Authors: Paola Seminara (Edinburgh Napier University); Alasdair Reid (Edinburgh Napier University).

Topic: Sustainable materials  in construction.

Engineering disciplines: Civil engineering; Manufacturing; Construction.

Ethical issues: Sustainability; Respect for the environment; Future generations; Societal impact; Corporate Social Responsibility.

Professional situations: EDI; Communication; Conflicts with leadership/management; Quality of work; Personal/professional reputation.

Educational level: Intermediate.

Educational aim: Practising Ethical Analysis: engaging in a process by which ethical issues are defined, affected parties and consequences are identified, so that relevant moral principles can be applied to a situation in order to determine possible courses of action.

 

Learning and teaching notes:

This case involves an early-career consultant engineer working in the area of sustainable construction. She must negotiate between the values that she, her employer, and her client hold in order to balance sustainability goals and profit. The summary involves analysis of personal values and technical issues, and parts one and two bring in further complications that require the engineer to decide how much to compromise her own values.

This case study addresses two of AHEP 4’s themes: The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.

The dilemma in this case is presented in two parts. If desired, a teacher can use the Summary and Part one in isolation, but Part two develops and complicates the concepts presented in the Summary and Part one to provide for additional learning. The case allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and / or activities as desired.

Learners have the opportunity to:

Teachers have the opportunity to:

 

Learning and teaching resources:

News articles:

Business:

Journal articles:

Educational institutions:

Citizen engagement organisation:

Professional organisation:

NGOs:

 

Suggested pre-reading:

Learners and teachers might benefit from pre-reading the above resources about EDI and enacting global responsibility, as well as introductory material on construction with mass timber such as information from Transforming Timber or the “How to Build a Wood Skyscraper” video.

 

Summary:

Originally from rural Pakistan, Anika is a construction engineer who has recently finished her postgraduate degree, having been awarded a fully funded scholarship. During her studies, Anika was introduced to innovative projects using mass timber and off-site methods of construction. After completing her studies, she was inspired to start her own consultancy practice in the UK, aiming to promote the use of sustainable materials within the construction industry.

James is the director of a well-established, family-owned architectural firm, originally started by his great-grandfather who was also a prominent societal figure. In the last year, James and his colleagues have sought to develop a sustainability policy for the firm. A key feature of this new policy is a commitment to adopt innovative, sustainable construction solutions wherever possible. James has been contacted by an important client who wants to commission his firm to work on a new residential development.

James first met Anika at university when they were both studying for the same postgraduate degree. Having a high regard for Anika’s capability and professionalism, James contacts Anika to propose working together to develop a proposal for the new residential development.

James hopes that Anika’s involvement will persuade the client to select construction solutions that are aligned with the new sustainability policy adopted by his firm. However, the important client has a reputation for prioritising profit over quality, and openly admits to being sceptical about environmental issues.

Anika schedules a meeting with the client to introduce herself and discuss some initial ideas for the project.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:

1. Discussion: Personal values – What are the different personal values for Anika, James, and the client? How might they conflict with each other?

2. Activity: Professional communication – Elevator pitch activity part 1 – Working in groups of 2-3 and looking at the three different stakeholders’ personal values, each group will create a persuasive pitch of 1 minute used by Anika to convince the client to focus on sustainability.

3. Activity: Technical Analysis – Assemble a bibliography of relevant projects using mass timber and off-site methods of construction, and identify the weaknesses and strengths of these projects in terms of sustainability and long- and short-term costs and benefits.

4. Activity:  Professional communication – Elevator pitch activity part 2 – After conducting your technical analysis, work in groups of 2-3 to revise your elevator pitch and role play the meeting with the client. How should Anika approach the meeting?

 

Dilemma – Part one:

After the first meeting, the client expresses major concerns about Anika’s vision. Firstly, the client states that the initial costings are too high, resulting in a reduced profit margin for the development. Secondly, the client has serious misgivings about the use of mass timber, citing concerns about fire safety and the durability of the material.

