Inspiring Civil Engineers to Design a Better Future

Inspiring Civil Engineers to Design a Better Future

John Donaghy, civil engineer on AECOM's rail team, shares how he works to empower communities and designers to build a better future for all.

John Donaghy, civil engineer on AECOM's rail team, shares how he works to empower communities and designers to build a better future for all.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015 - 9:05am

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AECOM Impact blog

John Donaghy, civil engineer on AECOM's rail team, shares how he works to empower communities and designers to build a better future for all.

Just over a year ago, I graduated from the University of Salford with a master’s degree in civil engineering. I was excited about my career and working on projects that would shape the environment in which we live. However, I realised that I had large skill gaps in areas that I felt were important in designing a positive built environment. With one-third of the urban population living below the poverty line, I felt it was important for me to connect with and understand wider social issues. This has led me on a journey in which I have immersed myself in the fields of social impact, sustainable development, and 21st century leadership.

The journey started with simple questions: Why do we design? What are our roles and responsibilities? With this in mind, I wanted to explore where civil engineering fit into the wider picture, and understand the public perception of engineers and how we could improve our representation in society. The most important takeaway from this journey was that our skills as civil engineers are appreciated; we have incredible problem-solving and project-management skills that can make a real difference in society.

This led me to develop my own ideas and social action campaign around civil engineering and engineering outreach to young people. This campaign was unsuccessful as I found it difficult to connect with and bring people on board. Failure is, however, only part of a journey as it provides the foundation to learn and move forward. The next part of the journey took me to Southeast Asia with the United Nations University for Peace to complete a diploma in social innovation. I believed the course would enable me to connect the themes I had been studying with high-level strategic thinking.

The course shifted my mind set. You can only do so much from a distance — in order to design a better future, we need to connect and build upon the potential of the people and community we are working for. Going on this journey enabled me to set up Engineering Design for Social Innovation (EDSI), which explores the different concepts of grass roots social innovation and how they can be integrated into strategic design. EDSI aims to empower designers and the community to build a better future. We need to unlock the human resources in the design process in order to bridge the gap between available resource and increasing demands.

Over the last year, I have met passionate leaders in their fields — designers who are driven by the necessity to create a better future for their community. I have been challenged and continuously stretched by different perspectives, ideas and concepts. This experience has enabled me to bring a creative energy into my design. This journey started with one simple step. I gave myself permission to pursue, to place the why before the logic. As designers, we need to give each other permission to bring our identity into engineering. It’s within this freedom, this empathy, that we will design a better future.

Check out more blog posts on industry insights on the AECOM Impact blog!

With nearly 100,000 employees — including architects, engineers, designers, planners, scientists and management and construction services professionals — serving clients in more than 150 countries around the world following the acquisition of URS, AECOM is a premier, fully integrated infrastructure and support services firm. AECOM is ranked as the #1 engineering design firm by revenue in Engineering News-Record magazine’s annual industry rankings. The company is a leader in all of the key markets that it serves, including transportation, facilities, environmental, energy, oil and gas, water, high-rise buildings and government. AECOM provides a blend of global reach, local knowledge, innovation and technical excellence in delivering solutions that create, enhance and sustain the world’s built, natural and social environments. A Fortune 500 company, AECOM companies, including URS Corporation and Hunt Construction Group, had revenue of approximately $19.5 billion during the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2014. More information on AECOM and its services can be found at

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