An understanding of sustainable design will be essential for engineers to practice responsibly in the future. It is now also mandated by Engineers Australias Graduate Attributes as an essential outcome of Australian engineering programs. What sustainable design means in practice, however, is a contested issue, varying between engineering disciplines, industry sectors and even individual practitioners. How then can both current professional engineers and engineering students learn about sustainable design?
This thesis reports on an empirical study to investigate qualitatively different ways sustainable design has been experienced by practicing engineers. The different ways of understanding sustainable design were found using a qualitative research method known as phenomenography. This research method revealed the critical variations in the ways twentytwo practicing engineers described their experiences of sustainable design. By examining the experiences of practitioners having to deal with sustainable design on a day to day basis, a clearer picture of sustainable design in practice was attained.
The twenty-two engineering practitioners were interviewed using semi-structured, open ended approach. The interviews were transcribed verbatim, de-identified, and analysed phenomenographically. Five qualitatively different ways of experiencing sustainable design were identified: sustainable design as solution finding, reductionist problem solving, holistic problem solving, social network problem solving, and a way of life. Descriptions of each way of experiencing sustainable design are presented, including illustrative quotes from the practicing engineers and a hierarchy demonstrating the interrelationships.
By understanding the different ways practitioners have experienced sustainable design, recommendations are made for how to both improve the practice of sustainable design and the education of engineering students about sustainable design.
Implications for the practice of sustainable design include the need to:
• Focus on identifying clients’ problems in collaboration with the clients themselves, rather than accepting a set of declared requirements;
• Identify and solve all design problems within a larger societal and environmental context;
• Understand that different people have different ways of experiencing sustainable design that will influence their actions.
Implications for improving the education of engineers about sustainable design include the need to:
• See professional development, including undergraduate education, as a combination of developing more comprehensive ways of experiencing practice, and skills development;
• Make explicit throughout engineering programs the focus on developing ways of experiencing the practice of sustainable design and engineering in general;
• Structure courses and programs around students reflecting on and challenging their own understanding of sustainable design, including from those experiences gained outside formal learning;
• Help students to develop more comprehensive ways of experiencing the practice of sustainable design;
• Locate skills development within the context of engineering practice;
• Develop academics’ ways of experiencing sustainable design, to enable them to improve the learning experiences they offer their students.
The contribution of this thesis is in identifying the way practitioners see sustainable design practice. This can form the basis of a new model of professional development within engineering.