Ethics in Engineering: Calling for a Revolution

The platform Engineering Matters aired Podcast #59 on “Empowering Ethical Engineering” on June 25, 2020.

Bernadette Balentine is the host of Engineering Matters, and in podcast 59, she featured guests from Mott MacDonald, Canada’s Corporation of the Seven Wardens, Engineers Without Borders UK, the University of Leeds, the UK’s Institution of Engineering and Technology, and me, a Visiting Professor at UCL. You can find it at this link.

The podcast tells a fascinating story about a catastrophic bridge failure that happened in Canada, explaining how the overall engineering profession there responded by developing and adopting a strict code of ethics.

The overall podcast is 37 minutes, and I’m featured only briefly (around minute 28.5). In this post, I’ll provide a little more detail on the work I’ve been doing that led me to be included.

As you probably know, I was a Marie Curie Research Fellow at UCL for two years, and I still serve as a Visiting Professor there at UCL. I have a keen interest in the built environment and I’m also a registered architect in the States with LEED-AP credentials. My research specialty involves how people learn engineering and architecture.

During the Fellowship, Engineers without Borders UK came to me asking for help with research idea. As a result, my team and I conducted a small-scale qualitative study where we interviewed nine civil/structural engineers practicing in London about their perceptions of ethics and, specifically, of global responsibility—what it means and how they enact global responsibility in their day-to-day work. I reported this research while speaking with Bernadette for the podcast.

Bernadette asked what factors we had identified that prevent engineers from acting on ethical beliefs. Here’s some of what I said:

Even when early career engineers see opportunities to do something in a better, more ethical or responsible way, they often have trouble getting the idea accepted. Cost and time constraints limit their choices. Small and private projects nearly always prioritize cost and over environmental or social sustainability. 

Early-career engineers can influence material selection and thus carbon footprint to some degree, but many other decision are out of their scope of work. Crucial decisions were made long before they got involved. They select materials, run calculations, and make more detailed decisions, but they are often involved in a small portion of any given building or infrastructure project. Even when they see an opportunity to do better on a private project, their client usually only accepts it is the idea if it also saves money or time. 

That said, larger public projects provide more opportunity to protect the public good—and they hear about public discussions. But it’s other professionals, such as architects and planners, who often drive those discussions. On the other hand, the senior managing engineer we interviewed was quite able to affect things on a large scale; he had quite a lot of sway in decision-making and frequent opportunities to protect public Health and Safety. He took pride in doing so, and he also reached out to help mentor others to develop such skills. 

Early-career engineers told us they lack reliable tools for calculating environmental and social impacts of various options. Quite surprisingly, most don’t recall having discussions in university about sustainability. While they say ethics was probably covered in their professional practice classes, none of this was covered in a way that was “sticky” enough for them to recall it. Most learned about this after university, through CPD courses, their own research, and company induction programs on Health & Safety and anti-corruption with an implied focus on anti-bribery. 

Overall, the early career engineers in our study expressed: 

  • A lack of tools for demonstrating benefits of environmental or social action
  • Some degree of shortfall in training/preparation
  • Feelings of disempowerment due to decisions being made further up the business or by clients who didn’t value sustainability

One of the most important findings of our study was that the engineers felt empowered to act on job-site Health and Safety more than other areas. Job-site Health and Safety was the one thing, they said, that consistently trumps cost. They were also clear on company rules for reporting gifts.

This led me to wonder: Might we use the levers that facilitated sweeping change across job-site H&S and anti-bribery to facilitate quick change in other areas related to ethics—specifically environmental and social aspects of sustainability and justice? 

A helpful example was relayed by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, Korean Airlines went from having one of the world’s worst flight safety records to one of the best, and they did this by changing their own culture (with help of consultants) to allow individuals to raise concerns and challenge authority without personal retribution, without fear of reprimand.

I believe engineers need more of this type of empowerment and protection. The narrative Bernadette Ballantyne has woven on “Empowering Ethical Engineering” illustrates how Civil Engineering in Canada did precisely this.

It’s well worth a listen, regardless of whether or not you “engineer” things!

The Iron Ring worn by Canadian engineers after taking their oath to protect Health and Safety of all. Learn more at and on the Engineering Matter podcast.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for more details of our study, as we prepare various findings for publication in research journals. Many thanks to my research collaborators Inês Direito, Rob Lawlor, and John Mitchell, and the Advisory Board appointed by EWB-UK to help guide our work. Financial support came from the European Commission via my Marie Curie Individual Fellowship and a grant to EWB-UK from the Royal Academy of Engineers UK.

In the Know on Assistive Technologies with Dr. Matteo Zallio

Dr Matteo Zallio seminar at DIT 4Assistive technologies can help us age more safely and gracefully, and live independently for much longer than we could on our own. My colleagues in engineering have been involved in growing these technologies. They’ve established the tPOT research group here at DIT to facilitate innovation in this area.

