The only way is ethics: It’s time for civil engineers to say what they really think….

Written By: EcoFutures Ltd, Universities of Sheffield, Bradford, UNESCO IHE and Luleå

With the call by Prince Charles to revisit the definition of civil engineering, it is now timely for professional civil engineers to not be afraid to say what they really think to government, clients and employers.

The Profession firstly serves mankind and everything we do needs to take a global perspective. However, personal fears may be inhibiting an ethical stance for many.

Reflecting during the discussion at the Institution on 31st May 2012 of 5 years on from the Pitt review of the flooding in 2007, I wondered how many panellists were really in a position to express their professional views without fear of comeback from employers or other retribution. Economic constraints and local interests have made it much more difficult for many civil engineering professionals to adhere to clear ethical principles of formulation and adherence to a set of values or beliefs. The individual needs to subscribe to the corporate ethic, i.e. the ethics of the Institution of Civil Engineers, irrespective of their employment or professional practice position.

The Civil Engineers’ work is defined by boundaries. Nowadays the two most important of these boundaries are the working boundary, as an employee or self-employed professional practitioner, and the job boundary, where the scope, scale and overall physical and temporal boundaries of the work in hand are set. In the working context, the professional, however engaged, has a duty to comply with the ethical and conduct standards set by the Institution and have regard for the wider standards expected notably by the Engineering Council. In this, the wider societal value and benefits of their work can never be forgotten.  McGowan reported that the majority of those found guilty of professional misconduct by the ICE concerned inadequate client communication or not keeping up to date as regards practice, hence it seems most of us can balance the seemingly complex demands of serving many masters.

Yet there is some evidence that today’s civil engineers are providing services to clients with only limited challenges to the scope of the brief or are encouraging over-engineering and not delivering value for money; clear examples of unethical behaviour if true. Examples include the proposed New Wear Bridge in Sunderland and the viability and advisability of the proposed HS2 rail link. Many schemes serve single outcomes for society when it is our duty to try to ensure that the benefits are maximised.

An example of a single outcome scheme is the proposed Thames Tideway Tunnels, replicating traditional technology from Joseph Bazalgette’s intercepting sewers in the mid 1800s. Elsewhere in the world, a green infrastructure approach is being taken wherever possible (e.g. in Philadelphia) keeping storm water on the surface as far as practicable and recognising it as a resource. This adds considerable additional benefits to urban life; some $3bn in Philadelphia from using green infrastructure. Achieving this was not easy for the professionals concerned who had to fight many battles to make the regulators and fellow professionals understand the potential value of taking such an approach.

Thames Water Utilities is acting on behalf of a wider client, London and UK society, and also contributing to improvements to the aquatic environment by minimising the numbers and volumes of combined sewer overflow (CSO) spills into the River Thames. There is a single problem, the solution to which is to construct new tunnels, mainly beneath the river bed, to store excess overflow spills of some 39Mm3/year, which will then be pumped back up 60m for treatment using 15,000,000 kWh/year. Despite this, no carbon footprint or carbon impact assessment for either the operation of the tunnels nor for the construction has been undertaken or even required by the client or by Defra. The tunnels will improve the aquatic environment at the expense of adding to climate change drivers.

Large infrastructure projects such as this may have a place where the degree of uncertainty about the future is low, but where there is substantial uncertainty, responses need to be more inherently flexible, utilising a diversity of responses. But where does the professional fit into this picture? “Given that engineers are… political actors…. the political and economic pressures that engineers work under have the potential to complicate ethical choices” (Hillier, 2010) expresses a view that professional engineers do have choices. Being a professional implies responsibility for conduct that extends beyond purely self-interest (and beyond the interests of the employer when necessary) and beyond the requirements of legislation or regulation.

So why can we often not look beyond current norms or paradigms in practice? Framing or habits of reasoning rooted in professional training, experience and in organizational histories often become established in organisations and the individuals that work in them, creating cultural ‘common-sense’; a problem apparent in the Environment Agency. These established frames are often difficult to reflect on and they define what is normal, reasonable, feasible and justifiable in practice.  Hence this makes it difficult for individuals to make sense of complex cases and the action required in the novel ways required to deliver sustainability. Given the multiplicity of other reasons for promoting schemes such as the Tideway Sewer Tunnels (increased asset value, capitalisation, profits to bank owners and lack of real financial risks) there is a difficult task for the professionals involved to promote what are self-evidently more beneficial solutions to society that are in fact opportunities to maximise the benefits from seeing the surface water ‘problem’ as very real ‘opportunities’.

Prince Charles’ sustainability lecture underlined the urgency of acknowledging and acting differently to address future challenges and suggested that ICE had a central role in this but needed to refine its’ charter to alter how civil engineering professionals see their role in order to align more with working with the environment rather than ‘directing’ it and to move toward a sustainable society. Rogers (2012) argues that civil engineers have “always addressed the core issues of sustainability, working for society within the environment to least cost or greatest value”.  That may be true in an ideal view of civil engineering, however, recent evidence outlined in this paper for possible over-engineering and missing opportunities for making the most of using surface water for the wider benefit of society, suggest that there are many interpretations of ‘sustainability’ and what ‘greatest value’ may mean in practice.

At a time of economic stringency it is inevitable that a number of professional engineers will find themselves working as technicians, unable to practice to the breadth and scope of their calling, and carrying out duties that lead to solutions to problems that are not as sustainable as they might be. A fear of upsetting employers or powerful clients by expressing doubts about the scope, direction and scale of a scheme also constrains any professional concerned about their own personal welfare and future (a moral dilemma); resulting in the placing of personal interests before society’s; an unethical stance but one in which the ICE or others are powerless to help unless it recognises this dichotomy and becomes more ‘credible, inspiring and sustainable’ Foulkes (2012); a vision that requires a restatement of the ICE’s ethical position and a grasping of the challenge laid down by Prince Charles to work with rather than controlling nature for the benefit of society as a whole.

Now read Richard Ashley’s full paper in the resources section.


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