How it started
I went into the Global Engineering Congress (GEC) excited to share my thoughts on innovation in the workplace, in the use of technology and partnerships. I was also keen to debate ideas, but also to debate ways forward with other like or averse minded colleagues from both the international development, civil society, engineering and academic industries. I was supported by a brilliant team of Happold Foundation Ambassadors, who were eager to connect with other young professionals, thought leaders and organisations looking to drive change in sustainable development.
My key messages I wanted to share going into the conference were:
• Technology buys us time to untangle and redefine a theory of change with local partners and focus on higher cognitive function. Let’s invest in being early adopters
• We need to adopt systems practice approach as a key innovation in learning and communication. It is a way of communicating complex problems independently of culture, skillsets or capacity. And it helps us understand connections and not just siloed disciplines
• Changes to partnerships and skills require new organisational leadership and strategies for evaluating, progressing and dissipating knowledge internally and externally; continuously and iteratively
• Remote collaboration and knowledge sharing networks can be used and also has value during non-crises to set up data management systems and protocols to enable resilient decision making during crises
• Flexible, adaptive and innovative team structures need to be explored to nurture the energy and unused skills of young leaders and prepare them for the challenges ahead.
• Civil society and grassroots implementers need to play a critical role in preventing a widening of an employment and skills gap and leading end user innovation.
You can learn more about these in the video here, but what I want to share with you now is how the lectures, workshops, dinners and debates challenged my thinking and left me with more questions and ideas, which is testimony to a great week of stimulating discussion.
The sessions opened with Prof Lord Robert Mair, outgoing President of the ICE, stating that “today is our chance to make a real difference together” and Miguel Clusener-Godt stating the urgency of “assisting countries to build their own capacity in managing disaster risk and climate change and with their ability to cope with disasters”. A multitude of speakers all commented in different ways on the gravity of the situation world-wide. Facts that stuck and are worth reminding ourselves of when we discuss SDGs are:
• We are currently using 1.7 planets a year and on our current trajectory we will need five planets a year by 2050. Unless we master expansion to another three planets in the next decade or two we need to bring some serious changes to the way we consume
• Theo Cosmora from SDG Foundation pointed out in discussions and previous lectures that “3% of the world GDP is how much we value the future of our planet” and that the same three causes which led to the failed pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals (lack of mainstream support, lack of funding, siloed approaches and coordination) are happening again and threatening the success of SDGs
• The annual shortfall in funding required to deliver SDG remains at $2.5 trillion annually
• Discrepancy in wealth continues to widen and the High Level Political Forum on SDGs in July 2018 pointed out that inclusivity and consistent progress across countries and scales is proving a real challenge
• Technologies, new ideas and workplace innovation are disrupting the world of work and are leading to 2m jobs created, but also 7m traditional and industrial jobs lost.
Within the first morning session discussions were raising questions such as: “Are we sure we are learning faster than the world is changing?”, and by Thursday I was engaged in a heated debate about “whether engineers or built environment professionals can or should lead or are other organisations doing it better?” Prof Colin Taylor from the University of Bristol challenged in our Happold Foundation innovation workshop – “The question isn’t who will try to step up and lead, but also who is willing to follow and accept changes to their organisations’ role.”
I wanted to share some of the questions the week raised, not to presume answers (because I don’t have them all) but in the hope that what I learned stimulates further discussion, and more importantly, action.
Key questions raised
Learning from the MDGs to avoid making the same mistakes again
A few speakers mentioned key challenges such as lack of engagement at scale and organisations not yet understanding how they can easily work towards SDGs from today, but not enough discussion was dedicated in my opinion to learning from the experience of trying to progress and achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Pierre Lena stated, “the very heart of the strategy is misunderstood by the population”, meaning that most of people in the earth have not connected with urgency.
This was deemed to be a key reason for under-performance in reaching the MDGs, and yet it is happening again. If the BBC coverage of the “12 Years to Go” climate change report was not able to communicate the actions needed, how can the viewer take action immediately to participate in tackling the change. The message we most often hear on SDGs is that we are doomed. What we urgently need is to convert the storyline to “this is what you can do to help from today.”
Who will lead?
If engineers are indeed excellent at resolving and working across disciplines to communicate complex problems, then why are we not doing more to foster communication across industries? The GEC conference was a brilliant testimony that the civil engineering industry should and can reach out and mix, learn exchange ideas with other industries. Attendees’ perception of the role and capacities of engineers however still vary, and the rooted belief that engineers are good at answering questions but not formulating broad enough questions still stands. So if engineers want to play a bigger role in leading the change in sustainable development then they need to change the way they portray themselves and demonstrate their worth to other players and industries. For example, by uncovering new stories of engineers instead of relying on the successes of past engineers (which are no doubt commendable, awe inspiring feats, but will not buy engineers a seat at the decision making table or pave the way for leadership roles in the future).
