Yvette E Pearson: Advancing the SDGs through inclusive engineering

One of the speakers at our upcoming Global Engineering Congress (GEC) gives us insight into why increasing diversity in the engineering community is needed to achieve the UN goals.

Dr Pearson
Dr Pearson's session will be on Tuesday morning of the Global Engineering Congress in October.
Dr Yvette E Pearson is associate dean for Accreditation, Assessment, and Strategic Initiatives in the George R Brown School of Engineering at Rice University. A Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), she’s recognised for more than two decades of contributions focused largely on increasing diversity in STEM education and careers.

We asked her some questions about the UN SDGs.

Q. Why do you think the UN Sustainable Development Goals should matter to the engineering community?

All engineering codes of ethics require that engineers hold paramount public safety, health, and welfare, and each of the UN SDGs and their targets can be mapped onto one or more of those areas. 

Some codes, like those of the ASCE and the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) go a step further to require that principles of sustainable development be employed. 

So, the UN SDGs are part of our professional responsibility.

Engineers have a role to play at some level in each of the goals – as leaders, major contributors, or as supporters. These global challenges cannot be solved without engineers, and they cannot be solved by engineers alone. 

Additionally, the UN SDGs present an unprecedented opportunity to show the societal impacts of engineering. 

There’s long been a disconnect between most disciplines of engineering and society, which has resulted in missed opportunities to attract diverse populations to the field.

I believe the UN SDGs can help us re-image engineering, so that we can attract more diverse problem-solvers to the profession.

Q. How practically do you think civil engineers can incorporate the UN SDGs into their work?

It’s very practical. Civil engineers are uniquely qualified to lead efforts toward the attainment of many of the goals such as clean water and sanitation (Goal 6), industry, innovation, and infrastructure (Goal 9), sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11), and others, as these are large areas of focus of many civil engineers’ work. 

We also contribute to varying degrees to solutions related to other goals, such as zero poverty (Goal 1), quality education (Goal 4), and reduced inequalities (Goal 10). 

Many entities are already incorporating the goals into their policies and practices.

The US cities of New York, Baltimore, and San Jose were among the first to pilot programs and initiatives to address the SDGs. 

Local governments, such as Los Angeles County, have made great strides towards sustainable development in alignment with the SDGs, as have other entities such as the Port of Long Beach.

This has been facilitated to some degree by tools, such as Envision, which allow designers to plan for sustainable infrastructure and to measure the sustainability of their projects using a very comprehensive system.  

So, this is very practical, very tangible. It’s already being done - it just needs to grow in scale.

Q. The UN has recently warned that the world’s progress is uneven and too slow to meet the 2030 targets. How can we drive faster progress?

Progress has, indeed, been slow and unevenly distributed. 

I believe one way to have a large-scale impact on progress is through education. 

We should be training future engineers to design for sustainable development in ways that contribute to solutions to the UN SDG challenges and targets.

These solutions will require convergence among technical and non-technical disciplines, so there’s a great opportunity – and need – to de-silo our approach to higher education. 

Progress has been uneven because of a lack of awareness of the UN SDGs in many places. 

As part of the ASCE’s Committee on Sustainability’s efforts, the Formal Engineering Education Committee (FEE) has been implementing strategies to increase awareness of the UN SDGs and how they can be incorporated into all engineering curricula, not just civil engineering. 

Preparing the next generations of engineers should help to accelerate the progress.

Q. What three words spring to mind when you think of engineering and the sustainable development goals?

Society, convergence, and opportunity.

Q. What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the engineering sector right now?

I believe our greatest challenge is the design and development of sustainable and resilient communities in an inclusive manner. This applies to planning and design of new projects as well as to the response to disasters, which are becoming more frequent and more intense. 

Including diverse perspectives and taking into consideration the diversity of communities is critical to this endeavour, which is why Canon 8 of ASCE’s Code of Ethics is so important.

As engineers, it’s our professional obligation to ensure our planning, design, and development solutions are optimal for the communities we serve, and that can only be done if we’re inclusive. 

Tools like Envision, which is a planning and rating system for infrastructure, facilitate inclusion by requiring stakeholder engagement to earn points toward certification. This stakeholder engagement goes beyond getting community buy-in; it fosters development of shared vision.

Inclusion of diverse perspectives presents another significant challenge, and that’s the lack of diversity in engineering. This lack of diversity inhibits creative problem-solving and innovation.