A Vision Document published by the University of New South Wales seeks to champion ‘Ethical Civil Infrastructure and Sustainable Environments’ and outlines that major problems in the building and construction industry have been evoking regulatory responses from various governments in Australia.

Published in the wake of the recent apartment building collapse in Miami, Florida, the document asks if the tragedy would have ever occurred if engineering ethics were upheld at every link in the supply chain. It also points out that legislative responses are commonly introduced when ethical practices have eroded or failed. The Opal Tower and Mascot Towers in Sydney, as well as the Neo200 block and Collins Arch project in Melbourne are further examples of poor engineering ethics.

One of the main aims of the Vision Document is to support a cultural shift within engineering education and the relevant engineering professions – emphasising a value on the ethical rather than solely technical consideration.

The authors note that it is important to fully appreciate that professional engineering decisions are not constrained to highly formalised narrow technical tasks. They highlight the fact that modern problems of humanity that call for engineering solutions are increasingly complex and multifaceted involving conflicting demands.

Ethical decision-making goes beyond what is legal, acceptable or common. Something may well be legal but still be unethical depending on a particular viewpoint - for example the interaction of aquifers and agriculture.

An ethical professional decision is not merely based on what is allowed and/or technically valid, but also what is judged to be right and fair. Most critically, the deliberation must be conducted at the onset where it can influence decisions not after the fact to simply provide excuses.

The document’s authors believe tertiary education is crucial in fostering an ethical culture throughout an engineer’s academic training, that can then follow through their progression in the profession.

The document hopes engineers ascertain ethical skills to solve novel problems which may have never been encountered previously. Ideally, teaching them how to think, not what to think in order to avoid disaster.

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