I recently attended a seminar at DIT by Dr. Matteo Zallio who has done very interesting research. Matteo is an architect with a PhD in assistive technologies and he spoke about “Environments and Smart Objects: Ambient Assisted Living for Long Lives of People.”

Matteo has developed a rating system to help people assess how well various products and places support aging. The rating system is hypothetical at this point–it’s been well-developed but not yet adopted for implementation. I’m hoping it will be soon.

I’ve researched facilities and designs to support aging in place in the past, so I had many questions and comment at the end of Matteo’s presentation. I even Skyped with him following his lecture to answer questions he had about moving to Dublin. I’m pleased to say he’ll be joining the tPOT group as a postdoctoral fellow next fall!

Pictures from his lecture, and his impressive book, are posted in this photo gallery:

Trend Shifters and Hip Young Urbanites

Donald Roman NYT feature

Fabiola and Donald Roman, as featured in the New York Time real estate section.

Times are changing.  Demographers tell us that younger set is shirking automobile ownership and moving closer into American cities.

I’m proud to say that one of my former Hampton University architecture students, Donald Roman, is among them.  He and his  wife, Fabiloa, recently chose a condo in Brooklyn over the now-faded suburban dream.  And, the New York Times just celebrated their accomplishment with a feature story.

If I recall correctly, Donald was never a fan of the car.

I’m happy to say that the heavy urban design emphasis of our architecture degree program served to strengthen his understanding of the benefits of population density and walkable city design.

I’m immensely proud that Donald and Fabiloa, who met in an Upward Bound program when they were in high school, planned well and chose carefully.  They overcame tremendous odds to become homeowners under the age of 30.  And, they had the good sense to recognize that living in a densely settled area means shorter commutes and quick access to a huge range of services.

During his time at Hampton University, Donald travelled with me to Tanzania on the 2005 Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad program I conducted.  It was a true joy to have Donald among the 23 American students and 65 Tanzanian students on the program.  He was immensely popular with the entire group and his soft-spoken but optimistic spirit uplifted our group every day.

Our 2005 Fulbright-Hays group in Tanzania.

Our 2005 Fulbright-Hays group in Tanzania.

Donald also made a big difference in my life when he introduced me to Malcolm Gladwell.  He even handed me a copy of The Tipping Point as we were leaving Sunset Beach on our last day in East Africa.

The Tipping Point is about “how little things can make a big difference.”  Interestingly, the NYT feature ends with a quote from Fabi about little things that make a big difference in one’s quality of life (like a dishwasher — and I totally agree!!!).

Thanks, Donald, for sharing with me your reflections on Gladwell’s ideas when we were beginning our trek home.   Your insights got me interested enough to invest  time in cracking the cover, and I had almost finished reading the book by the time my plane landed in Norfolk.

Since then, I’ve read each of Gladwell’s new releases cover to cover.  A new one, about David and Goliath, just hit the shelves and beacons me to read.

There are interesting TED talks by Gladwell on David and Goliath and “choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce” to help get you started if you haven’t yet cracked the mystic of Gladwell’s storytelling ability… or if you just want to have some fun learning about the break through discovery of vegetable chunks.

Chasing Lions in Dublin

I went on the hunt for lions in Dublin last week, and found plenty to stir my soul! Disney’s theatrical production of the Lion King is energetic and mesmerizing.  The costumes and choreography amazed and astounded me.

Queen for a Day

Queen of Tarts 2

A visit to the Queen of Tarts in the Dublin’s Temple Bar  is always a treat.

I have fond memories of Dr. Pam Eddy’s most recent visit to Dublin and our stop to see “the Queen” together.

In fact, I sent  a little box of raspberry scones home with Dave a couple of weeks ago… he stopped by Pam and Dave’s on his drive home from the airport to deliver the Queen’s best.

Curiosities of “Good to Great”

Good to Great 1I really enjoy the book Good to Great by Jim Collins.  It’s a book about business. I found it compelling but, even after having read 2/3 of it some years ago, I still often wonder: what does it all mean?

Perhaps I will never fully know.

An M.D. friend of mine told me about the book.  He found that it applied to multiple contexts. Another colleague of mine has been reading it, and I’ve flipped through it several times lately while visiting in his office.

As for myself, I think I’m better at achieving greatness in some contexts than others. In business I’ve little idea of how greatness looks or feels. In work and in life, I’ve achieved things that seem pretty great to me.

Beryl Markham provided the opening quote Collins used in his book: “That’s what makes death so hard — unsatisfied curiosity.”  Of course, we have all heard that curiosity is also what killed the cat.  Striking the right balance isn’t easy.

