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The role of the technology sector in the big society

April 21, 2011

This post argues that the techonology sector has an important role to play in the Big Society, and was written for this month’s debate in Engineering and Technology Magazine, the magazine of the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

At its root, David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society is about two things. As well as empowering communities to take more of the decisions and run more of the activities that affect their lives, it  encourages individuals  to accept the responsibilities that this new power brings. This is a vision that the professional engineering community should welcome and should play their part in making a reality. The idea of individuals and communities accepting the power to make decisions which have a significant effect on their society, and in doing so assuming the responsibilities that accompany this power, is not a new one to engineers – it is a central part of what it is to be a member of the engineering profession. The decisions that engineers make have significant effects on society; specialist knowledge makes it hard for non-engineers to assess how, and to what ends, this power is being used.

It is usually the case that the resources of society have, in part, been employed (not least through education) to help individual engineers achieve the position they occupy. The way that the engineering profession is organised is recognition that engineers have responsibilities: to prevent harm in the exercise of the power they hold and, positively, to promote the good of society through the practice of engineering. It also recognises the practical challenges of oversight and regulation.

One reason that engineers should welcome the Big Society agenda is that the activity and ideals are already central parts of what it is to be an engineer. The emphasis of the programme is on taking positive action within communities. This is an opportunity for engineers to reflect on how their particular specialist skills can contribute to such projects. Traditionally, engineers have focused on their responsibilities to avoid harm. While this remains of primary importance, it is time for engineers to be more positive about the good they can do and accept that such activity is also a part of their responsibilities.

The most obvious way to do this would be to ask how community organisations and local government need engineers to help further useful projects. A good example is the charity Remap where expert volunteers design and produce custom-made equipment for people with disabilities. In one project, volunteers designed a pushchair handle that attaches to a belt to allow a mother who walks with crutches to take her young son out.

But engineers can offer more than simply engineering skills. One of the challenges in implementing the Big Society vision will be deciding who should be empowered to make decisions. This is a task with which engineers are familiar, in the awarding of professional status, and their experience should be shared. With professional standards, codes of conduct, and statements of ethical principles, engineers have experience in holding such groups to account.

The relationship that engineers bear to society creates a special responsibility to pursue these opportunities, but participation in the Big Society agenda shouldn’t just be about the discharging of responsibilities. The practice of engineering can and should be a rewarding and enriching endeavour for the engineers themselves. As a Remap volunteer says on their website: ‘We all enjoy using our skills to help people do the things they very much want to do. But it’s not just fun, it’s a privilege.’

Thus engineers have responsibilities as a result of the nature of their activity and position that they hold in society. In part, these responsibilities are to avoid harm, but in part they are also to make positive contributions to the community. The discharging of these responsibilities should not be onerous as doing so will help enrich engineers’ professional activity.

It is for all these reasons that engineers should actively look to participate in the Big Society project and work to ensure that it is a success.

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