Engineering the Sustainable Development Goals

Click here for the article: Engineering the Sustainable Development Goals

It actually appears at SDGO, a respository of published knowledge on implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals by Taylor & Francis, publishers of my book The Making of an Expert Engineer. I was very honoured to be invited to help edit this collection… and in that role, contribute this opinion piece. In this piece I argue that engineering is the key to achieving all the goals. Particularly in low-income countries.

Since I started taking an interest in the SDGs, it concerned me that there’s so little on the critical role of engineers. It’s not just the obvious goals… water, sanitation, energy, cities… picked out by the World Federation of Engineering Organizations. In fact, even WFEO have struggled to gain recognition in the UN system. Currently engineering lies pidgeon-holed under the assistant director general of the UNESCO natural sciences division. If you browse the UN SDG web site above, you will find it hard to find any mention of engineering. In 2010 UNESCO commissioned a report on engineering. It shows just how far we have to move. I performed a content analysis of the text and the words “value” and “benefit” are linked overwhelmingly to attending conferences! I guess that fits with the UNESCO culture.

So does it really matter that engineering is not recognised as a real solution for implementing the SDGs?

The real blockage lies elsewhere. Even if politicians were to take Greta Thunberg seriously (and I know that many do, just not the ones with real power at the moment), what could they actually do, next Monday? Short of switching off coal and oil fired power stations and restricting transport fuels… what could any politician do this week? Imagine the catastrophic effect of such actions would have on the most vulnerable people in the world.

No, the real blockage lies with us, the global engineering community. We currently have an appalling record for delivering large projects successfully (I have written several posts about this). India and China are educating masses of engineers, hundreds of thousands annually, but it’s making little difference. The real blockage is that engineers need new knowledge to be able to deliver the results that politicians and businesses expect. Engineers, globally, must devise ways to meet human needs using far less energy, materials, effort, environmental disturbances, less health risks, and, to ensure investors will back them, less uncertainty. (Like Close Comfort air conditioning, using far less energy to obtain comfort) New ways to practice engineering will be one of the keys to this transformation, especially in low-income countries.

That’s why I have synthesised the results of research on engineering practice into a new book “Learning Engineering Practice”. The manuscript is now almost complete and with luck should be out by September 2020. With this new knowledge, given a year or two, we could start to see a real change in the performance of engineers (see this paper for the detailed argument to support this assertion). I will need your help to get this knowledge out there, quickly. Subscribe to this blog or follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn for the announcement that the book is available. Along with the book is a comprehensive Professional Engineering Capability Framework, a detailed curriculum for workplace learning for novice engineers. If you want to try it sooner, by all means email me for a trial copy. in Engineers Australia we are gradually raising awareness of this potential for change. And without that change, the SDGs will remain elusive goals.

If you want an example to show just how transformative research can be, take a look at Kacey Beddoes’ recent paper at the recent AAEE Conference in Brisbane. In this paper she draws attention to the inter-dependence of engineering work, at the most junior level, a complete contrast to the school environment where students are encouraged to the opposite behaviour: independence. By arriving at this single word that explains why engineering graduates are so poorly prepared for the work they’re expected to do, Kacey has made a wonderful contribution.

I hope my new book will do justice to ideas like this and help a new generation of engineers amaze us all.


  1. Trough your lecture last night in the Big CEE webinar, and you have put it the way engineer and leadership in this way, “Engineer only useful when they can influence other people’s work. That’s leadership.” Hence, I can’t wait for the book to release!
    I am looking forward to how to accommodate your suggestion/guidance principle into instructing the engineer to be.


  2. Pingback: Why we’re on track to fall short on the SDGs - Create

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