Engineering plays a crucial role in advancing human welfare and development. This article explores how engineering supports the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
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SDG 1: No Poverty
Engineering alleviates poverty by developing essential infrastructure. Engineering must also address challenges in providing basic services, such as clean water, sanitation, and affordable and clean energy.
To meet these challenges, engineers are developing innovative approaches and technologies, such as frugal innovation, which enables the development of affordable and reliable technologies that are more accessible to people worldwide.
More than 100 million people with low incomes in India now have access to mobile phones that engineers developed for less than $25. This enhances their communication and ability to work.
Similarly, the Tata "Nano" car represents a breakthrough in low-cost personal transport, with engineers continuing to innovate with electric and solar-powered vehicles.
As well as widening access to technology to more people, engineering-led innovations have a broader indirect impact, creating employment and encouraging entrepreneurship.
SDG 2: Zero Hunger
Since industrialization, engineers have revolutionized agriculture and food production with mechanization, fertilizers, and pesticides.
Electronics and agricultural engineers are developing future innovations for sustainable development, such as automated sensors for optimizing water and fertilizer delivery, robotics for pesticide and fertilizer application, and communications technology for weather monitoring and disaster warnings.
A global-scale approach to improving food security is the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which uses satellite and Earth-based monitoring to provide early warning and analysis on food security in 34 countries in Africa and Asia.
At the local level, engineers are deploying technologies such as FarmerLink, a mobile-based farmer advisory service that connects farmers in the Philippines to an early warning system and market buyers, providing access to agricultural training and financial services.
SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being
Engineering has improved global health by eradicating diseases through improved water and sanitation.
Biomedical engineering has improved quality of life with medical devices, while robotics, computer vision, and AI continue to drive advances in health.
Low-cost medical devices, such as a portable electrocardiograph machine and the Jaipur Foot prosthetic, improve health outcomes in low-income countries.
Start-ups like Healthcubed provide access to low-cost medical diagnostics for chronic health conditions in developing countries.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, engineers accelerated the uptake of telehealth technologies, developed 3D-printed PPE for medical staff, and used AI to fast-track vaccine development.
SDG 4: Quality Education
Engineers are playing a crucial role in enabling education at all levels. They create new technologies, such as online learning tools and fast communication systems to improve accessibility and reduce student costs.
Low-cost satellites and aerial devices are rapidly expanding access to the internet and connectivity, delivering information and services to remote and low-income communities.
E-learning delivers a wide range of education programs from the world’s top universities to the poorest countries, using low-cost technologies such as the Aakash or Ubislate tablets.
Engineers are also using AI to develop learning systems that provide personalized, locally relevant, dynamic, and interactive content and instruction, resulting in superior learning outcomes at low cost.
SDG 5: Gender Equality
Increasing women's access to technology and engineering is crucial for achieving gender equality and enabling liberation for women worldwide.
Professional engineering institutions are developing strategic approaches to increase the participation of women in engineering, such as the Diversity Agenda and WomEng, which aims to attract one million girls into STEM by 2027.
New technologies developed by engineers increasingly empower female users, such as mobile communications and the Internet, which have facilitated access to banking, financial, and information services, and supported entrepreneurship among women. Providing women with internet access can improve health, education, and childcare outcomes.
SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation
Civil and environmental engineers have played a crucial role in improving public health by developing clean water and sewage treatment technologies. These innovations have eradicated many waterborne diseases in developed countries, such as cholera and typhoid.
Engineers are also developing new technologies that use smart sensors to assess groundwater availability and are advancing metal-organic frameworks for low-energy water purification systems.
At a local scale, Banka BioLoo has developed a sustainable approach to eliminating open defecation and managing solid bio-waste.
SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy
Electricity powers economic growth and improves living conditions, but almost a billion people still need more reliable access.
Engineers are developing low-cost renewable energy solutions, such as wind, solar, wave, and geothermal energy, to improve access to electricity. Energy storage is also a significant challenge for engineers to tackle.
Recent years have seen a successful deployment of (primarily solar) renewable energy projects in developing and rural areas to help achieve affordable and clean energy for all.
SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
Engineering enables economic growth and provides good jobs for local communities.
Creating and maintaining infrastructure, clean water, energy, and housing is essential for engineers worldwide, with the World Bank recently estimating that middle and low-income countries need to invest around 4.5% of GDP to overcome infrastructure challenges.
Engineering also diversifies local economies, bringing new and resilient industrial sectors to areas and driving local employment.
SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
A positive correlation has been identified between the number of engineers in a country and its capacity for innovation and production.
Recently, innovations in technologies that underpin the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (AI, robotics, cloud computing, and big data) have driven economic growth and employment. Engineers are driving these innovations.
SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities
Engineers enable people to access information and communication at low costs with modern information technology. Low-cost communications networks – designed and maintained by engineers – democratize information and information-sharing and are a vital infrastructure component behind reducing inequality.
This infrastructure powers low-cost and accessible education technology (ed-tech), enabling communities to collectively organize for their benefit. It allows people to create social opportunities over distance and despite their ability to leave their homes – a huge benefit to people across the income spectrum in recent years.
Engineers develop sustainable technologies which seek to reduce the risk of more climate disasters predominantly affecting low-income countries. These and other emerging technologies are creating stable, more future-resilient job opportunities for workers.
SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
Civil, structural, electrical, mechanical, environmental, software, and telecommunications engineers contribute to creating safe, inclusive, and resilient cities.
Their work facilitates access to affordable housing, public transportation, clean air, water, and energy. They also protect natural and cultural heritage assets and bolster resilience against natural disasters.
Advanced engineering technologies, energy and resource-efficient buildings, smart city lighting, efficient transportation systems, renewable energy sources, integrated water resource management, geospatial engineering, Building Information Modelling, and data analytics make our cities safer and more sustainable.
SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
Mining, civil, mechanical, electrical, and environmental engineers are vital in efficiently managing the world’s resources. They process essential minerals, generate renewable energy, promote sustainable water use, support agricultural production, and manage biodiversity.
Engineering innovations also support responsible resource consumption by supporting the circular economy approach, closing linear waste streams into loops that reuses products at their end of life in input streams for new materials and products.
Materials and chemical engineers are developing recycling and waste management solutions like better chemical and mechanical plastic recycling to reduce our environmental impact.
SDG 13: Climate Action
Engineering plays a crucial role in enabling climate change action. Developing renewable energy systems that remove fossil fuel grids worldwide, low-cost energy storage and resilient infrastructure is essential for a sustainable future.
Engineers are bringing new technologies to bear on global risks, such as carbon capture with timber construction, chemical processing of air carbon to reuse as a chemical feedstock, and artificial intelligence and machine learning systems to understand and forecast more climate data with much more resolution and accuracy.
SDG 14: Life Below Water
The preservation and protection of oceans and seas, as well as the life they contain, is a critical responsibility for engineers.
In collaboration with scientists and other engineering disciplines, Marine engineers are addressing the degradation of fisheries, ocean pollution, and the sustainable use of resources, including wave energy.
Engineers also develop innovative solutions to address issues like plastic pollution in oceans and managing ocean assets, such as the Great Barrier Reef, threatened by climate change.
SDG 15: Life on Land
Environmental engineers play a crucial role in managing biodiversity through the responsible use of forestry resources and habitat preservation.
Innovative technologies such as geospatial mapping support crop monitoring and infrastructure design and predict natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.
Engineers develop sensor and drone technologies to map forests and identify declining animal populations, while DNA sequencing and microchips are used to track endangered species.
These technologies help indigenous people and conservationists by enhancing their capacity to map, analyze, and negotiate for sustainable development while preserving natural habitats.
SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
A diverse, sustainable, and ethical engineering practice is critical to achieving the SDGs. Engineers are establishing robust institutions to educate, accreditate, and regulate the next generation of talent, ensuring quality engineering education and competence worldwide.
The WFEO Model Code of Ethics for engineers guides professional engineering institutions.
Engineers are also working to enhance standards to combat corruption in engineering and maximize the benefits of infrastructure investments that support sustainable development for all.
SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals
Collaboration and partnerships in engineering are crucial for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Within and across engineering disciplines, partnerships involving government, industry, and universities develop and implement technologies, build capacity, and establish inclusive approaches to sustainable development.
Roadmaps are being developed through these partnerships to transfer knowledge and establish knowledge-sharing mechanisms.
Engineering’s Critical Role in Achieving the SDGs
Engineering is a key component in our plan to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals. Engineers are at the forefront of innovation and problem-solving, from preserving the oceans and managing biodiversity to reducing carbon emissions and promoting social equity.
By developing partnerships and implementing diverse, sustainable, and ethical practices, engineering institutions can ensure high standards of education and competency while addressing corruption and maximizing the benefits of infrastructure investments.
Through collaboration and innovation, engineering can drive progress and help build a more equitable and sustainable future for all.
Continue Reading: What are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals?
References and Further Reading
UNESCO Engineering Report 2021. [Online] (2021) UNESCO. Available at: https://www.unesco.org/en/basic-sciences-engineering/report
World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development. [Online] UNESCO. Available at: https://www.unesco.org/en/days/engineering-sustainable-development
WFEO Model Code of Ethics. [Online] WFEO. Available at: https://www.wfeo.org/wp-content/uploads/code_of_ethics/WFEO_MODEL_CODE_OF_ETHICS.pdf