The climate crisis and the need to think more sustainably has led to the creation of a global campaign to build a movement of activist engineers whose work will a more positive impact on the world around us.
Many organisations worldwide are putting sustainability at the heart of their endeavours and are radically rethinking their products and processes to reduce overall resource consumption.
New concepts such as the circular economy provide a more sustainable model where raw materials are designed to be kept longer in production cycles and repeatedly used through remanufacturing and reusability, therefore generating much less waste. Indeed, the circular economy provides a reminder that product design can move beyond the linear process of ‘take, make and dispose’ — representing an alternative approach that can deliver better results.
But the shift to more sustainable thinking isn’t only about mega-factors such as addressing the climate crisis and resource depletion — more prosaic reasons also come into play. Firstly, sustainable product design can act as a compelling means of challenging conventional thinking, resulting in new approaches that can increase efficiencies and reduce costs. It can also provide an impetus for innovation, potentially opening new markets, business models and revenue streams. Research has shown that more sustainable organisations have greater staff satisfaction and better retention levels, with many younger engineers wanting to work for companies that can prove their environmental credentials. Related to this, sustainable operations can positively affect brand reputation, particularly in markets such as consumer electronic goods.
Indeed, according to the latest research by Deloitte, consumers are increasingly making conscious decisions with sustainability and the environment in mind. For example, more than half of consumers now view durability as an essential factor when making a purchase, while 38 percent would be prepared to pay more for a longer-lasting product. In short, sustainability is about long-term business viability — the world is changing, and companies must respond if they want to survive.


But what does sustainability mean at a practical, hands-on level? How can organisations and their engineers achieve grand-scale ambitions of creating products that fit more harmoniously into the environment and with minimum disruption or degradation of natural ecosystems?
For organisations such as RS, it has required a fundamental rethink of all environmental, social and governance (ESG) activities, with input from employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders and local communities. Subsequently, the launch of an ESG action plan commits RS to reaching net-zero from direct operations by 2030. At a top-line level, that means dramatically increasing renewable energy such as solar, using more energy-efficient systems and electrifying transport fleets across operations.
Closing the loop on waste is also a critical consideration. Within the next decade, 100 percent of packaging used at RS will be widely reusable, recyclable or compostable, and zero waste from direct operations will be sent to landfill. And sustainability is also about decarbonising the supply chain. As a result, RS is working in collaboration with industry partners to help them cut carbon by setting science-based targets by 2025.


Sustainability project
Good Air Canary Project
Those are just some of the company-wide efforts aimed at boosting sustainability. But engineers across the globe are also coming together to pool knowledge and ideas and do things differently. Last year, RS launched its DesignSpark #ActivistEngineering programme to inspire engineers to put engineering responsibility at the heart of their product designs and to use their skills to make a positive impact on the lives of people and the planet. 
To kick off the programme, DesignSpark launched its first community project using the concept of ‘citizen science’ to tackle poor air quality. The ‘Air Quality’ project sought to address the challenges of rising air pollution - mainly indoor pollution caused by airborne particles, household odours and gases, carbon dioxide, and more. The project aimed to unite the more than one million members of the DesignSpark engineering community to build and deploy a global network of portable indoor air quality monitors for the home, workplace, or other public indoor spaces and share the data collected back to the community.
To support the project, RS DesignSpark worked with various partners to develop a cloud-enabled open-source prototyping platform — The DesignSpark Environmental Sensor Development Kit. The kit consists of open-source hardware and code and has a set of sensor modules plugged into a Raspberry Pi single-board computer with a touchscreen and wireless connectivity to connect to the cloud.
Over the past 12 months, the Air Quality project has resulted in various innovative ideas from the DesignSpark engineering community, exploring different ways to monitor or improve air quality. These are some of the examples of the results:
Good Air Canary → Too much CO2 in your workspace stifles productivity and creativity and makes you feel tired and unwell. Once the sensor detects increasing levels of CO2, the canary will alert you.
Mindful Droid → Schoolgirl Ella Kissa-Debrah died after an asthma attack linked to nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter exposure. The Mindful Droid school commute robot encourages drivers to be more conscious and reduce their emissions.
Breathing Dress → Based on your location, what will your lungs look like in 10 years’ time? This LED-enabled dress paints a picture of your lung health. 
The Dream Lantern → We spend a third of our lives in bed. Our body releases VOCs and CO2. What if your window could automatically open and close, to balance health and comfort?
The Interactive Air Quality Map → Using sensor data to provide communities with information about the air quality in their local area so that they can better protect themselves and work together to make improvements.
Breathe Better Bear → Is there a risk of wildfire smoke in your area? This bear will let you know. His sensors accurately represent the air quality index to help people decide how much outdoor activity is healthy.
sustainability project
Breathe Better Bear Project

Pop-Up Particle Pavilion → This pavilion can be installed in different locations to monitor CO2 levels and provide space and indoor air quality solutions.
Smart Glacier → Are you using natural gas to heat your home in winter? CO is a silent killer that is colourless, tasteless, and odourless. If the sensor detects CO, the glacier will start to melt.


The incredible diversity of ideas from the first year of the #ActivistEngineering campaign shows that the spirit of innovation is alive and well within the engineering community. And it is worth remembering that an interest in sustainable design can be rewarding on a personal and professional level. Many forward-looking organisations recognise the value that sustainable thinking can bring in delivering higher levels of innovation and creativity. 
A commitment to sustainable product design can also make an organisation more attractive to the future workforce, which is crucial in an era of skill shortages. Graduates and younger engineers have lived most of their lives against the backdrop of the climate crisis, and many have a personal stake in the circular economy and the broader issue of Net Zero. Sustainability is, therefore, a valuable recruitment tool for the brightest and best talent — the very people who will be instrumental in helping to deliver a greener tomorrow.

sustainability RS Group
Pete Wood, Head of
DesignSpark Experience,
RS Group
This article was written by Pete Wood, Head of DesignSpark Experience, RS Group.

In addition to the #ActivistEngineering campaign, RS DesignSpark has also published a new whitepaper entitled KEEN TO BE GREEN: AN ENGINEER’S GUIDE TO SUSTAINABLE PRODUCT DESIGN. The whitepaper is aimed at those taking those first few steps toward sustainability within engineering, focusing on the macro-trends behind sustainability and how companies can empower their engineers to think differently. There’s also a checklist of pointers to minimize materials, energy and labour use.