Anika is disheartened at the client’s stance, and is also frustrated by James, who has a tendency to contradict and interrupt her during meetings with the client. Anika is also aware that James has met with the client on various occasions without extending the invitation to her, most notably a drinks and dinner reception at a luxury hotel. However, despite her misgivings, Anika knows that being involved in this project will secure the future of her own fledgling consulting company in the short term – and therefore, reluctantly, suspects she will have to make compromises.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:

1. Discussion: Leadership and Communication – Which global responsibilities does Anika face as an engineer? Are those personal or professional responsibilities, or both? How should Anika balance her ethical duties, both personal and professional, and at the same time reach a decision with the client?

2. Activity: Research – Assemble a bibliography of relevant projects where mass timber has been used. How might you design a study to evaluate its structural and environmental credentials? What additional research needs to be conducted in order for more acceptance of this construction method?

3. Activity: Wider impact – Looking at Anika’s idea of using mass timber and off-site methods of construction, students will work in groups of 3-4 to identify the values categories of the following capital models: Natural, Social, Human, Manufactured and Financial.

4. Activity: Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion – Map and analyse qualities and abilities in connection with women and how these can have a positive and negative impact in the construction industry.

5. Discussion: Leadership and Communication – Which are the competitive advantages of women leading sustainable businesses and organisations? Which coping strategy should Anika use for her working relationship with James?

 

Dilemma – Part two:

Despite some initial misgivings, the client has commissioned James and Anika to work on the new residential development. Anika has begun researching where to locally source mass timber products. During her research, Anika discovers a new off-site construction company that uses homegrown mass timber. Anika is excited by this discovery as most timber products are imported from abroad, meaning the environmental impact can be mitigated.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:

1. Activity: Environmental footprint – Research the Environmental Product Declaration of different construction materials and whole life carbon assessment.

2. Discussion: Is transportation the only benefit of using local resources? Which other values (Natural, Social, Human, Manufactured and Financial) can be maximised with the use of local resources? How should these values be weighted?

3. Discussion: Professional responsibility – How important is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Construction? How could the use of local biogenic materials and off-site methods of construction be incorporated into a strategic CSR business plan?

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Author: Dr. Natalie Wint (UCL). 

Topic: Responsibility for micro- and nano-plastics in the environment and human bodies.  

Engineering disciplines: Chemical Engineering; Environmental Engineering; Materials Engineering; Mechanical Engineering. 

Ethical issues: Corporate social responsibility; Power; Safety; Respect for the Environment. 

Professional situations: Whistleblowing; Company growth; Communication; Public health and safety. 

Educational level: Intermediate. 

Educational aim: Becoming Ethically Sensitive: being broadly cognizant of ethical issues and having the ability to see how these issues might affect others. 

 

Learning and teaching notes: 

This case study involves a young engineering student on an industrial placement year at a firm that manufactures cosmetics. The student has been working hard to impress the company as they are aware that this may lead to them being offered a job upon graduation. They are involved in a big project that focuses on alternative, more environmentally friendly cosmetic chemistries. When they notice a potential problem with the new formulation, they must balance their commitment towards environmental sustainability with their desire to work for the company upon graduation.  

This dilemma can be addressed from a micro-ethics point of view by analysing personal ethics, intrinsic motivations and moral values. It can also be analysed from a macro-ethics point of view, by considering corporate responsibility and intergenerational justice. The dilemma can also be framed to emphasise global responsibility and environmental justice whereby the engineers consider the implications of their decisions on global communities and future generations.  

This case study addresses two of the themes from the Accreditation of Higher Programmes fourth edition (AHEP4): The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37. 

The dilemma in this case is presented in two parts. If desired, a teacher can use Part one in isolation, but Part two develops and complicates the concepts presented in Part one to provide for additional learning. The case allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and / or activities, as desired.

