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Students, from left, Veronica Valeij, Johanna Turunen and Simon Wieslander discuss how technological progress impacts on different social groups. In the middle is instructor Elisabeth Ekener Petersen. (Photo: Håkan Lindgren)

Forging the socially responsible engineer

Published Nov 12, 2015

Two cohorts of Mechanical Engineering students — about 180 students in all — are the first to follow a course in Social Sustainability at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

“This is something different. The subject feels really useful and should be adopted in more contexts than at present. It raises questions that no other part of the degree programme has done,” says Simon Wieslander who is in the last year on the Master of Science in Engineering programme.

Social sustainability, which is a relatively new concept within higher education in technical subjects, is concerned with building a long-term, stable society where fundamental human needs are fulfilled.

According to the course director, Elisabeth Ekener Petersen, engineers and technical specialists have a vital task in the work of assuring the social aspects of sustainable social planning.  As an engineer, one can have major influence on power relations and issues of justice, she says.

The analysis takes place with the help of different indices, here “The Wheel of Life".

There are many examples of how technical innovations, both large and small in scale, affect social structures and living conditions. She mentions the development of IT in African countries – ranging from professional fishermen who, via mobile phone, can identify ports where their catch fetches the best price to mobile banking which has revolutionised Africa’s entire system for bank transactions.

Today, the engineering students are having their final seminar; in groups they examine each other’s analyses of different cases – what are the consequences of the increasing automation within industry; what is the relation between electric cars and vehicles operating on fossil fuels?

Wieslander and three students clarify which interested parties are present in the equation and investigate connections and links between manufacturers, sales operations, buyers and others involved.

The idea is that the exercise shall provide an insight into the consequences of technical progress for different groups, how relations and power relationships in the social structure can be adjusted and the way that the changes percolate down into people’s everyday lives.

“These are interesting issues, but sometimes it is hard to know how one should use the knowledge in one’s professional role. We need to examine more in depth within this area,” says Kristina Thurin.

Where engineers, at an early stage, ask themselves the question how new engineering can be applied, the possibility of reducing negative effects and increasing the positive are also enhanced, Ekener Petersen says.

The social perspective should be present already on the drawing board, says Elisabeth Ekener Petersen.

“Technical solutions are shaping the society of the future. If the engineers adopt a wider social perspective already at the drawing board stage then the chance of getting things right from the start is maximised.”

But isn’t there a risk that the engineers trespass into the fields of others, those that properly belong to the politicians and social scientists?
“The perspective on social sustainability is politically neutral. The viewpoint is based on the idea of advancing the well-being of individuals and that the community benefits when people achieve their full potential. On the other hand, decisions concerning how a particular objective is achieved may be politically controversial – this lies partly outside the professional horizon of engineers and requires a more interdisciplinary approach where one is working horizontally across different occupational roles.

Christer Gummeson

Course module for social sustainability has been developed on behalf of KTH Sustainability (KTH-S). The course has been developed by Karin Edvardsson Björnberg, Philosophy Unit, Elisabeth Ekener Petersen, Division for Environmental Strategies Research, Niccolas Albiz, student in the Department of Industrial Economics and Dominic von Martens, previously student in the Department of Industrial Economics and also lecturer there.
​“The fact that KTH-S constituted a group of persons from fairly different backgrounds has helped us to succeed in producing a good module with wide scope,” says Elisabeth Ekener Petersen.

According to KTH’s own definition, social sustainability encompasses wellbeing, justice, power, rights and the needs of the individual. The subject is part of the concept of sustainable development which also incorporates ecological sustainability and economic sustainability. All three parts form part of KTH’s Department of Sustainable Development, Environmental Sciences and Engineering.