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A conversation about changing mindsets with John Kraus, CEO of Engineers Without Borders UK.

Interview n°7 of the Interview Series “Meet the changemakers” with John Kraus.

Engineers Without Borders UK

John joined Engineers Without Borders UK as CEO in March 2022.  Prior to this, he was Executive Director of the International Geosynthetics Society, promoting innovative materials and applications for sustainable outcomes in civil engineering worldwide. Previously, John was Head of Sustainable Urbanisation and Director External Affairs at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), which accredits over 130,000 professionals in all markets. At RICS, John led international research and sustainability programmes, and the adoption of international standards. Previously, John served as a UK diplomat, completing substantive postings to several European capitals, with a focus on multilateral issues including human rights and climate change. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability and the RSA.


Could you tell us about your background, your career and what led you to become interested and involved into topic related to sustainability? 

Most of my early career was as an official in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I wanted to work in government because it was an opportunity to make a difference. I believed that the UK was generally a positive influence in the world and that policies and government decisions were driven by evidence. However, my opinion gradually changed. Today, we are increasingly seeing governments that are less interested in evidence and are driven more by ideology. The UK is no longer in a position of responsible leadership and nor does it act in a way that truly takes into account the wellbeing of British citizens. 

Therefore, I left government service and became Director External Affairs for a professional body in the built environment, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. There I created the World Built Environment Forum, which aimed to bring together people from a wide range of professions to share their experience in key strategic areas: digitalisation, markets and geopolitics, and the natural and built environments. After RICS I joined the International Geosynthetics Society as Executive Director. People working with geosynthetics are justifiably enthusiastic about the use of these materials in infrastructure and their sustainability benefits. Then, around two years ago I was drawn to join Engineers Without Borders UK, a group of passionate changemakers in engineering. 

Net Zero targets and COP28

What do you think are the core challenges and priorities of the private sector when it comes

to meeting climate 2050 targets?  

Firstly, there is a clear skills shortage, which can be solved with the right investment. Companies need to find ways to reduce carbon emissions across Scopes 1, 2 and 3, and understand the impact the transition will have on their supply chain. For example, a low carbon economy will mean a shift in the countries where we source raw materials. Some companies will have to change their business model altogether. 

"Policy uncertainty is another important challenge. Government policy is an important factor for investment risk. If governments keep changing policy, then investors become wary and are reluctant to invest and this can deter investment in the low carbon transition."

As an example, the UK government says it wants more investment in green energy, but then issues new oil and gas licences in the North Sea. Governments need to be clear about policies and stick with them long term.

What role do you think the UK should take in the road to Net Zero?  

In the early 2000s, the UK was a leader in this sector. The Climate Change Act in 2008 was a good example. Working in the Foreign Office, I saw that other countries saw the UK as a leader on climate change. We had made good progress in decarbonising our economy, albeit not necessarily for climate change reasons but often for economic and political reasons. We are still decarbonising today, and the UK could be a leader again. But this requires us to match our words with actions. 

The UK was the powerhouse for the Industrial Revolution, and we could become the powerhouse for the Green Revolution. But we do not seem to have the determination or the ambition to make that happen. For me that is a missed opportunity.

One of the best things we can do to decarbonise is to reduce demand. A way for the government to do this is by helping people improve their home insulation and to roll out heat pumps. We have done very little to invest in infrastructure for EVs and have mistakenly left it all to the market.

"The final statement of COP28 uses the language ‘transition away from fossil fuels in the energy system’ may not be the bold step some people might think it to be."

Does the final agreement of COP28 to ‘transition away from fossil fuels in the energy system’ have any impact on the industry you work in and was this a successful COP28 in your opinion? 

It is too early to say. Even today we are not clear if the Paris Agreement was a success. I believe that the COP process is flawed, but it’s the only mechanism we have, so we have to make it work. COP is not unlike many other UN conferences. Countries are there to defend their own narrow interests, which they tend to define as protecting their status quo. This is a result of lobbying by companies and other vested interests. In the UK, the private donors fund political parties, especially the current party of government, who consequently act in donors’ interests. 

The final statement of COP28 uses the language ‘transition away from fossil fuels in the energy system’. It is important to pay attention to ‘in the energy system’. What does that really mean? It could be interpreted to exclude energy used outside of power generation: i.e. transport, manufacturing and agriculture. Therefore, it may not be the bold step some people might think it to be. 