Learners have the opportunity to:   

Teachers have the opportunity to:    

 

Learning and teaching resources: 

Professional organisations: 

EU agencies: 

Industry publications: 

EU law: 

 

Dilemma – Part one: 

Microplastics are solid plastic particles composed of mixtures of polymers and functional additives; they also contain residual impurities. Microplastics generally fall into two groups: those that are unintentionally formed as a result of the wear and tear of larger pieces of plastic, and those that are deliberately manufacturedand added to products for specific purposes (primary microplastics). Microplastics are intentionally added to a range of products including cosmetics, in which they act as abrasives and can control the thickness, appearance, and stability of a product.  

Legislation pertaining to the use of microplastics varies worldwide and several loopholes in the regulations have been identified. Whilst many multinational companies have fought the introduction of such regulations, other stakeholders have urged for the use of the precautionary principle, suggesting that all synthetic polymers should be regulated in order to prevent significant damage to both the environment and human health. 

Recently, several changes to the regulation of microplastics have been proposed within Europe. One that affects the cosmetics industry particularly concerns the intentional addition of microplastics to cosmetics. Manufacturers, especially those who export their products, have therefore been working to change their products. 

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:  

1. Discussion: Professional values – What ethical principles and codes of conduct are applicable to the use of microplastics? Should these change or be applied differently when the microplastics are used in products that may be swallowed or absorbed through the eyes or skin?

2. Activity: Research some of the current legislation in place surrounding the use of microplastics. Focus on the strengths and limitations of such legislation.  

3. Activity: Technical integration – Research the potential health and environmental concerns surrounding microplastics. Investigate alternative materials and/or technological solutions to the microplastic ‘problem’.  

4. Discussion: Familiarise yourself with the precautionary principle. What are the advantages and disadvantages of applying the precautionary principle in this situation?  

 

Dilemma – Part two: 

Alex is a young engineering student on an industrial placement year at a firm that manufactures cosmetics. The company has been commended for their sustainable approach and Alex is really excited to have been offered a role that involves work aligned with their passion. They are working hard to impress the company as they are aware that this may lead to them being offered a job upon graduation.  

Alex is involved in a big project that focuses on alternative, more environmentally friendly cosmetic chemistries. Whilst working in the formulation laboratory, they notice that some of the old filler material has been left near the preparation area. The container is not securely fastened, and residue is visible in the surrounding area. The filler contains microplastics and has recently been taken out of products. However, it is still in stock so that it could be used for comparative testing, during which the performance of traditional, microplastic containing formulations are compared to newly developed formulations. It is unusual for the old filler material to be used outside of the testing laboratory and Alex becomes concerned about the possibility that the microplastics have been added to a batch of the new product that had been made the previous day. They raise the issue to their supervisor, asking whether the new batch should be quarantined.  

“We wouldn’t ever hold such a large, lucrative order based on an uncertainty like that,” the supervisor replies, claiming that even if there was contamination it wasn’t intentional and would therefore not be covered by the legislation. “Besides, most of our products go to countries where the rules are different.” 

Alex mentions the health and environmental issues associated with microplastics, and the reputation the company has with customers for being ethical and sustainable. They suggest that they bring the issue up with the waste and environmental team who have expertise in this area.  

Their supervisor replies: “Everyone knows that the real issue is the microplastics that are formed from disintegration of larger plastics. Bringing up this issue is only going to raise questions about your competence.”  

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: Personal values – What competing personal values or motivations might trigger an internal conflict for Alex? 

2. Activity: Research intergenerational justice and environmental justice. How do they relate to this case? 

3. Activity: Identify all potential stakeholders and their values, motivations, and responsibilities. 

4. Discussion: Consider both the legislation in place and the RAEng/Engineering Council Ethical Principles. What should Alex do according to each of these? Is the answer the same for both? If not, which set of guidance is more important? 

5. Discussion: How do you think the issue of microplastics should be controlled? 

6. Activity: Alex and their boss are focused on primary microplastics. Consider the lifecycle of bulk plastics and the various stakeholders involved. Who should be responsible for the microplastics generated during the disintegration of plastic products?

7. Discussion: What options for action does Alex have available to them? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? What would you do if you were Alex? 