Learning from historical shifts in mind-set
Pierre Lena offered a very interesting example of how a paradigm shift in health and sanitation practices was successfully achieved in Europe and argued that this was a brilliant example of how preconceptions in society could be changed at scale. We need more of these examples so that we can learn how to better entice a broader audience to own, participate, understand and shift their mind-sets and take action – so who has these examples to share? And what can we do differently to help us in our pursuit of climate action?
Please let us know your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org as we are interested in taking this forward.
How do we unlock opportunities offered by new technologies or ideas – but scale them in an inclusive way?
Alibaba showcased an innovative City Brain technology capable of optimising traffic flow, reducing response time for accidents or emergencies and generating city data for use in new ways. This is a brilliant example of how the private sector can create innovation that social sustainable projects can benefit from. But the questions I was asking myself were: what is the cost of this platform to an organisation? What is the minimum scale one would recommend for use of this type of technology to be cost effective for an organisation? How can smaller businesses access and draw new business opportunities from this data? How do you make these technologies, mental models and simulation frameworks (that provide insightful information and offer critical learning for implementing organisations), useable and accessible to smaller organisations and actors that do not have access to the same technological investment budgets or capacity framework?
Elspeth Finch from Indigo& in the closing plenary offered one example of the OpenSourceCoding platform model where contributors generate value and make it accessible to all independently, creating a democracy of knowledge sharing.
Among the many solutions and ways forward that were shared and put forward which we encourage you all to investigate yourselves through the GEC videos, key takeaways worth exploring further in my opinion were:
What questions are we asking to frame the problem?
Prof Dame Mrs. Ann Downing President of the Royal Academy of Engineering observed how “the only way to achieve something really useful was to change the way the question was changed”. This sometimes lack of a broad enough understanding of the complexity of the problem and an easy way into tackling it came up a lot and was echoed also by Pierre Lena’s reminder that we “need to understand the problem to be able to intimately explain it” and as Einstein stated “we don’t solve problems with the same mind-set that created them.”
The way we approach and frame our initial understanding of a sustainable development challenge is critical because it will determine our understanding and the type of solutions we develop. One of the workshops used an interesting approach of picking an SDG goal, then shortly after shaping the project goals to meet the indicators in a completely different random set of SDG goals. This was an extremely powerful exercise to illustrate that once we have set our minds on a goal or a vision it becomes very difficult to part with that vision, but when we do we can come up with ways of seeing and extracting value which we did not previously see. So exploring different approaches to complexity is critical and Systems Practice is one brilliant way into a complex problem that offers safe navigation, without losing sight of goals.
The concept of co-production in partnerships
To tackle the problem of lack of engagement from some key players we need to work on the way we partner. Now we often talk about better collaboration, better partnerships etc. but how often do we actually drill deep into understanding and talking frankly about the reasons our partnerships don’t work?
Dr Yvette E Pearson touched on this subject in her lecture, stating, “I have seen partnerships done a great deal, I have not seen them done very well.” She broke down the challenge into these key points:
• Mutual benefits partnerships are lopsided
• Inclusivity: “we always think about what we can offer them, not what they can offer you.”
To me the main takeaway here is related to both how we engage others and more fundamentally to what value we deliver and create through projects. All too often we focus on building the value that we think others want, or that we indeed want without considering asking the end users what value they truly want. Co-production means engaging stakeholders early on in all stages of infrastructure or project creation for example so that citizens and end users become co owners co producers of the projects. If they understand the value they will be more likely to want to pay for it.
Which leads to the final point – a shift in economics of who pays and who gains from these sustainable development projects.
Theo Cosmora pointed out that the “responsibility for paying for infrastructure still lies only and with taxpayer and consumer”, while Gana Gunalan VP at AECOM pointed out that current income based taxes will only return to the central governments a very small portion of the value created, because salary based increases will always be minimal with respect to accumulated savings which are taxed differently. This is something that the Global Wealth Tax would be looking to change. If we want to change the scale of the impact we achieve and who we partner with and how, we also need to change the way financial incentives and value created through the course of these projects and work is redistributed.
So to finish, I went into the GEC with some ideas to share, a desire to meet passionate change makers, learn and explore new opportunities for collaboration. The Happold Foundation team and I were not disappointed, and came away with the following actions that we will be progressing and integrating into our agenda going forward.
• Learn from the MDGs
• Redefine how engineers can lead but prepare them to follow as well and recognise that they will not have all the answers and will need to rub shoulders and learn from other industries too
• Do not forget the importance of scaled engagement in sustainable change and identify examples where we can learn from parallel changes in social mind-set that we can use and build on
• Discover, document, innovate and share ideas for innovate models for scale which are inclusive
• Explore new mental models for framing the problem and structuring the analysis in a more systemic way
• Practice understanding our partners’ viewpoints, biases, what value they can offer and what their incentives could be and stop only looking at opportunities from our individual or organisational perspectives
• Explore value redistribution project business models that return value created to all participants in new exciting ways.