Human capabilities for sustainability – a joint whitepaper by Enginuity and The Green Edge




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As the charity dedicated to finding new ways to close skills gaps in UK engineering and manufacturing, one of the areas Enginuity focuses on is providing insights and recommendations on the skills that are increasingly in demand so businesses, sectors and government can plan ahead.

Alongside advanced manufacturing, the net zero transition is a global opportunity for UK engineers. If our engineering and manufacturing employers have the right skills at the right time we can create a more productive sector at the forefront of designing, making and maintaining the solutions to society’s greatest challenges.

Much of the debate on the skills needed for sustainability in engineering and manufacturing has focused on the technical; occupational competences rather than human capabilities.

We’ve teamed up with The Green Edge, an online newsletter and podcaster, launched in 2021 to collate, review and synthesise the fast-expanding array of green workforce and skills reports emerging from across the UK economy and internationally, to publish a joint whitepaper exploring how human capabilities are critical to sustainable development in the engineering sector.

This blog outlines our whitepaper – the link to the full report is at the bottom of the page.

What do we mean by ‘human capabilities’?

This is a broad term and refers to qualities such as emotional intelligence, social skills and cognitive abilities. 

They are not only relevant to the workplace, but also for personal development and wellbeing. 

Human capabilities might also be referred to as ‘soft’ or ‘transferable’ skills, but we found these terms too limiting for this whitepaper.

Why are human capabilities important?

Human capabilities are a foundation on which technical skills can be built. 

For example, a willingness to learn is crucial – not just at the start of a career, but throughout a professional’s life – while strong analytical and logical thinking skills can aid in mastering engineering competences.

The ability to adapt to changing circumstances and embrace new challenges is key to becoming a prized employee, staying relevant and climbing the career ladder. And in an industry where collaboration is so important, communication and teamwork skills are extremely valuable and result in better productivity.

While AI may take care of many jobs in the future – data entry and basic analysis, for example – it cannot yet replicate innate human attributes such as emotional intelligence, ethical reasoning and the nuances of critical thinking. These qualities will remain paramount in tackling big issues such as the climate crisis and social inequalities.

How does this fit in with a green agenda?

‘Green skills’ are often simply traditional skills applied to green technology. For example, welders working on the construction or maintenance of wind turbine towers, support structures for solar farms or the infrastructure of hydroelectric plants are largely using the same skills they learned as apprentices.

So, while those skills may not need to change so much, mindset does.

As an example, an architect may not need any new ‘hard skills’ to deliver their work in an environmentally responsible way. But they will perhaps need a different attitude: the ability to understand how various aspects of a city's development are interconnected; creativity to come up with innovative and sustainable solutions; empathy to consider the needs and concerns of diverse communities; and effective communication and collaboration skills to facilitate cooperation with stakeholders from different backgrounds.

An engineer working on the same project may need creativity to find innovative ways to design eco-friendly structures and systems, and attention to detail to ensure sustainable features are integrated seamlessly into designs.

Working towards climate solutions means that engineers will frequently collaborate with other professionals, such as environmental scientists – this requires communication skills and an ability to understand and appreciate different ways of thinking and operating.

What to change in a mindset

These are some necessary shifts in considerations and ways of thinking that will lead to a sustainability-driven workforce:

  • Short-term to long-term thinking
  • Linear to circular economy 
  • Individualism to collective action
  • Consumerism to conscious consumption
  • Competition to cooperation
  • Anthropocentrism to ecocentrism 
  • Denial to climate action 
  • Inequality to social equity 
  • Technocentrism to nature-based solutions

It’s not an overnight process to change the mindset of a workforce – it involves education in early years and throughout a person’s career, plus policy, legislation, inclusive dialogue and general awareness.

Frameworks and ideas for the future

There are a number of existing frameworks and courses that focus on human capabilities.

As a starting point, we recommend UK engineering bodies incorporate Engineers Without Borders’ Global Responsibility Competency Compass into their standards and educational guides.

GreenComp is a new EU capabilities framework, which has a specific goal of fostering a sustainability mindset in people – encouraging critical, ‘big picture’ thinking and building a knowledge base that includes an understanding of and care for our planet’s present and future state.

An example of achieving a blend of both technical competencies and human capabilities is the Scottish Engineering Modern Apprenticeship, which emphasises environmental best practices, promoting an eco-conscious and sustainability-driven mindset among professionals.

Meanwhile, the collaborative work between the Royal Academy of Engineering and the University of Manchester on the initiative ‘Progressing to be an Engineer’ is aimed at enriching the learning experience of primary school children in engineering and embedding environmental responsibility from the outset.

Useful learning tools for businesses and educational organisations include: 

  • Multidisciplinary courses 
  • Guest lectures and workshops
  • Sustainability competitions 
  • Online resources and open courseware
  • Discussions on ethics, values, and social responsibility in engineering education
  • Industry partnerships
  • Peer-to-peer learning

Dive into the detail

Our aim is a workforce that's not only skilled, but robust, adaptive and poised to confront and navigate present and future challenges.

Overall, we are highly optimistic – many engineers already grasp the complexity in sustainability, being systematic thinkers and able to take a holistic view, frame problems and think critically about priorities.

By adopting the other mindshifts we’ve suggested, engineers can play a transformative role in promoting sustainability and contributing to a cleaner, more equitable and resilient future for society and the planet.

Keen to dig into the details? Read the full whitepaper here 

Download the whitepaper here.

Enginuity is a charity organisation dedicated to closing the skills gaps in the UK’s engineering and manufacturing sectors. The Green Edge is a newsletter and podcast produced by Dr Michael Cross and Fraser Harper, who review green workforce and skills reports and provide commentary on the green economy both in the UK and globally.