8. Activity: Technical integration related to calculations or experiments on microplastics. 

 

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Case enhancement:
Business growth models in engineering industries within an economic system

Activity: Defending a profit-driven business versus a non-profit-driven business.

Author: Dr Sandhya Moise (University of Bath).

 

Overview:

This enhancement is for an activity found in the Dilemma Part one, Point 4 section of the case: “In a group, split into two sides with one side defending a profit-driven business and the other defending a non-profit driven business. Use Maria’s case in defending your position.” Below are several prompts for discussion questions and activities that can be used. These correspond with the stopping points outlined in the case. Each prompt could take up as little or as much time as the educator wishes, depending on where they want the focus of the discussion to be.

 

Session structure:

1. As pre-class work, the students can be provided the case study in written format.

2. During class, the students will need to be introduced to the following concepts, for which resources are provided below (~20 min):

3. Group activity (15 min +)

4. Whole class discussion/debate (15 min +)

 

Learning resources:

Ethics in Engineering resources:

Professional Codes of Conduct resources:

Corporate Social Responsibility Resources:

ESG Mandate Resources:

In recent years, there have been calls for more corporate responsibility in environmental and socioeconomic ecosystems globally. For example:

In 2017, the economist Kate Raworth set out to reframe GDP growth to a different indicator system that reflects on social and environmental impact. A Moment for Change?

Further reading:

 

Group Activity – Structure:

Split the class into two or more groups. One half of the class is assigned as Group 1 and the other, Group 2. Ask students to use Maria’s case in defending their position.

 

Group activity 1:

Group 1: Defend a profit-driven business model – Aims at catalysing the company’s market and profits by working with big corporations as this will enable quicker adoption of technology as well as economically benefit surrounding industries and society.

Group 2: Defend a non-profit driven business – Aims at preventing the widening of the socioeconomic gap by working with poorly-funded local authorities to help ensure their product gets to the places most in need (opportunities present in Joburg).

 

Pros and Cons of each approach:

Group 1: Defend a profit-driven business model:

Advantages and ethical impact:

Disadvantage and ethical impacts:

Group 2: Defend a non-profit driven business:

Advantages and ethical impact:

Disadvantage and ethical impacts:

 

Relevant ethical codes of conduct examples:

Royal Academy’s Statement of Ethical Principles:

Both of the above statements can be interpreted to mean that engineers have a professional duty to not propagate social inequalities through their technologies/innovations.

 

Discussion and summary:

This case study involves very important questions of profit vs values. Which is a more ethical approach both at first sight and beyond? Both approaches have their own set of advantages and disadvantages both in terms of their business and ethical implications.

If Maria decides to follow a profit-driven approach, she goes against her personal values and beliefs that might cause internal conflict, as well as propagate societal inequalities.

However, a profit-driven model will expand the company’s business, and improve job opportunities in the neighbourhood, which in turn would help the local community. There is also the possibility to establish the new business and subsequently/slowly initiate CSR activities on working with local authorities in Joburg to directly benefit those most in need. However, this would be a delayed measure and there is a possible risk that the CSR plans never unfold.

If Maria decides to follow a non-profit-driven approach, it aligns with her personal values and she might be very proactive in delivering it and taking the company forward. The technology would benefit those in most need. It might improve the reputation of the company and increase loyalty of its employees who align with these values. However, it might have an impact on the company’s profits and slow its growth. This in turn would affect the livelihood of those employed within the company (e.g. job security) and risks.

 

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Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Author: Professor Manuela Rosa (Algarve University). 

Keywords: Societal impact; Equity; Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI); Design; Justice; Equity; Communication; Global responsibility. 

Who is this article for?: This article should be read by educators at all levels in higher education who wish to integrate social sustainability, EDI, and ethics into the engineering and design curriculum or module design. It will also help to prepare students with the integrated skill sets that employers are looking for. 

 

Premise: 

The Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, adopted by the General Assembly of United Nations on 9 December 1975, stipulated protection of the rights of people with disabilities. The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan of action for people, planet, and prosperity, demands that all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, must recognise that the dignity of the human person is fundamental and so the development of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals must meet all segments of society in a way that “no one will be left behind”.  

