The tragic death of George Floyd and the subsequent demonstrations and protests have altered our view of the world and motivated many organizations, including engineering organizations, to issue statements of commitment to change that results in a more equitable society. How can engineering organizations best contribute to this movement? Certainly, addressing diversity and inclusivity within our organizations and broadening our approach to the design of projects to include a more comprehensive view of the human impacts of our work are important. We can also contribute to public policy changes that re-prioritize our investments in public infrastructure in ways that result in more equitable communities.
Engineering Change Lab – USA (ECL-USA) Summit 6, held in the summer of 2019, included an introduction to the concept of macro-ethics presented by Rosalyn Berne, Director of the Center for Engineering Ethics and Society at the National Academy of Engineering. According to Ms. Berne, micro-ethics have been well developed within the engineering community in the form of virtue ethics, professional duties, and professional codes of ethics. Macro-ethics broadens the scope of engineering ethics to include our contributions to the existential challenges of the 21st Century – rapid technological advancements, climate change, population growth, urbanization, deteriorating infrastructure, waste, and, as highlighted by recent events, racial justice. Micro-ethics is primarily about our individual responsibilities. Macro-ethics is about our societal responsibilities to collaborate with others in defining and confronting the crucial choices that society faces.
There are clear ties between racial inequality and the macro-ethical policy considerations of how public expenditures for infrastructure are prioritized. Too often, the relationships between infrastructure expenditures and quality of life in communities are not considered. Too often, infrastructure spending decisions are made with the mindset of solving an isolated technical problem without consideration of the community systems that infrastructure is part of. Too often, infrastructure spending decisions are made without listening to all the voices that are impacted by these decisions.
There are tools available to the engineering community that will aid in broadening our approach. One of these tools is the Envision sustainability rating system for all types of infrastructure, developed by the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (https://sustainableinfrastructure.org/). The Envision system includes 60 “credits” in five major categories – Quality of Life, Leadership, Resource Allocation, Natural World, and Climate and Resilience. Quality of Life credits encourage consideration of the social impacts of infrastructure – public health and safety; mobility; equity and social justice; preservation of cultural and historic resources; preservation of local character; enhancement of public spaces; and stimulation of economic prosperity. When applied at the highest level, Envision will influence not just how we complete individual projects, but how we choose the projects that best meet the needs of communities and society.
Public policy related to transportation systems offers a powerful example of the social impacts of infrastructure policy. Our transportation systems are an integral part of the fabric of communities, and transportation policies impact far more than just traffic congestion. Investments in transportation infrastructure drive land use; consumption of energy resources; access to work, education, and community services; air quality; private sector investments along transportation corridors; tax base; and economic inclusion. Investment in public transportation is particularly closely related to factors that impact racial equality. The diagram below illustrates some of these linkages.
In my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, we have witnessed both the demands for racial justice and the inequities of our infrastructure spending systems. Omaha, like many other communities, faces transportation funding needs that far exceed current levels of funding. Our funding of public transportation is near the bottom when compared to similar cities. Not coincidentally, poverty levels in African-American communities are among the worst in the United States.
Recently, our Nebraska Department of Transportation announced an investment of $800 million over the next 20 years in our Interstate highway system. This investment will be paid through federal and state funding programs. Obviously, the citizens of the Omaha area are major contributors of the tax revenue that funds these programs. Our systems for the distribution of federal and state transportation funds, however, limit how these funds can be spent and do not require significant local input. While there are certainly needs for improvements to the Interstate system, the potential for addressing the inequities in our community by distributing these funds in a different manner, such as to public transportation, has been lost.
Transportation funding priorities are just one of multiple infrastructure-related, public policy areas that impact racial equality. Other examples include the need for affordable, energy-efficient housing, aging schools, access to clean drinking water, deteriorated wastewater systems, resilience to flooding, access to parks and natural open spaces, and clean-up and remediation of contaminated industrial sites. The technical knowledge and problem-solving skills of the engineering community are needed to address these challenges. To contribute at our highest levels and to be part of addressing racial inequalities, however, the engineering community also needs to advance its leadership skills. We need to understand the community systems that our work is part of, and we need to listen to the people that are impacted by our work.