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Diversity and multi-culturalism must play a part in achieving sustainability

08 June 2020

Amid the current social turmoil in the US, Hong Kong and the UK, ICE President Paul Sheffield argues that only a truly inclusive and diverse profession can help deliver peace and prosperity as envisaged by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Diversity and multi-culturalism must play a part in achieving sustainability
ICE President Paul Sheffield

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are well known and frequently discussed around the world. Whilst at one end of the scale they demonstrate the lofty ambitions of the UN and the leaders of the world’s nations, we can all translate those ambitions in to local targets and objectives that can apply to a single country, region, town, company or even your own lifestyle and priorities.

The 17 over-arching SDGs are underpinned by 169 targets and 92% of those targets can be influenced by infrastructure in one way or another. So, for anyone doubting what role we as civil engineers can play in making the world a better place for all - just take some time out to see how the achievement of these goals can be accelerated by our thoughts and actions.

Here in the UK, our industry accounts for around 7% of GDP - or around £110bn per year. That should give us a big voice in the way that people in this country live and work. Not only does it contribute hugely to the finances of the economy but the employment we create crosses all boundaries - North, South, East and West and all social and educational sectors of society. ICE has always and will always respect the contribution of those from all walks of life to help create the fabric of our nation and to improve it for future generations.

Diverse teams can create incredible projects

The huge challenges and opportunities that we face as we start planning our way towards a net carbon zero future by 2050 - as mandated by the Government last year - will be delivered by today’s generation of young women and men entering the industry today.

I have spent many years throughout my career, which now spans four decades, living and working overseas and I have seen at first-hand how diverse and multi-cultural teams can come together and create the most incredible projects and deep friendships. You only have to travel the length and breadth of this small island nation to realise that people from different communities have very different expectations and values and ways of doing things. There is no right way or wrong way - there are just different ways of achieving the same things.

If you are lucky enough to have experienced the diversity you see around the world then it becomes obvious to you that different people see things in very different ways. Of course ethics and values have a strong role to play in ensuring that we don’t stray the wrong side of the line when it comes to integrity and honesty and if you run your life along the lines of respect for others and ‘doing the right thing’ then I don’t think you will go far wrong.

UN Sustainable Development Goals
UN Sustainable Development Goals

Ultimately the SDGs are about having respect for each and every one of the people who inhabit the earth and making sure that we work in a way that will enable people to improve their own lives when they are given the opportunity to thrive and look after their own families. Whether that is providing clean water for all, ensuring access to reliable and sustainable forms of energy, empowering women or making cities and towns inclusive, safe and resilient places to live. We have a leading role to play in all of these things.

Addressing current global issues

This brings me round to consider some of the global issues that have been playing out on a very public stage over the last couple of weeks - perhaps summed up by the events in Hong Kong and in America - two very different issues but both with humanity at the core. Our profession regards democratic freedom of speech as a fundamental right and abhors any attempt to constrain or control people’s freedom to say what they wish, so to see so many people in Hong Kong genuinely concerned about their future freedom is painful for us.

To see anyone restrained in a way that results in their death also cuts deep into our psyche, especially when it happens in a nation that leads the ‘free world.’ People have a right to feel violated and to voice their protest and should of course be able to do so. I would like to think that peaceful protest can be really powerful and last summer the peaceful protests in Hong Kong certainly attracted millions of people and the world’s press to the cause.

Leading democratic nations such as the USA and the UK have no excuse for complacency in making sure people of all colours and creeds can thrive in safety and security without discrimination. Only then will we see the real value we know we can unlock when multi-cultural teams of people get together to work and play successfully.

At a time when many people are feeling scared and concerned after many nights of violence and unrest in the US and the protests in the UK over the weekend, we should remember what we stand for as a society and a profession. We stand for making the world a better place, supporting those who need our help, and standing by those who suffer discrimination and bias. Our Institution has for many years striven to support people of all backgrounds, genders and races and we do so today.

We stand with all our colleagues around the world in condemning all forms of racism, discrimination and bias and will continue to work with everyone both inside and outside our profession to champion what is right and just.

Only then can we truly capture the diverse skills we need to help deliver peace and prosperity as envisaged by the SDGs.

  • Paul Sheffield, President 2019-2020 at ICE