In relation to engineering, The Statement of Ethical Principles published by the Engineering Council and the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2005 and revised in 2017, articulates one of its strategic challenges to be positioning engineering at the heart of society, enhancing its wellbeing, improving the quality of the built environment, and promoting EDI. To uphold these principles, engineering professionals are required to promote social equity, guaranteeing equal opportunities to access the built environment and transportation systems, enabling the active participation of all citizens in society, including vulnerable groups. The universal design approach is one method that engineers can use to ensure social sustainability. 

 

The challenges of universal and inclusive design: 

Every citizen must have the same equality of opportunities in using spaces because the existence of an accessible built environment is fundamental to guarantee vitality, safety, and sociability. These ethical values associated with the technical decision-making process were considered by the American architect Ronald Lawrence Mace (1941-1998) who defined the universal design concept as “designing all products, buildings and exterior spaces to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible” (Mace et al., 1991), thus contributing to social inclusion.  

Universal accessibility according to this universal design approach is “the characteristic of an environment or object which enables everybody to enter into a relationship with, and make use of, that object or environment in a friendly, respectful and safe way” (Aragall et al., 2003). It focuses on people with reduced mobility, such as people with disabilities (mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive dimensions), children and elderly people. Built environment and transport systems must be designed considering this equity attribute which is associated with social sustainability and inclusion. 

The Center for Universal Design of the North Carolina State University developed seven principles of universal design (Connell et al., 1997):  

1. Equitable use 

2. Flexibility in use  

3. Simple and intuitive use  

4. Perceptible information  

5. Tolerance for error  

6. Low physical effort  

7. Size and space for approach and use.    

These principles must always be incorporated in the conception of products and physical environments, so as to create a ‘fair built’ environment, where all have the right to use it, in the same independent and natural way. This justice design must guarantee autonomy in the use of spaces and transport vehicles, contributing to the self-determination of citizens.   

The perceptions of the space users are fundamental to be considered in the design process to achieve the usability of the built environment and transport systems. Pedestrian infrastructure design and modal interfaces demand user-centred approaches and therefore processes of co-design and co-creation with communities, where people are effectively involved as collaborators and participants. 

Achieving an inclusive society is a great challenge because there are situations where the needs of users are divergent: technical solutions created for a specific group of people are inadequate for others. For example, wheelchair users and elderly people need smooth surfaces and, on the contrary, blind people need tactile surfaces.  

Consequently, in the process of universal design, some people can feel excluded because they need other technical solutions. It is then necessary to consider precise inclusive design when projecting urban spaces for all.   

Universal design is linked with designing one-space-suits-almost-all, and inclusive design focuses on one-space-suits-one, for example design a space for everyone (collective perspective) versus design a space for one specific group (particular perspective). As the built environment must be understandable to and usable by all people, both are important for social sustainability. Universal design contributes to social inclusion, but added inclusive design is needed, matching the excluded users to the object or space design.  

In order to promote social inclusion and quality of life, to which everyone is entitled, universal and inclusive co-design of the built environment and the transportation systems demands specific approaches that have to be integrated in engineering education: 

 

Conclusion: 

Universal and inclusive co-design of the built environment and transportation systems must be seen as an ethical act in engineering. Co-design for social sustainability can be strengthened through engineering acts. Ethical responsibility must be assumed to create inclusive solutions considering human diversity, empowering engineers to act and design justice.  

There is a strong need for engineers to possess a set of skills and competencies related to the ability to work with other professionals (for example from the social sciences),  users, or collaborators. In the 21st century, beyond the use of technical knowledge to solve problems, engineers need communication skills to achieve the sustainable development goals, requiring networking, cooperating in teams, and working with communities.  

Engineering education must consider transdisciplinary approaches which make clear progress in tackling urban challenges and finding human-centred solutions. Universal and inclusive co-design must be incorporated routinely into the practice of engineers and assumed in Engineering Ethics Codes.  

