Interview | New ICE President Keith Howells to push for action on meeting UN Sustainable Development Goals

Getting engineers to live, breathe and deliver on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is the ambition of the ICE’s new President Keith Howells.

When the United Nations’ (UN’s) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were first launched in 2015, the ambition was to end all forms of hunger and malnutrition by 2030.

The goals were seen as an urgent call to action for all UN member states – developed and developing – to work in global partnership to achieve them.

While on face value of the hunger and malnutrition description within the SDGs, it may not seem obvious what they should mean to civil engineers, but according to the ICE’s 158th President Keith Howells, the sector has a vital role. This critical responsibility of civil engineers is also underlined by the ICE’s change to the professional review process at the start of this year to include reference to the SDGs.

Halfway to deadline

However, now we are halfway to that 2030 deadline, Howells believes much more action – by civil engineers at all levels – is needed to deliver on the aims set out in 2015.

Looking at the 17 goals in detail (see box) it is easier to see how some are more relatable than others for civil engineers. But Howells and the ICE believe the industry must look at the goals as a whole and not in isolation. “If you ask most engineers what the SDGs are and how they relate to their day to day work, I think that many will not be able to explain them or their relationship to the projects they are working on,” says Howells.

“The projects that do apply the goals to their work often do it as an afterthought – more of a tick box exercise – but they need to be considered from the outset in order to deliver the maximum impact.”

How well the individual SDGs are known and how they are applied to civil engineering projects is something Howells wants to see change over the next 12 months.

His focus on the SDGs as ICE President is part of a preplanned strategy to follow on from past president Rachel Skinner’s focus on decarbonisation in 2020/2021 and the focus on productivity delivered by immediate past president Ed McCann.

The subject also fits perfectly with Howells’ industry experience.

He worked in the water sector after graduating and joining Sir M MacDonald & Partners, which was established by Sir Murdoch MacDonald who was ICE president in 1932.

In his first project for the firm, Howells travelled to Nigeria for a six month stint on an irrigation project. It is a memory that has stayed with him, as well as providing his current drive to see wider adoption and use of the SDGs.

Howells: "I hope the membership will be intrigued enough to go away and learn about the SDGs and I really hope that they will start to apply them in their work"

“It was a culture shock – I had never seen people so poor and in such ill health,” he says.

“There were a lot of people affected by leprosy. It was a real eye opener for me at that stage of my career as you didn’t get the same exposure through TV and other media channels then as you do today. It was quite shocking but, as a civil engineer, it was very exciting and very challenging.”

Over the course of his career, Howells has worked on a number of major overseas schemes that have been focused on improving the economic and social prospects of communities.

It is clearly something he has found fulfilling, but had the aviation sector been more buoyant in the early 1970s, his career might have been quite different.

“I was always interested in science and maths at school and my careers advisor suggested that I could be suited to academia or engineering,” he explains.

“At first, I considered aeronautical engineering but, at that time, the sector was in the doldrums, so I then looked at civil engineering.”

It was quite shocking but, as a civil engineer, it was very exciting and very challenging

It was bridge construction and hydraulic engineering projects pointed out by his careers advisor that piqued Howells’ interest, leading him to study civils at University College, Swansea. His time there almost led him into structural engineering with the university being at the forefront of finite element analysis at the time and Howells’ dissertation had focused on programming for structural analysis.

Nonetheless, it was the initial draw of hydraulic engineering that came to define his career path. He spent many years focused on the technical aspects of water and environmental engineering before switching into business management.

Howells decided to move from working overseas in a very hands-on engineering capacity on major dam and flood prevention schemes to managing the engineering business itself after he studied for an MBA at Cranfield University.

He says the knowledge he gained broadened his perspective.“It didn’t change my thinking but it gave me exposure to the world of economics, finance and people management,” he says. “It really shifted my mindset.”

Back at Sir M MacDonald & Partners with his MBA he was tasked with implementing computer aided design for the Left Bank Outfall Drain in Pakistan. Following this his career remained very much water focused, albeit in a business leading role, for another 15 years.

Whether his role was technical or in management, the work reinforced Howells’ experience of the environmental issues civil engineers deal with and the societal impact their work can have.

Millennium Development Goals

His work on projects involving the World Bank during this period also brought him into working with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals which he sees as the precursor to the UN’s SDGs.

Howells took this knowledge with him as he moved to what he calls the third chunk of his career which started in 2003. His career changed at that point when he took on the role of group services director of Mott MacDonald, which had been formed in 1989 with the merger of Sir M MacDonald & Partners and Mott, Hay & Anderson.

Howells then progressed to become group managing director in 2004, before becoming chairman of the executive board in 2011 – a role he held until his retirement in 2019.

Rather than stepping away from the civil engineering sector, Howells has instead filled his time by joining the ICE’s Trustee board and becoming a vice president in 2019.

Howells believes that his career experience will bring broad perspective and an international view to his year as President of the ICE and he wants to share his views on the need to decarbonise and build resilience.

Nonetheless, he says his visits over the next year – which are returning to physical events after two years of virtual ones during the pandemic – will be very much about listening, as well as talking.

Through listening and talking, Howells’ ambition for this time next year is for the civil engineering industry to start taking the SDGs “seriously”.

“I hope the membership will be intrigued enough to go away and learn about them and I really hope that they will start to apply them in their work,” he says.

Younger engineers having to give practical examples of how they applied the SDGs for their professional review is a step forward he adds but he says that “there is a generational gap” between them and the rest of the membership that must be overcome. 

Keith Howells cv

2021-2022: ICE senior vice president

2019-2021: ICE vice president

2019-present: ICE Trustee

2017:  Fellow, Royal Academy of Engineering

2012: Honorary fellow, Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management

2011-2019: Chairman, Mott MacDonald

2006: Gained ICE Fellowship

2004-2010: Group managing director, Mott MacDonald

2003-2004: Director of group services, Mott MacDonald

1988-2002: Project director, then managing director for water and environment, Mott MacDonald

1986: MBA,Cranfield University

1981: Gained ICE chartership

1974-1987: Engineer, then senior engineer, Sir M MacDonald & Partners

1974: BSc (First Class Hons) civil engineering, University College, Swansea

Putting the goals into action

The UN has 17 Sustainable Development Goals that recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand in hand with strategies to improve health and education, reduce inequality and spur economic growth, while tackling climate change and working to preserve oceans and forests.

The 17 SDGs are:

1. No poverty – End poverty in all forms everywhere

2. Zero hunger – End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

3. Good health and wellbeing – Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages

4. Quality education – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

5. Gender equality – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

6. Clean water and sanitation – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

7. Affordable and clean energy – Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

8. Decent work and economic growth – Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and
decent work for all

9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation

10. Reduce inequalities – Reduce inequality between countries

11. Sustainable cities and communities – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

12. Responsible consumption and production – Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

13. Climate action – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

14. Life below water – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

15. Life on land – Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

16. Peace, justice and strong institutions – Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

17. Partnership for the goals – Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development.

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One comment


    Worthwhile goals – an excellent blueprint!

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