Engineering Ethics in the Age of Digital Advancement

The digital cannot do everything for us. It cannot answer fundamental ethical questions” Professor Travis Waller.

Mary OConnell

Industry experts joined Professor Travis Waller, Head of School of UNSW Civil & Environmental Engineering on a recent Q&A panel to discuss the importance of ethics in engineering in the age of digital advancement.

The discussion was moderated by Matt Press, the Director of Construct NSW, a NSW government program and strategy which is delivering once-in-a-generation reform of the building and construction industry.

Travis is a co-author of the School’s Vision Document, “Ethical Civil Infrastructure and Sustainable Environments” published in June of last year.  

As Travis noted on the panel, more and more of the work of engineers and construction industry professionals, indeed all technical industries, are being replaced by technology – digitisation and AI. It has been estimated by 2034, that automation will replace 25% of our current construction workforce and impact a further 30%.   Yet, the digital cannot do everything for us. It cannot answer fundamental ethical questions.

He gave examples of such ethical questions, including   Should I do this project at all? Am I overcommitted? Is it environmentally sustainable? Is my team diverse? Is the project being implemented in the proper way?

Professor Waller said that that just meeting codes of conduct is not necessarily sufficient.  Deep technical skills need to be combined with deep understanding of what is appropriate, what is good for the broader society.

Other panel speakers were Michael Dakhoul - Managing Director, Construction Consultants and Agi Sterling - President of the NSW / ACT branch, Association of Consulting Architects Australia.

Michael Dakhoul said he felt the industry had, in the last ten to fifteen years lost its direction, and as a result had lost the trust of the end -user.

Agi Sterling spoke of the new reforms which seek to impose greater transparency and accountability in the sector.

Professor Waller said that the emphasis for the university was not about blame or the past but about how engineers are to face the near and the emerging future. “What do we need to align ourselves ethically with that future? Ethics and taking the long term view is the new normal.” 

Watch the full discussion.