Outside the box: altruism in engineering

I do not believe that there are any truly altruistic acts. I also, perhaps naïvely, do not believe that anyone acts with complete selfishness to the total detriment of all others. But most importantly I do not think that anyone acts in the interest of others often at the expense of their own interests and with no expectation of material benefit for themselves immediately or in the future.


I would like to count myself amongst those that engage in philanthropic activities, but I believe that there is always ‘something in it’ for the individual.


Take for example the ‘altruistic’ tenets of most religions. Is this purely selfless or is there also the underlying promise of betterment to the individual in the next life or afterlife?


Do those that undertake momentous physical acts to raise money for charity, such as climbing mountains, running marathons or sitting in baths of baked beans, break themselves just to provide betterment to the beneficiaries of the charity or do they do it also for their satisfaction of overcoming the challenge and perhaps for fun?


I have spoken to a number of individuals who like myself and mostly much more than myself devote time to charities, communities and organisations and most, if not all agree that regardless of the cost to themselves there is certainly a desire to help others, there is always an underlying individual enjoyment, satisfaction and long and short term benefit to themselves that keeps them going.


This is ‘Enlightened Self-Interest’, quite distinct from altruism and which Wikipedia describes as ‘a philosophy in ethics which states that persons who act to further the interests of others, ultimately serve their own self-interest’.


I was first introduced to this term a couple of years ago by the current Green Party candidate for Bristol West, Darren Hall, who at the time of writing this, looks to stand a fine chance of gaining the seat. After investigating the meaning, I felt it was the perfect term for the ‘stuff’ I get engaged in outside of work and in my view should be sufficient cause for others to do more.


I should make this clear, that I thoroughly enjoy engineering and designing. I put in a lot of effort and get a lot of satisfaction out of it and hopefully many of the clients and co-professionals I have worked with will attest to my engineering and project management proficiency.


I have never been a particularly sporty person, so after the drinking and clubbing phase of life, many of my activities in my personal time have been defined by my convictions to improve our industry toward better efficiency and collaborative working practices and provide a responsible, sustainable contribution to society and our communities.


I therefore initially got involved with the Forum for the Built Environment to set up opportunities for young construction and property industry professionals, like myself at the time, to practice networking and social skills within the industry.


Similarly, my role within Constructing Excellence in Bristol, particularly in leading, arranging and presenting at workshops and seminars aims to promote best practice and shared learning in sustainability, localism and community engagement and to bring together all.


I often feel that some of the work that our industry undertakes can be counterintuitive to ensuring a sustainable and equitable world for current and future generations. Is it right for example to be supporting and promoting wholesale redevelopment and new build projects and the immense utilisation of limited resources, where localised, targeted improvements and refurbishments could be more sustainable?


I therefore feel a commitment to compensating or offsetting personal contributions to this by supporting communities, organisations and social enterprises by drawing upon skillsets and experiences that are unique to our industry.


This is most evident in my work as a Director and Trustee of Ambition Lawrence Weston, in an area of high deprivation and unemployment. I not only help advise the ALW board on management, but also in advising on the asset transfer of a dilapidated youth centre and guiding the community’s developments of a healthy-living hub and a community led housing scheme development.


I am also an active board member and Director of Bristol Green Doors, a well-known and highly regarded community interest company, whose aim is to promote and refurbishment of existing domestic properties to reduce water and primarily energy consumption through application of improved energy efficiency first and energy generation second. Our goal is to make this so commonplace that the cost of materials and labour reduces as experience and technology improves that the opportunity is available to every homeowner and landlord at affordable levels.


However, although there is an overarching desire to improve the opportunity for others, I also openly acknowledge that I have always been aware that there is a short term and long term advantage for me to get involved.


Sometimes the benefits are clear cut and immediate; for example, when I set up the young professionals networking group, it was for my benefit as well as others to improve my own network and networking skills and improve the profile of my company in the local market, generate new workload and therefore solidify my future and my work with CEBC improves my own knowledge and understanding and also widens my network of useful contacts.


Sometimes the benefits are less obvious and deferred: for example, I got involved with the various boards and different roles as it diversified my skillset and experience at board level, so that when an opportunity arose in my career, I stood out from other candidates as having that experience.


Many people know I get involved in these organisations and that I do give my own time to them and I often get asked how I find the time, particularly with a small family and an ongoing eco-refurbishment of my own house. I won’t lie, it helps to have a very understanding wife and flexible employers, but it does not take much time; a couple of meetings in the evenings after work each month, perhaps the odd Saturday or Sunday every now and then, reading reports, minutes and newsletters or going through the accounts in the evening sitting on the sofa instead of perusing Twitter, Facebook or Linkedin, writing some correspondence or phoning over a lunchbreak.


A small amount of focused time, but with relevant experience is all it takes to make potentially a big difference to others.


My point to all of this is that our industry is full of professionals, who whether we feel salaries are adequate or not, are in a much better position with better opportunities than the greater majority. We have unique skillsets that are otherwise unaffordable and unobtainable to many communities or voluntary organisations, but that can make a significant difference for little input. But that does not mean that we have to be martyrs to the cause. I am certain that there is a community, school, charity, social enterprise or voluntary organisation that can use your skills and provide you with a very good reason for getting involved.


By Jamie Siggers, Partner