Chilvers Andrew Andrew Chilvers is a Research Associate at UCL's Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering. He currently works on the 'Liveable Cities' project which aims to develop pathways to transforming engineering for sustainable, liveable cities that promote global and societal wellbeing ( Within this he focuses particularly on developing policy and governance mechanisms.

 The contribution to this book was developed from research forming part of Andrew's Engineering Doctorate (EngD), also completed at UCL. This research was sponsored by the global engineering and design consultancy, Arup, whose engineering practices were also the subject of study. Previous to this was Andrew had trained and worked as an Environmental Engineer.




Sarah Bell Biography

Sarah Bell is Senior Lecturer at UCL in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering. Her research interests lie in the relationships between engineering, technology and society as they impact on sustainability, particularly in relation to water systems. This includes work on water efficiency, the public acceptability of water reuse and water sensitive urban design. She works in collaboration with partners including Thames Water, Waterwise, AECOM and Arup. She is a Chartered Engineer and holds a PhD is in Sustainability and Technology Policy from Murdoch University, Western Australia. She is a co-director of the UCL Urban Laboratory, former co-Director of the UCL Environment Institute, and led the EPSRC funded Bridging the Gaps: Sustainable Urban Spaces project at UCL which provided support for new research collaborations across 26 departments, involving 63 researchers.


Andrew Chilvers

What first got you interested in engineering practice?

 I became interested in studies of engineering practice over my four years studying for a Masters of Environmental Engineering degree. My decision to study Environmental Engineering as an undergraduate was derived from an aptitude for the physical sciences and an interest for discovering how things, and systems of things, worked and could be considered. When I was leaving college, this interest was coming together with a growing social and environmental consciousness; a growing sense of urgency seemed to be attached to the understanding of, and intervening to avoid, detrimental effects arising from the complex interplays between social, cultural, economic, technological, and environmental factors. This had been increasingly coming to light both in terms of my own personal sense of the matter and one I perceived to have been growing in wider social, scientific and political fora.

 Perhaps naively, I was encouraged by the rhetoric around my undergraduate course which fostered the notion that it would offer a good grounding on environmental issues and their causal contexts and would develop future engineers with the means to contribute constructively to their resolution. My experience of the course was very much akin to that described by Downey and Lucena1. for whom these experiences were also a motivation to turn to social studies of engineering. They describe personal experiences as undergraduate engineering students for whom:

... the sort of people we were being asked to become did not fit with the sort of people that we already were or wanted to be. Above all we felt constrained ... Understanding learning solely as the transmission of knowledge from the heads of faculty to the heads of students did not begin to account for the bodily experiences of constraint so many of us experienced (p. 119).


In my experience the focus on reductionist, technical knowledge and approaches belied the complexities that were apparent to me in the problems I was seeking to become better equipped to address. The focus on isolating and analysing technical elements in a way that only considered technical solutions was, for me, problematic. I had a constant sense that the problems I was being taught to address in this way were much broader than this approach recognised and I wanted to be taught in a way that recognised and dealt openly with that. This remained unaddressed, however as we were taught technical solutions for a series of environmental issues – contaminated land remediation, the technical options and challenges for increasing our quotient of renewable energy, technical options for pollution and effluent management, storage and remediation. Contextual questions remained absent; why did these problems exist in the first place? What drove them? Why this raft of technical fixes, so many of which seemed profoundly limited or insufficient when the problems were placed in their proper context?

In short, I quickly came to question the social, political and cultural (as well as the technological) contexts behind the profession for which I was training and the problems it claimed to address. I also wanted to know what it might mean to explore alternative or complementary courses of action which might better account for and address these contexts. In short, my formative experiences as an engineer-in-training led me to seek to understanding the broader contexts of engineering practice, its role and effect and with this I hoped to achieve, in some small way, what Gary Downey, in the foreword to this book calls 'critical participation'.

  1. Downey, G. L. and Lucena, J. C. 1997. Engineering Selves: Hiring In to a Contested Field of Education. In: Downey, G. L. and Dumit, J. (eds) Cyborgs and Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences and Technologies, Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, pp. 117-141


Why did you begin researching the topic of your chapter? Was it chance/grand plan/ colleague's recommendation ...?