 

References: 

Aragall, F. and EuCAN members, (2003) European Concept for Accessibility: Technical Assistance Manual. Luxemburg: EuCAN – European Concept for Accessibility Network.  

Connell, B. R., Jones, M., Mace, R., Mueller, J., Mullick, A., Ostroff, E., Sanford, J., Steinfeld, E., Story, M. and Vanderheiden, G. (1997) The Principles of Universal Design, Version 2.0. Raleigh: North Carolina State University, The Center for Universal Design. USA.  

Mace, R. L., Hardie G. J. and Place, J. P. (1991) ‘Accessible environments: Toward universal design,’ in W.E. Preiser, J.C. Vischer, E.T. White (Eds.). Design Intervention: Toward a More Human Architecture. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, pp. 155-180.  

Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons. (1975). Proclaimed by G/A/RES 3447 of 9 December 1975. 

United Nations. (2015). Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 25 September 2015, New York.  

Additional resources: 

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Authors: Dr Sarah Junaid (Aston University); Emma Crichton (Engineers Without Borders UK); Professor Dawn Bonfield MBE (Aston University); Professor Chike Oduoza (University of Wolverhampton); Johnny Rich (Engineering Professors’ Council); Steven Kerry (Rolls-Royce); Isobel Grimley (Engineering Professors’ Council).

Topic: Ethical entrepreneurship in engineering industries.

Engineering disciplines: Mechanical engineering, Electrical and electronic engineering, Chemical engineering.

Ethical issues: Justice, Corporate social responsibility, Accountability.

Professional situations: Company growth, Communication, Public health and safety.

Educational level: Beginner to advanced.

Educational aim: To encourage ethical motivation. Ethical motivation occurs when a person is moved by a moral judgement, or when a moral judgement is a spur to a course of action. 

 

Learning and teaching notes: 

This case involves the CEO of Hydrospector, a newly formed company that makes devices detecting water leaks. The CEO has been working hard to secure contracts for her new business and has a personal dilemma in structuring her business model. She must balance the need to accelerate growth by working with high revenue global corporations, with her desire to bring a positive impact to the communities with greatest need. By working with less wealthy local authorities, the company risks slower business growth.

This dilemma can be addressed from a micro-ethics point of view by analysing personal ethics, intrinsic motivations and moral values. It can also be analysed from a macro-ethics point of view, by considering: corporate responsibility in perpetuating inequity versus closing the inequality gap; and sustainability in terms of the local socioeconomic system.

There is also a clear cultural context in this case study that provides an opportunity to develop cultural awareness when addressing engineering problems. Through this lens, this case can be structured to emphasise the need to engage with local communities and stakeholders – such as a UK company choosing to engage with its local community first. Or it can be framed to emphasise global responsibility whereby the CEO of a UK company chooses to address water shortages in South Africa.

This case study addresses two of AHEP 4’s themes: The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.

The case study is presented in three parts. Part one introduces the case and discusses personal and corporate ethical dilemmas, with an emphasis on ethical awareness. Pre-reading may be needed on the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) mandate and / or corporate social responsibility (CSR). Part two expands on Part one to bring in the socio-political elements of corporate responsibility. For Part three, instructors or programme directors could incorporate this exercise in projects that involve product development, with students working through Part one and two as examples. This part aims to encourage ethical action on the part of students who are developing their own products, so that they can consider aspects of justice, responsibility, and sustainability in their engineering solutions. This case also allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and / or activities as desired.

Learners have the opportunity to:  

Teachers have the opportunity to:   

 

Learning and teaching resources: 

 

Foreword and suggested pre-reading for Part one:

In the last few years, there have been calls for more corporate responsibility in environmental and socioeconomic ecosystems globally. For example:

 

Part one:

Maria is a young co-founder and technical lead (CTO) living in the UK looking at the business development of her newly-formed transnational company, Hydrospector, based in Johannesburg (Joburg), South Africa, where her co-founder/CEO is located. The company makes devices that detect water leaks and the small team has been working hard to secure contracts for their new business. Maria is an electrical and electronics engineer by training and was the lead inventor for this technology. She has proven her technology works in detecting leaks early and at low levels, lowering the risk of damage to infrastructure that impacts local communities. The technology will also save companies millions each year by detecting low-level water loss that currently remains undetected. Her company is now in a position where they need to find customers.

