Workshop 5: Technological Stewardship and The UN Sustainability Goals

Tiana Bressan; John Donald; and Technical Editor: Nicholas Yip



Historically, the field of Engineering has been through many paradigm shifts as the needs of society have changed. Engineers have always been the ones to develop and implement new technologies, and their responsibilities over time have shifted from being purely innovators, to being mindful of public safety, to considering the econiomic impacts of their developments. Now, we see the need for a new shift in the engineering mindset, as Technological Stewardship is becoming increasingly important.


LEARNING OBJECTIVES                                                                                                   

Following this workshop, students should be able to:

  1. Understand the relationship between technology and society
  2. Recognize the key principles of Technological Stewardship
  3. Relate the stewardship principles to the UN Sustainable Development Goals
  4. Be able to discuss the importance of the SDGs and the CEGCs in a societal context


TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY                                                                                          

Engineers nowadays are moving away from being just technicians and becoming more and more stewards of technology, with technology advancing at increasingly rapid rates. As the individuals that are creating and using new technologies, it is our responsibility to ensure that it is being developed and used for the right reasons.

“The evolution of new technology is inevitable; we can’t stop it. But the character of each new technology is up to us”

– Kelvin Kelly

Some may argue that technological advancements are the driving force behind the advancement of society, such as in the cases of medical advancements. Others may argue that societal issues drive the need for greater technological advancements, and ultimately society is what chooses whether to accept or reject new developments. While there may not be a clear answer, it can be clearly seen that both technology and society are deeply intertwined, with a cycle of societal issues and technological advancements.


The Relationship between Technology and Society – Taken from the Engineering Change Lab

As we move into the future, and we solve more and more problems, society becomes increasingly dependent on technology to the extent that it almost “disappears” as it becomes more integrated and normalized.


THE SOCIOTECHNOLOGICAL CONTINUUM                                                                

As engineers are becoming stewards of technology, and technology and society are intertwined, we should put some thought into where the focus of engineering currently exists. On a continuum of societal focus to technological focus, engineers currently put a lot of focus on the establishment of new technologies rather than societal impacts. This is evident in both how engineering as a profession is promoted and taught, and the work opportunities provided to engineers, to the extent that individuals who do not strongly identify with this may not consider themselves engineers.

However, a shift is starting to occur as engineers realize the importance of Sociotechnological Leadership. As a professional engineer, it is necessary to not only consider the feasibility of technology, but also how it might affect both individuals and society as a whole. As the relationship between society and technology rapidly evolves, so too must the role of engineers.


The Current Focal Point of Engineering- Taken from the Engineering Change Lab
The Focal Shift Necessary for the Future of Engineering- Taken from the Engineering Change Lab








TECHNOLOGICAL STEWARDSHIP                                                                                  

What is Technological Stewardship?

“Behaviour that ensures technology is used to make the world a better place for all – more equitable, inclusive, just and sustainable”

– The Engineering Change Lab (2016, May 30)

People often confused stewardship with sustainability, but stewardship often involves much more than just sustainability. It is more of an umbrella term, inclusive of taking responsibility, practicing inclusivity and equity, being committed to service and of course sustainability. The term represents a shift from an old to a newer paradigm, moving away from just developing technologies due to market pressures, but instead keeping in mind the broader implications of technological innovations. This process could include anything ranging from keeping in line with industry standards, to analysing the environmental impacts of products, to considering the larger societal impacts of new technologies. The overall goal is to try to see the bigger picture, asking ‘why’ instead of just ‘can it be done’.


Achieving Technological Stewardship

For engineers to take a leadership role in addressing problems using technological stewardship principles, we require a new framework of thinking that takes into account the ocmlex relationship between society and technology.

For this purpose, the Engineering Change Lab has created a set of principles that the engineering community and individuals should strive to exhibit.