 The study that forms the basis of the chapter was part of a larger set of studies forming the thesis for my Engineering Doctorate. The final thesis for this was titled Engineers and Values: Ethnographic studies of the normative shaping of engineering practice. In this specific study, I had developed the opportunity to study a group of structural engineers within the engineering and design consultancy, Arup, who both sponsored and formed the subject of study for my doctoral research. The initial aim was simply to follow this team as they delivered a project that was fairly typical within their portfolio of ongoing projects and with no preconceived ideas as to the nature of their role and contribution. Instead the engineers' role and contribution was investigated by applying grounded analysis to the data resulting from ethnographic observation. As this was developed, it became clear that a key contribution of this particular study was as an illustration of the constraints incumbent upon engineers as they seek to shape the social, environmental and material outcomes of their work. The study quickly came to highlight the importance of closely attending to the engineer's position within the networks of relations that come to shape not just the built environment but also an engineer's contribution therein. Whilst it may seem to some like a fairly mundane issue to highlight that engineers must work within networks of relations between clients, consultants, suppliers, end-users and other interested actors, in a book aimed at future engineers and engineering educators it is important to take seriously the importance of these relations in not just determining engineering outcomes but also the role, identity and autonomy of engineers themselves.


 What challenges did you encounter when working on this chapter?

 In my experience, all ethnographies of practice hold a challenge in their presentation around retaining enough detail on what occurred and with what outcomes or consequences – the challenge of capturing the processes and interactions revealed in the field and the contingencies present within them. Whilst retaining this as the empirical foundation from which the discussion can build and from which the reader can get a true insight into the field studied, enough space must also be left to building the case for the wider relevance of the inherently localised example presented both to the reader and to a wider understanding of the field.

 We certainly faced this challenge when developing our chapter and hope that we struck the correct balance with, of course, the third requirement; enough overall brevity to hold the reader's attention!


What aspect gives you the most satisfaction now?

 Firstly, to answer this question in a broad sense, it is immensely satisfying simply to have contributed to the first scholarly collection on engineering practice written for working engineers and engineering educators and dedicated to making visible the full range of actions performed by engineers. I write above how this was lacking from my own education and training in engineering and so contributing in some small way towards addressing that issue has a satisfying circularity when I look at my own professional trajectory.

 More specifically related to our contribution; I am pleased with how this contributes a clear and detailed study of the real-life constraints incumbent upon engineers in a consultancy committed to leadership on the important issues of environmental sustainability. I hope we are successful in showing how, if they are to be successful, such firms must contend with and challenge such constraints and the limited identity and role they often afford to the engineer in the socio-technical networks which shape the built environment around us. In achieving this, the chapter also contributes nicely to one of the overriding aims of this book; to illustrate the importance of fostering better understandings of engineering practice.


 What advice would you give to someone beginning to get interested in engineering practice(s) research?

 Of course, reading this book should be a really good place to start but I would also recommend making the most of the opportunities available to get involved with the increasingly coalescent research community. Here a good place to start would be to become a member of the International Network for Engineering Studies (INES), coming along to and contributing to its meetings, and reading its journal, Engineering Studies.





0 # Carlos Tiago 2013-11-26 12:21
It was very interesting to see that Arups, despite many years of existence and strong sustainability policies, still struggles to reach the minimal sustainability parameters and that they keep clashing with external reality.
Do you think that creating legislation to empower sustainability practice in construction networks would be a good solution, or even the only solution?
And is there any country where this is being done?
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+1 # Sarah Bell 2013-12-09 13:33
You are right Carlos, that sustainability remains difficult to achieve in mainstream practice, despite good intentions and a strong ethical position. It is probably not fair to say that 'minimal standards' weren't met, but that it is difficult to integrate sustainability concerns throughout the design process given the current structure of the construction industry. Legislation, regulation and a strong planning system may help, as do voluntary standards such as LEED. It is interesting to consider whether or not the outcome in this case would have been different if the project owners had specified a particular sustainability rating for the building - possibly not, as these rarely consider the kind of technical details of materials efficiency which our structural engineer was concerned about. What might be more effective would be different contractural and commercial arrangements for building projects, so that multi-disciplin ary teams can function more effectively. How to achieve that is a problem that Arup have been trying to address since they were founded. They have made considerable progress in their own firm, but are constrained by the slower pace of change in their industry.
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