Defining new goals has always been the biggest challenge for me.  And I see I’m not alone. Defining appropriate goals for achieving greatness requires curiosity and experience.  So many companies are limited by their own success, Collins asserts, that they don’t flourish because they limit themselves to tried and tested approaches that they don’t realize are outdated.  If they do realize it, they usually are unable to shift to new approaches anyway.

Achieving those goals requires skill, perseverance, and steadfast determination.

Good to Great 2

Missing Margaret, My Second Mom

My dear friend Mary Sullivan and her mother, Margaret Sullivan.

My dear friend Mary Sullivan and her mother, Margaret Sullivan.

I’ve been at a loss for words to describe the passing of another very important person in my life. Margaret Sullivan, the mother of my dear friend Mary Kay and grandmother of my BFF (Best Friend Forever) Katie Sullivan Booth, passed away just after I left Virginia last week. Dave travelled to Blacksburg for her funeral, but unfortunately I missed the event.

Margaret was like a second mother to me. She lived less than a mile away and she did her best to take good care of my sister and me. I remember the day we met vividly. She was the dietician for Price’s Fork Elementary School. We’d just moved onto a new place that was close to the school.

It was August 1979 and I was nine years old. Margaret was selling lunch tickets and when I got to the front of the line, she said how glad she was that we’d moved there. She and Mary Kay attended the same church as my family, she said, and she hoped we could car pool to CCD. explains that CCD is the name for:

The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine [and it] was an association established in 1562 in Rome for the purpose of providing religious education. In its more modern usage, CCD is the religious teaching program of the Catholic Church. These classes are taught to school age children to learn the basic doctrines of their faith.

As a result, I spent a great deal of time with Margaret.

Over the years, she always encouraged me and praised me for setting a good example for my friends. (Mary Kay, Katie, and the rest of our group were all younger than me.) It was difficult at times, living up to the role she’d cut out for me, but I took it quite seriously. I remember have the gumption to say, “No!” more than once in tenuous circumstances. I felt that the fate of more than me rode on my decisions. All those times I was behind the wheel with them in tow on the way to some 4-H event or other, I surely was in an important position.

In earlier years, our little group spent most New Year’s Eves at the Sullivan house, playing cards and sipping ginger ale in our pajamas at the midnight hour.

Margaret and her husband Richard (a native West Virginian who served in the Army Air Corp in Europe during WWI) were highly active in the local grange hall, where our 4-H club met. They helped raise money for me to study abroad through the International 4-H Youth Exchange (IFYE) program in 1994. (That’s when I met Esther.) A contributor on’s ground speak forums explains: “The grange was a movement/organization started by farmers in the late 19th century (in the northern midwest, I think). It started out as a social organization and later got involved in politics. Grange halls can be found all over the US.

Over the years, Margaret was there to give me helpful advice in areas where I needed it. For instance, when CCD didn’t explain the essentials of life, Margaret lent me books (like those by Judy Blume). Thank goodness for that! I might still be in the dark on life otherwise!!!!! She was an avid reader, as her obituary asserts.

And Margaret stuck by me in my darkest hour of life. When I found I couldn’t be a stellar specimen of humanity in everything I did, she was there to help; she went to bat for me at a critical moment. For that, and for everything she did to help raise my sister and me, I remain eternally grateful.

God bless you, my dear Margaret. May you find peace and joy watching over your proud Sullivan (and Massie) lineage.

Anna’s Remarkable Spirit

Anna is a cancer survivor who blogs (and follows my blog). She hit a very rough patch. One no one should ever have to find themselves in such a predicament. I admire her courage and her positive “can do” spirit very much. I think you will, too….

cancer killing recipe

It is not a Writers Block – I can’t have one – simply because I’m not a Writer. 🙂 . Mr. Murphy with his Law turned my life up – side – down. On Friday, October 19 – I was just finishing my new post entitled: “Healing powers of laughter ” 🙂 – when I found myself in a very stressful situation – ( Satan at it’s best ) – and I had to run for my Life –  but I colapsed in the middle of the street – and got picked -up by Ambulance. My blood pressure was 220/100 – and I spent 3 days in the Hospital. After several tests I was diagnosed with mild hearth attack, high blood pressure, spots on my liver, thickened esophagus. I asked  the Doctor: “what is realy wrong with me ?” – he said that they needed to do more test ( ??? )…

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Yoga at the Freemason Y

I love yoga, but I don’t often post photos of it on my blog. After all, it’s simply not kosher to wave an iPhone in the air during class.

I’d intended to practice at my home Y for the past two weeks, but a cold got in the way. Having recovered, I finally made my way to the YMCA in Norfolk’s Freemason district last Saturday. Here are some photos from that adventure.