Engineers need to listen to people to deliver inclusive solutions

As more and more clients recognise that economic gain without social gain doesn’t create a better world, engineering firms need a fresh mindset, says Kerry Scott.

The engineering vernacular is finally starting to change. Before, it was ‘politically correct’ to talk about equality, diversity and inclusion. Today, they are no longer taboo words. They are part of standard development vocabulary. In fact, clients are increasingly insisting on socially-inclusive outcomes when commissioning new work. 

This change of mindset is due to a number of different influences. The refresh of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has put social development squarely on the international agenda, whereas it was less explicit before. The exacerbating gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ – those with a socio-economic say and those without – is another key driver. 

Societal disgruntlement, and the volition to take action, is far more evident – as testified by the changing political landscape. Events like Brexit and Trumpism feel more like a symptom and expression of social inequality, rather than deep-set support for reactionary ideas. There seems to be a groundswell of frustration and resentment, because people feel disenfranchised in their own communities. 

The ambition to ‘develop, develop, develop’ is only sustainable if you consider how the resulting benefits are going to be distributed fairly in society. If not, problems are simply postponed, rather than solved outright. Our clients are recognising that economic gain without social gain doesn’t create a better world. 

Seek the wisdom of the crowds 

This new social, economic and political context presents new challenges and demands a fresh mindset from engineering firms. Now, more than ever, we need to look through the lens of the local communities who will make use of our assets. This isn’t an easy change. When I first joined this industry, conversations rarely included ‘communities. Striving to deliver social outcomes and inclusive design were seldom part of the conversation. The job was to build the best possible bridge or railway line. There was, and often still is, a fear that if you involve the end user, then everything will become more complicated and expensive. After all, how can they possibly know what they’re talking about?

The truth is, however, that local communities and user groups do know what they’re talking about – and we have a responsibility to listen. Involving stakeholders is shown to be more financially sensible as project risks are reduced. You’re more likely to deliver a sustainable solution if you actually engage the people who are going to use it. By encouraging them to take ownership, they willingly become part of the future. 

The old-fashioned way was to come up with a plan and then measure the social impacts later. But it’s long since time to flip this process on its head. Social outcomes should drive design. If they are put first, the project is far more likely to deliver benefits and, what’s more, distribute them more evenly. Besides, it makes good business sense. Retrofitting amendments to reflect, say, an ageing population or particular community needs or characteristics is far more expensive and complicated than factoring these issues in from the get-go. 

Expectations are changing 

The meaning of ‘well-designed’ is shifting. Before, it stood for aesthetics and technical ingenuity. Of course, those qualities are still absolutely key. But a well-designed bridge across a river should also reflect the needs of those who use it. It exists to bring two communities together, rather than showcase technical skill. Industry-leading design is great, but community-led design ultimately proves more successful. 

We all need to get a lot more emotional. For example, if you’re targeting accessible healthcare, better education and relevant employment for a certain community or area, then that will change depending on local challenges and opportunities. It becomes less a case of “what does a good solution look like?”, but rather “what does it feel like for local people?”. Without in-depth community engagement and an outcomes-focused approach, you’ll struggle to get that sentiment right. 

For those of us who work in social sciences, the gauntlet is laid down to help evolve the narrative. It is not about criticising traditional engineering approaches. This is about raising awareness and encouraging a different perspective and mindset. The agenda is changing. We have a responsibility to change with it. 

Kerry Scott is global practice leader for social, integrated transport at Mott MacDonald.