A good outcome from COP28 is the call to treble the level of investment into renewable energy and energy efficiency by 2030. That means that countries now have to lay out their strategies to achieve this.  Also ending deforestation by 2030, and the agreement to the loss and damage fund. However, the amounts agreed are tiny compared to the estimates of  actual climate loss and damage of $4 trillion a year. 

Engineers Without Borders UK

The core statement of Engineers Without Borders UK is ‘to balance the needs of all people with the needs of our planet to ensure a safe & just future for all’, what are the core strategies the non-profit has set in place to achieve this? 

We are trying to reach a positive tipping point, where we change the culture and practice of engineering, so that it contributes to meeting the SDGs while respecting the planet’s natural limits and doing so in ways that are ethical and inclusive. By 2030 we aim to train up to 250,000 individuals in globally responsible practice, in the hope that this will create a tipping point in the industry. We aim to inspire people towards that change and to provide the skills to drive it. We take a twin-track approach: to reimagine higher education and to reshape engineering practice. 

"We take a twin-track approach: to reimagine higher education and to reshape engineering practice." 

For example, in the higher education space, and in partnership with Engineers Without Borders South Africa, we run the Engineering for People Design Challenge. The Challenge runs mainly in universities in the UK and Ireland, but also in Cameroon, South Africa and the US, involving around 12,000 students each year. We provide a detailed brief by working in equitable partnership with an underserved community, understanding their development needs, local climate, history, culture and the aspirations of the people. Students use this brief to identify viable context-appropriate engineering interventions to address specific needs such as sanitation or digital connectivity. This is the only programme within university engineering curricula that focuses primarily on the community, ahead of technical considerations. 

In the UK, we are looking at ways to create systems change within higher education. We are working with over 20 universities in a Systems Change Lab, co-hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering. The Lab is developing a “reimagined degree map” as a tool for educators to integrate global responsibility throughout degrees. The Map will launch in March 2024.

There is a clear need to upskill the workforce to adapt to new technologies developed to create a more sustainable world, how does Engineers Without Borders propose to do this? Could you discuss about the role of the Global Responsibility Competency Compass?  

At Engineering Without Borders UK, we are not involved in technical engineering skills. Rather, we provide skills that enable practitioners to apply their technical skills in a responsible way. This is where the Global Responsibility Competency Compass comes into play. The Compass takes our principal idea of global responsibility in engineering to develop practitioners’ critical competences, defined in terms of skills, knowledge and mindset.  The Compass helps practitioners to reflect on their – and their team’s - existing competencies and see how they can develop them further. Attached to the Compass is an online Learning Library of further resources. 

What are your main goals for the next few years? 

Our goal is to upskill 250 000 people by 2030. We have reached over 80,000 so far. We want to ramp that up. At the moment we are reaching around a quarter of UK undergraduates. If our efforts to change the curriculum and the education system succeed, we may be able to reach 100% of students. 

In terms of practitioners, one goal is to win the support of the Professional Engineering Institutes for the competences, ideally by using the Compass when assessing candidates for professional qualifications such as chartership.

"We want to change culture, systems and shift mindsets."

What are the main challenges in reaching those goals? 

We want to change culture, systems and shift mindsets. Those are all significant challenges and hard to accomplish. However, we are convinced of the importance of our work and determined to achieve change. 

In practical terms, through our work in universities, we see there is a slow pace to change in these institutions. The processes in higher education are rather rigid. There is a lack of incentives for educators to change and a range of barriers to overcome, which may be outside their – and our - direct control. But change is possible. 

Concluding questions

Are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to climate change and the future? 

I would say I am a realist. The evidence shows that we are heading towards a climate catastrophe. We are not taking adequate action to mitigate this trajectory. We are clinging onto a past that is not sustainable. Emissions are still increasing and global temperatures continue to rise. We must avoid complacency and wishful thinking such as relying on future technology to solve climate change. But we also have to remain optimistic that we can still turn it around. We cannot look back in ten years’ time and say we didn’t try. 

What advice would you have for young people who want to enter the engineering industry? 

Firstly, I’d encourage them to understand that engineering can be a major force for good. It can be a profession that is key to securing the health of our planet and the wellbeing of all people. There is a massive opportunity to make a lasting difference in this industry. 

Secondly, be brave and stand up for what you know to be right. Be a strong champion for sustainable practices because we urgently need them. 

Finally, if you want to make change happen, it is essential to be part of a supportive peer group, such as Engineers Without Borders. Get involved in our programmes or become a volunteer.


John Kraus interviewed by Natalia Vasnier for The Conference Corner. Feature cover image provided by John Kraus.


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