Targeting big corporations will mean her technology will get out much more quickly and be a huge economic benefit to surrounding industries and society. Maria comes from a lower socioeconomic background in Lancashire (UK) and her personal experience of the economic disparity between the different areas she has lived in, means she feels strongly about not wanting to perpetuate this norm. She feels that Hydrospector’s business growth model needs to have a more active approach in preventing the widening of the socioeconomic gap. In Joburg, where the company is based, there are stark differences in the affluence of neighbouring communities. Should she focus on working with poorly-funded local authorities to help ensure their product gets to the places most in need, rather than prioritise projects that will be more lucrative and accelerate the business more quickly?

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: Personal values – what personal values are causing the internal conflict for Maria? Does her own background make a difference to the issues at stake? If Maria was from an affluent area / background, how may this have affected her perspective?

2. Discussion: Professional values – what ethical principles and codes of conduct are applicable to this scenario?

3. Discussion: Wider impact – is focusing on profit alone morally inferior to prioritising ESG?

4. Activity: In a group, split into two sides with one side defending a profit-driven business and the other defending a non-profit driven business. Use Maria’s case in defending your position.

5. Activity: Technical integration – undertake a technical activity in the areas of mechanical, electrical and / or chemical engineering related water flow detection sensors.

 

Foreword and pre-reading for Part two:

It is useful to learn more about the context (geographical, political, social and cultural) of this case study in order to gain a deeper understanding of the nuances that each scenario brings. The following section outlines the local problems with water supply and misuse in South Africa compared to the UK. The links below are starting points to explore these challenges further and carry out research when working on projects as an engineer. They represent perspectives from news, government, and industry sources.

 

Part two:

The CEO and Operations Manager of Hydrospector is Maria’s friend and co-founder, Lucy, who grew up in Joburg. Like Maria, Lucy grew up experiencing the socioeconomic disparity in her area. Lucy’s passion for bringing benefits to disadvantaged communities makes their collaboration an ideal partnership. The company started trading in South Africa where there is a particular interest from Johannesburg Water, the main local water supply company. Water supply shortages in the region have badly affected the country in recent years. Hydrospector has successfully won a bid with a venture capitalist based in South Africa and has rolled out the sensors in Makers Valley, Joburg, a region that has developed economically in recent years. Soon after, the company also won a contract to install sensors in the Merseyside region of the UK in a trial project co-funded by the local council and United Utilities.

 

Scenario A – Environmental impact:

Hydrospector’s components are sourced in South Africa with both manufacturing and assembly carried out locally in Joburg. It has taken Lucy and her team a year to develop supply and manufacturing operations to run smoothly and economically. To ship to the UK would be a financially better deal for the company than to source and manufacture the product locally in the UK. However, the impact of the carbon footprint would not help their ESG goals. Lucy will have to decide whether to ship the product from South Africa or produce the product locally and therefore set up another operations team in the UK. Setting up in the UK will cost the company more due to component pricing, but would support the local economy. The company could potentially afford to set up UK operations, but this will impact heavily on their financial profit forecast in the first couple of years.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: What should Lucy decide? What considerations does she need to make for supply chain management, when considering local customers compared to global ones?

2. Discussion: What could be the unintended consequences of her decision? Consider this question from the following points of view: environmental, economic and social – the public view.

