International Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) (7th : 2015)

Cultivating the O-shaped engineer Brass, Claire


Within their roots in the realm of construction, products and the physical world, it is not surprising that design and engineering education is grounded within the paradigm of consumerism and growth, perpetuating an unsustainable system. Often, the primary sustainability focus is on material improvements aided by the use of tools such as life-cycle assessment or embodied energy calculations. Students are rarely asked to question the context into which their designs will fit, or to explore how their designs can promote a different (more sustainable) future rather than just a less unsustainable one. While we remain within this economic paradigm, even the T-shaped engineer, with a broad general knowledge and deep expertise in one specific area, at best has potential to reduce negative environmental impact rather than to create positive social and environmental benefit. As such, the T-shaped engineer is allowed little opportunity to creatively explore more sustainable alternatives using systems-level thinking. How, then, can we prepare the next generation of designers and engineers to maximise their inherent skills to address the most intractable global issues, currently considered outside of their traditional remit? This paper questions if T really is the best shape for our engineers to adopt, or if it supports the designing of a better future world, proposing instead the O-shaped designer/engineer, whose primary concern is circular systems, worldviews, synergies and relationships. By training students to identify their personal values, redefine the brief and continually evaluate the balance between the social, environmental and economic impacts of their design, we can begin to intervene in the context of any given project, and create viable new ways of doing everyday things. SustainRCA at the Royal College of Art is exploring tools and methods to cultivate and support O-Shaped, rather than T-shaped, designers and engineers. One such tool, the Circular Thinking Workflow System, tracks, monitors and evaluates individual and group work through four key stages that help them examine the brief at different distances of focus – from the systemic ‘zoomed out’ view to the people-focused ‘zoomed in’ view – as well as the flows and relationships between them. There is also a strong emphasis on economic context, encouraging students to develop innovative ideas that can function in the real world, thus favouring the creation and development of viable entrepreneurial thinking. Conventional sustainability tools may still play an important role in reducing impact of physical objects; but if these objects are now instruments for the functioning of a new context or system, radical sustainable innovation becomes possible. Similar methodology is used in the development of action research work, where diverse issues – from sustainable mobility to high-welfare/low impact poultry farming - can be addressed, both from a user’s perspective and at a systems level. This paper will examine some of the tools used in depth, explaining some unexpected but essential components. Through two case studies it will show how their application is generating sustainable innovation and delivering new O-Shaped calibre of design engineers, ready to rebuild the future.

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