  • Seek Purpose
  • Take Responsibility
  • Expand Involvement
  • Widen Approaches
  • Advance Understanding
  • Realize Diversity
  • Deliberate Values
  • Shared Action


ACTIVITY 1: Technological Stewardship Principles                                                                  

This activity is best done with a partner or a group. Using the topics provided on the worksheet, select the one which you’d like to use the Engineering Change Lab’s stewardship principles to explore. Given the chosen scenario, create arguments for and against the topic using the outlined stewardship principles. Once these arguments have been created, debate your chosen viewpoints amongst yourselves.


Autonomous vehicles are capable of sensing their environment far better than a human could, and is not susceptible to alcohol abuse, speeding and distractions. This makes autonomous vehicles far safer than human-operated vehicles, and thus we should focus on developing safe, widely-available autonomous vehicles in the upcoming future.

Autonomous vehicles have a few obvious benefits, but they also come with the risk of many unintended consequences. Of these risks, a major concern should be the potential to be hacked, and use for malicious acts. Due to this, if autonomous vehicles are meant to be pursued, we must take responsibility for developing adequately safe software that always protects both passengers and pedestrians.



UNITED NATIONS SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS                                        

On September 25, 2015, the UN general assembly adopted the resolution entitled “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. This consisted of 17 goals meant to act as a blueprint to achieve a better, more sustainable future for all, and was adopted by all UN Member states in 2015.


United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – Provided by the UNDP

These Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) not only include basic necessities, but also encompass many aspects of everyday life. As engineers, we have influence over many of these topics, such as how people live, and how we transform our environments. Therefore, when making changes, we must design solutions with a clear view of what we hope to accomplish, not just today, but in the future. The development of solutions for these SDGs will therefore require a wide range of skills and a lot of lateral thinking.


CANADIAN ENGINEERING GRAND CHALLENGES                                                      

As an offshoot of the United Nations SDGs, Engineering Deans Canada council developed the Canadian Engineering Grand Challenges (CEGCs) as a set of the most complex problems faced by Canadians today where an engineering solution is imaginable, but the path to the solution has yet to be discovered. Each of the challenges can be directly mapped to the SDGs proposed by the UN, allowing for engineering students and professionals in Canada to better reflect on the role they have to play in solving these issues and transforming the world.


ACTIVITY 2: Canadian Engineering Grand Challenges                                                

As a group, select the CEGC which you believe is critical to accomplish within the next 10 years. Using the provided worksheet as a guide, discuss reasons for this immediate importance and contemplate the challenges that will likely be faced in tackling this issue. When having these discussions, keep in mind the role of the Engineering profession as a whole in solving the problem.


Access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy is an issue faced by many countries. In Canada, there are already plans in motion to shift to more renewable and sustainable energy sources, but we as engineers must also consider the societal implications of these scenarios. Energy consumption will only increase in the future due to our increasing reliance on technology, and thus this is an important goal to accomplish. In trying to achieve this goal, however, it is important to consider the stewardship principles along with the feasibility of a solution. We must ensure that our means of sustainable energy production is available to all, and that our methods of production do not disproportionally affect communities throughout the country. Though we might already have some of the technology and infrastructure for such changes, other societal and political factors must also be overcome before we can truly realize true reliable, affordable and sustainable energy for everyone.



WORKSHOP WRAPUP                                                                                                        

Engineering currently places a lot of focus on technological development, rather than its societal impact. With technology and society being so heavily intertwined, only getting more integrated as time goes on, a shift must occur within the field of engineering to put more emphasis on the societal implications of new technologies. As engineers affect many people with their decisions, they must be stewards of technology, taking responsibility for sustainability, inclusivity and equity of their solutions, in addition to the feasibility of their proposals.

The United Nations SDGs, along with the CEGCs, provide a good insight into how multifaceted the problems we face as a society are. Achieving these goals will require a lot of creativity and ingenuity to solve, necessitating strong Sociotechnological Leadership and a heavily interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving.


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