Engineering for Sustainable Development


The RSA WEEE man was built as a visual reminder of the amount of waste of electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) generated by one UK citizen in their lifetime. Made out of real washing machines, fridges etc. it originally stood on the Thames south bank and can now be seen at the Eden Project. For more information visit

The RSA WEEE man was built as a visual reminder of the amount of waste of electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) generated by one UK citizen in their lifetime. Made out of real washing machines, fridges etc. it originally stood on the Thames south bank and can now be seen at the Eden Project. For more information visit

There has been increasing debate over the last few years about what sustainable development is and is not, what it means in practice, and the changes needed from professional engineers and their clients in order to make it happen. A guide distilled from the experiences of the Academy’s scheme for Visiting Professors in Engineering Design for Sustainable Development has been in great demand since its release in September 2005. One of its co-editors and contributors Professor Roger Venables explains how far the sustainable development agenda has come and how it can move further forward in coming years.

‘Sustainability’, or ‘sustainable living’, is the concept of enabling life on earth to continue indefinitely within the constraints of the planet’s carrying capacity. It encompasses the idea that the planet could supply us with air, food,water and energy, and absorb our wastes, and do so whilst providing as high a quality of life as possible for all. The term ‘sustainable development’ can thus encompass any action that moves us in this direction, and ‘engineering for sustainable development’ can be seen as any engineering – or change in engineering practice – that also moves us in this desired direction.

Once introduced to the concept of sustainable development, practising engineers often ask: “I understand the pressure for change, but what should I do differently?” Although a range of answers has been available depending on the role of the engineer and their level of knowledge, the publication of the Academy’s latest design guide, Engineering for Sustainable Development: Guiding Principles, now provides a set of principles that can be applied in engineering practice in a wide range of ways. Their implementation should lead to many more sustainable engineering projects and operations.

A journey to be made

For me, a very useful definition of sustainable development is a process – or journey – by which we move human activity from our present, largely unsustainable state towards a much less unsustainable future and, eventually one hopes, to genuinely sustainable living. Sustainable development requires positive and sustained action – by individuals, communities, governments, organisations and institutions. We cannot rely on a passive hope that change will somehow arrive from the flow of life without positive action being necessary; the history of engineering indicates that this will not happen.

Such positive action needs stimulation, in exactly the same way as new products or services need promoting to customers, and I believe we can usefully turn to marketing strategies to help us define what to do next to promote the adoption of sustainable development. Imagine what we would do to market ‘sustainable development’ if it were it a product.

Selling the message

In the UK, marketers recognise five main types of buyers or potential buyers as new products or services progress through their market development:

  • Approximately 2.5% are innovators, who often buy new products just because they are new

  • The next 13.5% are the opinion formers or early adopters, often called ‘Mr & Mrs Jones’ because of the next group

  • The following 34% are the early majority, who buy because they see someone they respect with the product or service – these are the people who seek to ‘keep up with the Joneses’

  • The next 34% are the late majority, who will buy when the purchase is easy and the price is low

  • The final 16% are laggards, who will, for example, only buy a mobile phone when landlines are withdrawn.

Who drives whom

Each of these five groups responds differently to different kinds of promotional messages. Advertising directed at innovators will be unnoticed by laggards; advertising directed at late majority and laggards will be likely to drive innovators to look for the next ‘big thing’ in that area of their lives. I believe we should apply such thinking to the promotion of sustainable development and can learn from a comparison with the progress of positive environmental management of construction.

Looking back to a decade ago, it is clear that positive environmental management of construction was then at the bottom end of innovation. One of our first clients for assistance with environmental management in construction certainly saw Site Environmental Management Plans as innovative. Nevertheless, to their great credit, they adopted the practice on all their sites.

Today, positive environmental management of construction has not only passed through the innovators, but also through the opinion formers, and is now firmly into early majority. Construction organisations who have not already done so are now seeking to add or strengthen environmental management in their businesses. This is not necessarily because of a conversion to the environmental cause, but because they observe that opinion former organisations that have an environmental management system are actually improving their businesses – reducing risks, improving profits and enhancing their reputation.

By contrast, the actual practice of sustainable development is only just moving beyond the innovators into the realm of the opinion formers, despite many welcome policy initiatives by government and leading-edge clients. However, as those policies take effect, especially the UK Government’s March 2005 Strategy for Sustainable Development for the UK, ‘Securing the future’, there is a good chance that it will move through the opinion former stage quite rapidly. Awareness of the subject is now high, so the potential for imminent rapid adoption is high too. However, further stimulus to the progress would still help a great deal.

Where the guide fits in

‘Engineering for Sustainable Development: Guiding Principles’ is a tool for engineers to drive sustainable development through the opinion formers to the late majority stages. In many markets, and with many new products and services, a slow start can be turned into rapid growth through significant actions by important players in that market. The triggers can be many and varied. For example, we see it now in the demand for hybrid cars in the USA, where celebrities wishing to make a statement about their environmental concerns have bought a Toyota Prius and by so doing are stimulating the market for others – a classic case of opinion formers influencing the early majority.

The Guide, by promoting 12 Guiding Principles of engineering for sustainable development, is designed to help both educators and practitioners adopt a sustainability-driven approach. It provides answers to questions both of what action to take and what can be done differently, and has great potential to provide the market stimulus identified earlier.

