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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge


Review of core activities

The following is reflection on the student centred activities on the course, and  is an extract from the following paper . 

PDF Cruickshank H., Fenner R.A. (2010) “Exploring  key sustainable development themes through learning activities”  Proceedings of EESD 10, 5th International Conference in  Engineering Education for Sustainable Development, Chalmers University, Gothenburg Sweden, September 2010. 


The key themes each activity is designed to explore is shown in brackets at the end of each section. 


Residential Field Courses

These are important for creating  a group dynamic in which task sharing is important. The first two-day exercise takes place at the beginning of the programme and is an examination of three road schemes in southern England, loosely intended to explore the relationship of roads to landscape. Ostensibly students are asked to find a solution to the alignment of a new road past the World Heritage site at Stonehenge, but the reality is to expose them to how the complexity of constraints have led in practice to the inability to implement a solution to date, leaving the problem indefinitely unresolved. These road schemes (Twyford Down and Hindhead are also visited) are good examples of messy problems in which solutions must embrace non-technical as well as engineering features. (Complexity) 

The second, longer field trip is towards the end of the programme and centres on issues relating to the post-mining regeneration of Cornwall. A number of diverse industries are visited including tourist sites such as the Eden Project, china clay workings, urban regeneration projects in Camborne-Pool-Redruth, new eco- town proposals at St Austell, and the development of renewable energy sources such as the Cornwall Wave Hub and one of the several wind farms in the area. This provides a real world context around which many of the concepts developed on the course can be synthesised and applied in seeking how development projects and the provision of improved infrastructure services can be implemented to meet sustainability principles, at a level of operational detail. 

(Environmental limits, Change, Whole Life Costs, Other Disciplines)

Role Play

An important aspect to understanding the broader context in which engineering solutions must be delivered is to create an emotional attachment to the outcome of a decision. Experiencing something of the, perhaps irrational, passion displayed when decision stakes are high over an issue relating to a large infrastructure project can enable students to have more empathy towards stakeholders. Using role play based around cases of specific development projects can provide the circumstances to understand the behaviour of people within these contexts and to understand the linkages between certain problems, the behaviour and technologies within these contexts and the problems that result. Most importantly it can encourage contextual thinking (Dielman and  Husingh, 2006). 

An effective exercise is to use role plays such as Puerto Mauricio (van der Wansem,  Dyke. and Susskind (2003)) based on a fictional coastal town in which a large and culturally significant parcel of land is about to be sold. Students take on the role of a variety of stakeholders and try to reach agreement on the development plans for the area. The exercise is designed to demonstrate the mutual gains approach to negotiation and consensus building in which mutually advantageous solutions are sought so that it isn’t necessary that for one party to win, the other must lose. (Tradeoffs, Uncertainty)

Having experienced the emotional attachment associated with a stakeholder role students are then required to work in small groups and analyse a series of real development projects through interviewing current stakeholders such as developers, government officials and planning officers, objectors and end users.  The issues which emerge are collated and discussed in a follow up two-day workshop and form the basis of a backcasting exercise (People, Change). 

A second exercise is based around the enactment of a formal public enquiry, in front of a “planning inspector” played by a real professional expert in this area. Students prepare a Proof of Evidence statement and present this from their stakeholder perspective. The engineering projects which have been used are real cases of i) a solid waste incinerator, ii) a tidal barrage scheme, and iii) a large mixed development project in a regional city. A contrasting approach is taken on the second day in which a decision is reached through a less adversarial negotiation and consensus building approach. The final day provides a de-brief in which the students reflect, first in role, then out of role on the dynamics and outcomes of each process.  (Uncertainty, People, Tradeoffs). 

Another role play, run over the course of an afternoon, focuses on the process undertaken to determine EU regulation.  It is led by a senior civil servant from DEFRA and is based on the negotiations around phasing out fluorochemicals.  Groups of students negotiate from a number of perspectives representing governments, industries of various types, and pressure groups.  The findings are surprisingly close to the real results that took around 18 months of high-level negotiation to achieve.  This exercise helps students to appreciate the process of policy making but also the way in which apparently intractable differences can be negotiated.  It also provides a practical lesson in ensuring that the  perfect does not become the enemy of the good by being able to debrief and examine the places where concessions had to be made in order to arrive at consensus. 

(Change, Environmental limits, People, Uncertainty)

Change challenges and strategy

Every  student  is required to identify and undertake a personal change challenge.  The scale and impact of the challenge adopted is of less significance than the experience of undertaking the change and feeling the emotional aspects of success and frustration encountered.  This then enhances students’ ability to appreciate the ways in which to instigate a change and make it successful and this can then be demonstrated through a follow-on assignment to produce a strategy for organisation change.  This is usually targeted at an organisation where students have worked previously or where they intend to work following completion of the course.  As such, a number of these strategies have actually been implemented, thus bringing the theoretical aspects of the course clearly in line with the practical implementation that students will engage in after graduating.  

