Sustainable development and its travel, translation and transmission between Germany and South Africa

Höppener, Mikateko (2014). 'Sustainable development and its travel, translation and transmission between Germany and South Africa' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

This paper explores, describes and juxtaposes multiple perspectives on ways in which engineering education can function as a vehicle for sustainable development and sustainable human development along a global North (Germany)-global South (South Africa) road. 

Two qualitative case studies were conducted in each country, providing perspectives from one university in each country; from masters engineering students (N=20) and academic staff (N=6). Perspectives from industry representatives in the engineering industry were also gathered (N=10). The key informant interviews with staff, and focus group discussions with students explored the extent to which engineering education in Germany and South Africa equips graduates with capabilities to use their knowledge, skills and effective power as professionals to improve their own lives and at the same time contribute to SD as a public good, to in turn promote sustainable human development. The interviews with engineering employers interrogated the relevance and importance of transversal skills in engineering practice and the role of engineers in relation to SD. Juxtaposing findings in both countries from employers' perspectives, complemented with views from higher education (HE), I discuss whether and how the global SD agenda travels between Germany and South Africa, its translation from policy to implementation at national level and its transmission into engineering education.

Given that engineers are major contributors and often pioneers of technological advancements that are created to contribute to SD, the challenge in the sphere of HE lies in pairing excellent engineering qualifications, with an equally profound development of capabilities that offer students pathways to develop, demonstrate and deepen their commitment to individual and societal well-being. The ways in which HE is currently responding to this challenge is also explored in this paper.

Although a global concern, SD conceptualisations and its operationalization inform policy and decision making processes differently. Suggestions for its implementation at institutional level often differ based on national socio-economic and political conditions and on the development challenges identified by local and international organisations (UN/DESA, 2013). However, because we live in a globalized world, there is a spread of megatrends and increased in­terdependence among countries, but no commensurate strengthening of global governance (UN/DESA, 2013). Also, actors dealing with similar SD challenges across different countries do not always get to know enough about the outcomes of implemented SD measures (RNE, 2005) often leading to environmental challenges being insufficiently addressed (UN/DESA, 2013). This calls for more exchange of ideas and experiences with SD strategies and the instruments, structures and capacities needed to implement them (RNE, 2005) within and between various countries. This paper offers a view on contemporary experiences with SD as a global concern as conceptualised and implemented in engineering education along a global South-global North path. 

Results from this study show that SD conceptualisations in Germany and South Africa have the same base, namely the definition[1] of SD provided by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). There are also a number of events, international conferences and summits (e.g. 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment and UNEP, 1992 Earth Summit, 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development) (IISD, 2012) which appear to have had a profound influence in the general direction both countries seem to be pushing the SD agenda within legal frameworks. As suggested in reports by UN/DESA (2013) there is an apparent hierarchy of strategic goals and targets in respect of SD, where global goals are supported and augmented at the regional level through multi-/bi-lateral co-operations and at national level by domestic strategies, policies, programmes and plans. These measures not only give effect to international and regional obligations, but also reflect national priorities and goals and offer a broad path along with SD travels between the two countries.

Results from the case studies reveal insights on the manner in which engineering education already functions in some ways as a vessel for SD within and between the two countries. Results also support findings from studies on engineering education carried out in the European higher education area, namely that engineering education outcomes need to be reconceptualised to encompass (aside from technical excellence) transversal skills that aid in the holistic development of engineers (Boni & Berjano, 2009; Boni, McDonald, & Peris, 2012; Fernandes, Flores, & Lima, 2012).

This paper thus contributes to and expands on the growing international literature on education for sustainable development (ESD) and illuminates current perspectives on the role of engineers with regards to SD. It ultimately sheds light on the importance of tracing the paths travelled by SD; highlighting the role HE can play in equipping engineers with the kinds of capabilities that enable them to function as agents for SD to subsequently achieve sustainable human development.

[1] SD defined asdevelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (WCED, 1987).

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