Blog Post 7 – Empathy in sustainability

In recent years there have been many efforts to comprehensively teach sustainability and its applications to engineering and engineering design. Furthermore, the concept of sustainability in technical majors has often been presented as an environmental problem, when it actually cuts across many systems such as cultural systems, different value systems, economic and technological frontiers, and others. Sustainability crosses multiple dimensions and has various levels of learning­­—undergraduate, graduate, and professional. To normalize the discussion about teaching sustainability, the UK Joint Board of Moderators built Guidelines for Sustainability that stated four absolute principles for sustainability education in engineering programs. According to the report, these four principles are the borders within which sustainable engineering occurs. Principles two and three—developing and understanding minimum socio-economic standards for humanity, and considering intergenerational equity—include empathy as a core value, which shows a strong correlation between empathic designers and sustainable designs.

Empathy is an important construct when designing civil infrastructure systems. A study among civil engineering programs at universities from Sweden, Spain, and the Netherlands showed that students and faculty identified empathy as one of the desired skills for designers to deliver sustainable designs. Although this study is clear that the results are not final for all programs, it presents a strong convergence between the skills and the delivery of sustainable designs.  The tendency to adopt empathy as a purposeful construct to teach engineers continues to grow. Outcomes such as understanding others, awareness of broader impacts, open-mindedness, building relationships, improving teamwork, effective communication and interaction, design value, and context impacts are attributed to empathy as part of the design process. Pedagogy practices are broadening from traditional teaching methods to more student participation and experiential learning modules.

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