“Sustainable development, especially since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment & Development at Rio de Janeiro, has become an increasingly important theme in local, national and world politics, and increasingly a central theme for the engineering professions around the world. The sustainable development concept requires of all of us – as engineers and citizens – to consider much more widely than before the impact of our own lives and of the infrastructure and products we produce, both geographically and temporarily.” Lord Broers FREng FRS.

Using the guide

The Guide is centred around, and presents in some detail, 12 Guiding Principles for the delivery of engineering for sustainable development. The concepts and challenge of sustainability and sustainable development are introduced, as are sustainability issues in engineering projects through seven descriptions of recent projects or engineering operations. These have been chosen largely because they were among case studies developed by Academysponsored Visiting Professors in Engineering Design for Sustainable Development.

The Guiding Principles (Figure 1) may at first seem to be universally acceptable and not challenging at all, but the Guide makes it clear this is not the case. A look at three of the principles shows the challenges posed and demonstrates how their adoption can translate into substantial changes in practice.

Principle 1

Look beyond your own locality and the immediate future
Principle 1 asks engineers to identify the potential positive and negative impacts of our proposed actions, not only locally but also outside the immediate local environment, organisation and context, as well as into the future.

Examples where these considerations may apply include the environmental and social effects of raw material extraction, which can arise a long way from a product manufacturing plant or other point of use such as construction. Another example could involve the environmental effects of operating a product, which may also arise far from its point of manufacture.

Unsustainable development of product manufacture can result from an action that, while based on trying to act sustainably in a local context, creates more severe development problems or social and environmental effects in a broader context, either immediately or in the future.

Principle 7

Give sustainability the benefit of any doubt
Principle 7 encapsulates the ‘precautionary principle’ and forces us to address the future impacts of today’s decisions. This principle encourages engineers to demonstrate that improved sustainability will result from the actions they propose. It also asks people to act with caution when the effects of our decisions may be permanent and/or if we do not have a full scientific understanding of the issue or challenge being considered. One example where this Principle is being applied currently is in the provision of allowances for climate change effects in the design of flood alleviation schemes. A 20% increase in predicted peak river flows is required for schemes designed to alleviate fluvial flooding, whilst 600 mm is required to be added to present predicted flood levels to take account of sea level rise over the next 100 years. We cannot know whether these allowances are ‘correct’ but they demonstrate that an attempt is being made to take precautionary action against these predicted adverse effects.

The 12 guiding principles of Engineering for Sustainable Development are:

  1. Look beyond your own locality and the immediate future

  2. Innovate and be creative

  3. Seek a balanced solution

  4. Seek engagement from all stakeholders

  5. Make sure you know the needs and wants

  6. Plan and manage effectively

  7. Give sustainability the benefit of any doubt

  8. If polluters must pollute … then they must pay as well

  9. Adopt an holistic, ‘cradle to grave’ approach

  10. Do things right, having decided on the right thing to do

  11. Beware cost reductions that masquerade as value engineering

  12. Practise what you preach

“Time is not on our side to make the necessary changes in our way of life if we are to live within the limited carrying capacity of Planet Earth. I hope this guide inspires you to make a difference to the world through sustainable development based upon the wise practice of engineering.”
Lord Broers FREng FRS

Principle 12

Principle 12 illustrates how many of the 12 Principles challenge us as citizens as well as engineers. This Principle indicates that one’s own everyday practices should not be at variance with what is being asked of others. It also states that we must not expect more of others than we do of ourselves, and that we must be accountable for our design and engineering decisions. In short, it states that we need to change ourselves before we seek to change others.

For example, many universities, especially but not only those with Academy-sponsored Visiting Professors, are responding to this agenda by moving to embed sustainable development in the engineering curriculum, and encouraging engineering students to apply the principles when they graduate. The consequential effect is that the universities must challenge themselves to adopt the same principles in the way the university is run. This task is already under way at Glasgow, and I and colleagues are seeking to prompt similar action at Queen’s.

And finally…

The Guide supports policy initiatives at all levels by providing the engineering profession, and especially the university teachers of the next generation of professional engineers, with a framework for understanding the nature of engineering for sustainable development and how to deliver it. Lord Broers, the Academy’s President, in his Foreword to the Guide concludes: “Wise use of natural resources, minimum adverse impact and maximum positive impact on people and the environment are our targets. Time is not on our side to make the necessary changes in our way of life if we are to live within the limited carrying capacity of Planet Earth. I hope this guide inspires you to make a difference to the world through sustainable development based upon the wise practice of engineering.” I cannot commend the guide to you more strongly.

Further information

Roger Venables was co-editor of ‘Engineering for Sustainable Development’ with Professor Richard Dodds, Chairman of the Academy’s Sustainable Development Education Working Group. Printed copies of the Guide can be ordered from The Royal Academy of Engineering and an electronic copy can be downloaded from the Academy’s website at

BIOGRAPHY – Professor Roger Venables

Professor Roger Venables is Managing Director of Crane Environmental Ltd, a specialist consultancy helping a range of construction and engineering-related organisations to reduce the adverse impacts of their work, and to improve the environmental and sustainability performance of their projects, services and products. He is also an Academy Visiting Professor in Engineering Design for Sustainable Development at Queen’s University, Belfast (Professor Dodds holds the equivalent post at Liverpool).

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