Engineering has been an important profession, helping to tackle major issues such as poverty reduction, climate resilience, public health, and sustainable development. “The foremost problem facing the world today is sustaining human development and preserving the planet. Whenever there is a problem, there is a need for engineering solutions,” says Gong Ke, President of the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO).
On 4th March 2021, the annual World Engineering Day (WED) will convene under the auspices of UNESCO. As the UNESCO Director-General, Ms. Audrey Azoulay explains, WED will “celebrate the achievements of engineers and their contributions to sustainability and a better quality of life for all.” This year, WED welcomes the high patronage of Emmanuel Macron, President of France and coincides with the launch of the second UNESCO engineering report, “Engineering for Sustainable Development” with UNESCO’s partners, the WFEO, the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), Tsinghua University, and the International Centre of Engineering Education (ICEE), among many others. Representatives from over 10 different countries, genders and age groups from youths to adults, will speak at WED 2021. In addition, many more diverse engineering communities will join in over 50 WED events held concurrently in every continent around the world.
The WFEO is represented by over 100 national engineering institutions and 30 million engineers globally, leading the WED initiative to increase worldwide recognition of the important role of engineering in accelerating the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Engineering education and capacity building are keys to enabling the SDGs. Politicians can foster them; institutional investors can fund them; but only engineers can build them.
“World Engineering Day is an opportunity to recognize the important work that engineers need to do, in addressing climate change and developing technologies for a carbon free economy. It is engineering innovations that will achieve this goal. Engineers will ensure that cities are cleaner, more sustainable, smarter and livable. And importantly, engineers will ensure that everyone has safe clean accessible water, sanitation systems and affordable and reliable energy”, says Marlene Kanga, Past National President of Engineers Australia and the Immediate Past President of WFEO.
Calling for more global action from multiple stakeholder groups, “We hope that this new UNESCO engineering report will help stakeholders from government, industry and academia articulate the value of engineering, inspire ideas to improve and innovate engineering, and help achieve the full potential of engineering to benefit the sustainable development of humankind and planet Earth,” says Zhou Ji, Honorary Chairman of the Governing Board of the CAE and Co-chair of the Advisory Board of ICEE.
The advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has brought technological advances in artificial intelligence, big data, Internet of Things and blockchain, transforming the ways people live and interact with their physical, biological and digital space. “These transformations can be seen in every field of engineering, profoundly affecting industrial systems, production and governance,” says Audrey Azoulay.
Engineering innovations are developing rapidly and these global efforts are critical for solving current challenges and building a better future for humankind. In the past year, engineers have been in the spotlight for their creative solutions to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Marlene Kanga notes that in the year following the coronavirus pandemic, the theme of the WED celebrations in 2021, Engineering for a healthy planet, “acknowledges the work of engineers and engineering in the search for a new vaccine, using artificial intelligence and data analysis in the process. Advanced manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing has been used in the manufacture of personal protective equipment. Refrigeration technologies and transportation and logistics innovations are being used to transport vaccines to every corner of the earth. This is truly a year where the world could not exist without engineering.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the call for urgent action, while affirming the relevance of engineering to sustainable development,” observes Gong Ke. He also encouraged more affirmative action in the engineering community, saying that “engineering should play a more proactive role in the fight against COVID-19 and in the pursuit of a truly transformative recovery to build back better.”
Audrey Azoulay raised a pressing concern on the strain that the pandemic has placed on engineering education. “To train our best engineers to tackle these global challenges, we need young people to study mathematics and science from an early age; however, the global pandemic has led to the closure of educational institutions for 1.5 billion learners worldwide – more than 90% of the world’s school population – with dire consequences for their education.”
Thus, it is imperative for engineers to innovate on engineering education, curricula, new teaching methods and education delivery. “Training engineers for the implementation of the SDGs requires not only new competencies, including creative learning and thinking, complex problem-solving, interdisciplinary and international cooperation, and a code of ethics, it also demands a change in engineering education itself,” says Jose Vieira, President-Elect of WFEO.
Marlene Kanga also emphasized the importance of encouraging all young people, boys and girls, to consider engineering as a career and to encourage them in this choice. She says, “if you want to change the world, become an engineer.”
“At present, however, resources for engineering science and technology and engineering education are not equitably distributed. Developing countries and regions, in particular, are lacking in qualified engineers and engineering resources. We therefore urge the global engineering community to work to establish a more equitable, inclusive, developmental and mutually beneficial world for all, by working closely with government, industry and academia; by empowering engineering capacity-building in disadvantaged regions; and by tackling global challenges through joint efforts,” says Zhou Ji, calling attention to the gaps in resources distribution and making sure that no one is left behind.
One important global resource is water. “Water, as a prerequisite for life, assumes a special focus in terms of sustainable development. The close relationship between human health and the well-being of communities with access to clean water is a determining factor for the economic and social development of society,” says Jose Vieira. Significant progress in water and environmental engineering have led to greener technologies and more sustainable development of our planet.
“Engineering itself needs a transformation to be more innovative, inclusive, cooperative and responsible,” says Gong Ke, “The engineering report to be released is a new report published 10 years after the first landmark engineering report of UNESCO, aiming to increase the public awareness of the crucial role of engineers and engineering in achieving every one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals; to call for global collaboration among governments, industries and civil society; to promote engineering innovations, and to transform the engineering profession with a stronger capacity to respond to the pressing challenges faced by humankind and the planet; and to shape a peaceful, prosperous, inclusive and sustainable world for all people with no one left behind, encouraging more collaboration and sharing of engineering resources at a global level.”
Ultimately, WED aims to promote engineering awareness, diversity, collaboration, education and resources sharing, with a common global goal to achieve the SDGs by 2030.
Christine Tan, PhD CEng FIET is a Royal Chartered Engineer, Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology UK, and Professor of Science and Technology Education at Fujian Normal University China. She is an active science writer and STEM outreach volunteer.