(Change, People)


Dielman and Huisingh (2006) describe in detail the benefits of playing games as a way of learning for Sustainable Development, as “they simulate mutually accepted rules, roles, conditions and assumptions”. As well as a number of well known short games such as the nine dot game, stranded on the moon, and framing the problem, two more extensive games are used during the course typically each taking a 4 hour afternoon session

The first of these is a modified version of Fishbanks  (Meadows 2004) in which fleets of boats of different sizes and owned by a range of operators from families to multinational corporations seek to optimize their fishing catches and profit whilst staying in business. A computer simulation provides information on the overall size of the diminishing fish stock but this is not revealed to the participants until the end, so decisions on how each fleet deploys its boats has to be made with imperfect information. The game is a good illustration of the tragedy of the commons and provides a rich opportunity to debrief on many of the core themes described earlier.  

The modifications to the original game include descriptors of the various company profiles and different business motivations.  This crossover with the role play aspects explored earlier in the course allows students to take more of a vested interest in the results of the game.  It is interesting to note that during the years of running this game with consecutive course cohorts the final state of the fish stocks is heading towards a more sustainable level than in the early trials.  This is perhaps due to the timing of the game later in the course and the increasing emphasis on trade-offs and holistic rather than selfish viewpoints developed through the activities described above and in other aspects of the MPhil. (Uncertainty, Environmental limits)

The second game is a modified version of Building Futures (RIBA/CABE 2008) originally designed as a tool to help communities think about the future of their neighbourhood.  The game is used to explore the issue of trade-offs in town planning where various options have designated ‘points’ associated with them and participants must allocate a ‘spend’ of those points against a planning timeline while also meeting some overarching objectives.  Analysis of this game allows students to reflect on the need to balance early wins with long-term plans and to address the diverse needs and desires of different members of a community.  The aim is to encourage students to look for non-technical as well as the more traditional engineering solutions.  (Change, People, Whole-life costs) 

A new Technology Uptake Game is also being developed  by  us  for use on the course using a model of the uptake of household water treatment systems in India, in which the players take on the role of an NGO and have  to allocate resources between various activities (such as expanding the system, promotion, education, production, subsidy and so on) with the objective of maximising the number of biosand water filters in continued use after a 20 year simulation period. Like the Building Futures Game players have finite resources to allocate and therefore need to make trade-offs between the ideals and as with the Fishbanks Game the model provides only partial feedback information to the players to influence their decision making.  (Tradeoffs, Uncertainty)

Systems thinking

The need to approach problems systemically and to recognize the influence of non-linear dynamics and feedback loops is a vital theme through the whole programme. This is introduced on the very first morning when each student is given the book “The Hidden Connections” (Capra 2002) to read during  the first month . This then forms the basis of discussions in which students critique Capra’s ideas and begin to embrace the benefits of a systems approach to issues. Several simple and short exercises are used to introduce ideas relating to stocks and flows, and the impact of delays in a system response. 

The Technology Uptake Game is based on a systems dynamics model which provides partial feedback information to the players with random natural and political events occurring at intervals through the game play.  This game builds on the lessons from Capra’s book and allows students to experience some of the complexity of applying technology or policy interventions in a simulated  real situation.

A formal coursework assignment also reinforces the need to see problems in a non-linear way by requiring students to prepare a cognitive map of a short piece of text, and to use this to comment on the position of each stakeholder. This is followed with an introduction to Vensim software (  and a task to draw a causal loop diagram of the key components and inter-relationships for one of the following: Water supply for rural communities in a developing country; transport policy for a UK city; siting of an onshore wind farm; manufacture of a mobile phone; or production of biodiesel from agricultural feedstock. Students are asked to comment on appropriate location of the system boundary, feedback mechanisms, key stakeholders and their positions, and possible intervention points. (Complexity)

Multi criteria decision making

An exercise in constructing a decision using the Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP) is based around choosing a sustainable retrofit option to reduce the carbon footprint in a domestic home. Criteria to be considered include cost, reduction in GHG emissions and ease of installation and four alternative options are evaluated: sealing the building envelope, on-site energy generation, installation of energy efficient appliances, and home monitoring with smart performance meters. Students are encouraged to make their own informed judgement to determine the relative pair-wise comparison of the criteria, (e.g. x is twice as important as y, y is five times more important than z etc.) with a brief comment on the rationale used.  A single preferred alternative is identified, and the exercise repeated to understand how sensitive the outcome is to the choice of weightings. (Complexity, Other disciplines)

Awareness of literature and viewpoints from other disciplines

A popular activity, especially for students from a traditional engineering background, is to ask them to review a book of their choice drawn from classic texts on Sustainable Development. These include: Silent Spring (Carson 1962), Limits to Growth- the 30 year Update (Meadows et al 2004),  Gaia (Lovelock 1979), Development as Freedom (Sen, 1999), Ecological Economics (Daly and Farley 2003),  Cradle to Cradle (McDonough and Braungart, 2002). The reviews have been highly creative and presented in a range of different styles, even including in one instance the transcript of an imaginary radio interview. Importantly the review then forms the basis for a commentary on how the text addresses one or more of the themes laid out earlier in this paper. (Other disciplines)

Management of Technology Innovation Consultancy Project

This is carried out in teams over an eight-week period with each group working for a real external industrial Client on some business aspect of their operation. The terms of reference of each project are agreed at the outset and can vary considerably but must address the problem from a sustainability perspective and take a whole life cost approach in any analysis. This is an opportunity for local companies to harness the technical and management skills of the MPhil students to focus on a specific management problem.  (Whole life costs).


Photo credit: Owen

Photo credit: Owen

Photo credit: Repetto/Owen