Engineering Change Lab-USA says the time is now to lead technology’s transformation with noble purpose, and speed our transition to a sustainable future.
By Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor
“The consensus of climate scientists can no longer be denied; climate change is real; the impacts are serious — and they are accelerating.”
From its opening words, Engineering Change Lab-USA (ECL-USA)’s Climate Change Noble Purpose for Engineering Statement is a clarion call. Brief, powerful, and science based, it declares that because engineering touches every aspect of the technologies at its root, engineers are uniquely positioned to transform those technologies, help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and adapt to a changing climate.
“It’s essential that the engineering community be leaders in tackling climate change,” Amy Squitieri, vice president and environment and infrastructure group leader, Mead & Hunt, and a member of ECL-USA’s steering committee, said. “We can be strong advocates for action, recognizing that so much of it touches on the work of engineering the infrastructure, transportation, manufacturing, and energy sectors.
“Our skills and knowledge are so crucial to identifying and applying solutions,” she continued. “It’s imperative that there be sustainable, resilient, equitable solutions to address the changing climate, whether it’s reducing greenhouse gas emissions or adjusting our infrastructure to the impacts we’re already seeing.”
Sampling from the catalog of climate-caused disasters in 2022 underscores her sense of urgency: Pakistan, one-third underwater from catastrophic flooding; pavement in the U.K. buckling in triple-digit heat; the American Southwest, parched by ongoing megadrought, heat waves, and wildfires — and that was only the summer.
Founded in 2017, ECL-USA is a social change organization whose mission is to “develop a new vision to realize the engineering community’s full potential as stewards of technology on behalf of society.”
Several times a year, ECL-USA convenes Engineering Ideas Institute summits, focusing on the most complex issues facing the engineering profession. The group brainstorms initiatives aimed at shaping the future of engineering education, licensure, consulting engineering, and the profession’s role in technology impacts and public policy, and shares the latest thinking about adaptation, resilience, and sustainability in engineering.
One such summit, “The Imperative of Climate Change and the Future of Engineering,” inspired the statement. “We brought together speakers we call ‘provocateurs,’” Squitieri said. “We use that word to suggest that we want to be challenged and stretch our thinking. That it shouldn’t be about being comfortable working in the space where we normally work.”
Collecting input from across a breadth of disciplines and 16 organizations, including Engineers Without Borders, IEEE, ASME, and the National Society of Professional Engineers, 25 people contributed to writing the statement.
What is noble purpose?
“The intent of a ‘noble purpose’ is to unite, energize, and motivate people within and across organizations, and to fulfill their desires for meaning and contribution in their work lives,” Mike McMeekin, co-founder and executive director of ECL-USA, wrote in 2021. “A noble purpose statement can quickly and clearly communicate how individuals and organizations can contribute to a cause, such as climate change, that benefits society and nature in a meaningful way.”
Noble purpose is a methodology created by Lisa Earle McLeod, founder and CEO of McLeod and More, and a global authority on purpose-driven work. She defines it as a mindset of seeing work as a way of improving the lives of others and making that purpose the overarching goal of every task.
In a podcast for the Engineering Management Institute, she explained, “If you’re just focused on getting the job done to please an internal source, or checking off the boxes, you’re not going to be as creative or emotionally engaged as you will be if you’re focused on how your client’s life will be different as a result of your work.”
In other words, when your guiding purpose is to build a better world for customers and their families, or society, it can elevate and inform what you do, energize others, and help you become a more effective leader.
This concept is at the core of ECL-USA’s statement: “There is an urgent imperative for the engineering community to take informed and intentional actions now to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. It is our duty and purpose to serve humanity in this way — contributing our skills and knowledge, without reservation, to help society make the best use of Earth’s precious resources.”
Crafting the call to action
“I’m working noble purpose into all conversation now,” Kerrie Greenfelder, P.E., manager of engineering, water, Burns & McDonnell, said. “I’m using my engineer’s voice to express the urgency of this moment.”
Greenfelder, who describes herself as “a chronic hand-raiser,” has served on many committees, organizations, and task forces. Known for being outspoken and willing to help, she connected with ECL-USA through a colleague in the National Society of Professional Engineers. “The dangling carrot was being able to share this end product we were working on and broadcast the message,” she said.
How do you put something on paper to convince everyone to do something about climate change? Greenfelder was instrumental in refining the statement’s compelling language. “When I jumped in, I had questions I wasn’t afraid to ask,” she said. “My biggest contribution was defining who we wanted to include when we say ‘the engineering community.’”
A SWE life member, Greenfelder — also a member of the Society’s board of directors and recipient of the Emerging Leader and Spark awards — credits her SWE background for her push for inclusive language. “We put everybody in the STEM bucket. You might be an engineer, a scientist, a technologist, or a computing or design professional, so I insisted that when we referenced the ‘engineering community,’ we be inclusive of all STEM professionals — because we all have a hand in this.”
Squitieri also took an integral role in writing the statement. “For me, championing justice, equity, and diversity was a really important component, for us to recognize that the impacts of climate change are most strongly felt by people with the least resources,” she said. “That was something that was very important to me to see included.”
Fostering a sense of stewardship
Technological stewardship means ensuring technology is used to make the world a better place for all: more inclusive, equitable, just, and sustainable — but stewardship can take many forms. The statement’s authors came up with eight different areas where engineers can innovate, collaborate, champion, and engage (see sidebar, “Eight Ways to Take Action”).
“We included something for everyone, because people excel in different areas,” Greenfelder said. “You might be an educator. Well, use that platform. You might be a regulator, so you can advocate for new and better rules and laws. You could be a product engineer who works on more sustainable products. That was a big part of our work, breaking this out so that everyone can be a steward at least in one area.”
