter of being able to contribute to the success of a more sustainable UK plc, or of enjoying a fairer portion of this success. Achieving these sustainable development goals is a worthy and exciting challenge for all working in industry, infrastructure and innovation. Recognising this, ICE will hold the first Global Engineering Congress in October 2018 to determine how engineers can make delivery of the SDGs a reality.

The critical role of collaboration

To accomplish what is requested by SDG9, we will need to adapt and create a positive sense of urgency, embracing a working ethos that has its foundations on resource scarcity - natural, human and financial - and trusting the critical role of innovation for creating socially inclusive outcomes. There are plenty of historical examples where human ingenuity has allowed us to rise to the challenge to achieve improbable success. However, behind the achievement of strenuous tasks, there has always been collaboration, perseverance, commitment and endeavour.  Where and how can we each collaborate more effectively? 

Davide Stronati is Chair of the Sustainability Leadership Team at the Institution of Civil Engineers who lead the Goal 9 chapter of Measuring up.