 

Scenario B – Unintended outcomes:

After six months’ post-installation work in inner-city Bertrams, Makers Valley, Johannesburg Water has contacted Hydrospector about the illegal tapping of its pipes. They suspect water is being stolen from these settlements according to data from the installed sensors. Furthermore, engineers from Johannesburg Water carrying out maintenance work have found some of the sensors have been deliberately damaged, which they suspect has been done so that illegal tapping goes undetected. Johannesburg Water wants to prosecute those responsible and has contacted Lucy to provide all the data logged from the sensors and the time/date stamps to identify specific details about damage. Lucy, however, is aware of cases where funds intended to be used to improve infrastructure for low-income households such as electricity, water supply and sanitation, have sometimes been poorly managed and at worse embezzled so that the communities are left worse off, with ageing pipes and infrastructure. She realises that some illegal tapping may have been done in order to provide for these communities.

Several weeks after this discovery, United Utilities in Merseyside has been in touch about local individuals and companies illegally accessing water from hydrants that are found in street drains for their own usage. These companies have mobile trucks and so have been difficult to find and prosecute. United Utilities would like Hydrospector’s full co-operation in providing the logging data needed, as well as installing sensors at targeted locations where they suspect misuse is happening. Lucy’s research has found that 99% of leakages in the UK are not illegally sourced but rather are due to poor pipe networks. In fact, 20% of water supply loss in the UK is due to leaks and paid for by the customer (domestic users).

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: How should Hydrospector respond to the two requests? Should the response be the same or different? If the same, why? If different, what makes the two cases different?

2. Discussion: Should water supply companies ultimately be responsible for water leakages? If so, why are they charging domestic users for the 20% water loss? What are the environmental implications of this business decision?

3. Discussion: Maria and Lucy are also concerned that, if these cases were to be picked up by the media, there might be a reputational risk for the company and their ability to achieve their business vision and goals. The co-founders are worried about their product’s unintended consequences., They feel that it could be misused, potentially exacerbate socio-economic inequality further and go against the intended use of the product. Are they right to be concerned? Are they responsible for unintended outcomes?

4. Activity: What role should engineers have in shaping public policy? Often laws and regulations related to policy are dependent on technical knowledge, but some engineers believe it is not their role or responsibility to help shape policy. Debate this issue, or research the relationship between engineering and policy.

 

Scenario C – Public trust:

Hydrospector has been involved in a project where it surveyed and identified significant leakages and damage to the water supply system in one of the communities in Joburg. The company has been asked by the local authorities not to disclose this information to other parties, particularly media outlets, due to the security risks, including potential terrorism. However, this will affect the transparency of the project, which is publicly funded. In addition, reporting these findings could help resolve the problems found, for example, supply and construction companies may be willing to step up to help.

The company suspects that the local authorities are seeking to avoid a public outcry for the sake of impact scores on customer satisfaction. However, without public knowledge, change to improve the situation is likely to be slow.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion: Should the company keep the data unpublished or report the data? What ethical reasons can you identify for either choice?

2. Discussion: Should transparency be prioritised over public trust every time? Why or why not?

3. Activity: Debate the above questions by splitting up the students and having each group / individual represent the potential perspectives of United Utilities, Johannesburg Water and Maria / Lucy.

4. Discussion: What guidelines should companies be given for releasing publicly funded data and data misuse?

 

Foreword and pre-reading for Part three:

This exercise can be supported by technical and non-technical sessions such as business models, SWOT analysis, project management and risk.

 

Part three:

First, introduce Parts one and two of this case study to inform the exercise as part of a student project, such as a final year capstone.

Design a business growth model for an engineered product, identifying the potential socioeconomic impact, providing a viable profitable forecast and a life cycle sustainability assessment. Explore the ESG indicators and Raworth’s Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries as starting points.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities: 

1. Discussion and activity: Is impact your main priority? What type of impact are you looking to gain for your business? Consider economic, personal, social and environmental impacts – such as research exercise.

2. Discussion: What risks and opportunities can be identified (SWOT) for the different growth models that could be used to achieve the impact you desire?

3. Activity: Create a business growth model and plan based on your critical research.

4. Activity: Draft a CSR plan for this business.

5. Activity: Speak to people in non-engineering fields that can review and help develop your model.

 

Enhancements:

An enhancement for this case study can be found here.

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

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