One of Greenfelder’s many areas of interest is public policy and education, where engineers can help counter distrust of science and misinformation. “It affects me in the real world,” she said. “My work centers on drinking water and wastewater treatment systems. Especially here in the Midwest, rules are really starting to tighten around wastewater treatment plant effluent, because the discharge has too many nutrients in it. A lot of our public water supply and recreational areas had to shut down because of algal blooms.
“If you tighten the rules for what wastewater treatment plants can do, it actually benefits you,” she continued. “But what people ‘hear’ is that government is interfering. There’s no place for that in my world, so what we have to do in my industry is educate.”
Greenfelder emphasizes educating yourself first, and then sharing knowledge with others, at work or in social circles. “That might spark someone to write to their city council, or ask a question at a meeting,” she said. “The more we talk about it, the more we can get done. These are our cities, our tax dollars, our infrastructure, our lives. So we should be a part of it.”
“Honestly, I take a little bit of all these areas for action into my everyday work,” she said. “Part of my day is championing. Some of what we do is production and new innovations, so I tap into that. I’m a hiring manager, so I’m educating new professionals.”
Squitieri also takes parts of the statement into her work at Mead & Hunt. “Unleashing innovation has been a big part of my role for the last four years. We serve a lot of different markets, like vertical buildings, transportation, roads, bridges, and aviation. My role is to facilitate innovation and make sure we’re looking with foresight at the directions where our communities, clients, and our work are going.”
Greenfelder occasionally takes a lighter approach to inspiring others to take action. “Sometimes, I’ll say, ‘What if we’re wrong about climate change?’” she said. “Even if there was no urgency — if we take all the steps we’re outlining, what’s the worst that could happen? We lessen our dependence on fossil fuels. Maybe we stop these extreme weather patterns. Or build infrastructure that benefits the least-resourced populations. What if we just made the world a better place? Would that be so bad?”
Engineers Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency
“For everyone working in the field of engineering, meeting the needs of our societies without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in our behavior. If we are to reduce and eventually reverse the environmental damage we are causing, we will need to reimagine our work as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system.”
Engineers Declare is a global petition associated with Built Environment Declares, which drew hundreds of companies, academic departments, and students involved in the construction industry together in a declaration of climate emergency — and who have made a public commitment to create positive change.
Engineers Declare warns that time to avoid climate catastrophe is running out — every sector, from construction and transportation to energy production, that supports growing human needs continues to expand, causing more greenhouse gases and loss of habitat. “The next few years will be decisive in shaping our collective future,” it reads. “Now is the moment to act.”
The petition unequivocally states what’s needed to effectively lead a transformation in technology: clear intent and advocacy, followed up with action, fostering international cooperation, sharing open-source knowledge, and a concerted effort to influence policymaking.
Firms and individual engineers from Canada, France, Singapore, Spain, Australia, and the U.K. have initiated their own declarations as a result.
Every engineer can make a difference
Both Greenfelder and Squitieri invite engineers to read the statement, share it with others, and engage. “It’s important to find an organization and get involved in a future that speaks to you,” Squitieri said. “ECL-USA is a great way to advocate for change in the engineering community. I’m proud to see early-career people who’ve had huge leadership impacts, and also late-career and retired professional consultants and academics devoting their time to us. It’s a really fun way to learn and do good work across a breadth of generations and disciplines.”
“We say the need to act now is urgent and an imperative, and we chose those words intentionally,” Greenfelder added. “Around the time of George Floyd’s murder, there was a SWE town hall, and someone commented that if we keep tackling racism issues in this country at the speed we are now, it will be another 400 years before we get anything figured out. That really resonated, because I feel the same way about climate change — if we stay on this trajectory, it will take another 4,000 years to figure it out and really make a difference.”
“This is the time to go beyond our traditional roles and increase our contributions as stewards of technology, of society, and of the natural world,” the statement concludes, asking us to realize engineering’s noble purpose, and implying a question: Now that you hear the call to action, how will you answer?
“We all have something in us that we can do to help,” Greenfelder said. “Do something today.”
Eight Ways to Take Action
For engineering professionals in practice to engineering educators and students, there are ways to help. For some, it may be a matter of finding areas of interest and putting them front and center in your mindset. For others, it may be taking on something outside of your comfort zone. Which of ECL-USA’s eight areas for contribution most appeal to you?
- Educating the public (and those in the engineering community) around the science of climate change and the strategies that will most effectively transition our energy system and facilitate adaptation to a changing climate
- Engaging young professionals who place a high value on addressing climate change and empowering them to drive change in their organizations
- Advocating public policies that incentivize energy efficiency and reduce emissions and embodied carbon, while also prioritizing public and private sector expenditures for adaptation
- Unleashing innovation and entrepreneurship in energy system modeling, energy storage, renewables, hydrogen, nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, reduction of embodied carbon in materials and material choice, transportation/land use, agriculture, natural climate solutions, and adaptations
- Producing and using information and communications technologies that are climate-change neutral to communicate sound, scientifically valid information about climate change to society while preventing misinformation and information contaminated by conflicts of interest
- Championing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusivity in climate change strategies, recognizing that the human impacts of climate change are felt the most by those with the fewest
- Focusing on affordability, sustainability, and reliability as we transition our energy systems
- Collaborating with scientists, policymakers, businesses, and other stakeholders
Source: Engineering Change Lab-USA Noble Purpose for Engineering Statement
For more information:
Read the ECL-USA Noble Purpose for Engineering Statement in full at: https://ecl-usa.org/climate-change-noble-purpose-for-engineering-update/
Become a signatory here: https://ecl-usa.org/climate-change/
Explore ECL-USA’s next Idea Summit, The Regenerative/Circular Economy Opportunity and the Future of Engineering at: https://ecl-usa.org/summits/