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Beyond the Social License to Operate: Training Socially Responsible Engineers to Contend with Corporate Frameworks for Community Engagement

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Community Engagement Division Technical Session 2

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Community Engagement Division

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Greg Rulifson P.E. USAID Orcid 16x16

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Greg is currently a AAAS Fellow at USAID working to improve the environmental performance of humanitarian assistance. Greg earned his bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering with a minor in Global Poverty and Practice from UC Berkeley where he acquired a passion for using engineering to facilitate developing communities’ capacity for success. He earned his master's degree in Structural Engineering and Risk Analysis from Stanford University. His PhD work at CU Boulder focused on how student's connections of social responsibility and engineering change throughout college as well as how engineering service is valued in employment and supported in the workplace.

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Jessica Mary Smith Colorado School of Mines

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Jessica M. Smith is Associate Professor in the Engineering, Design & Society Division at the Colorado School of Mines and Director of Humanitarian Engineering Graduate Programs. Her research and teaching bring anthropological perspectives to bear on questions of social responsibility and engineering. In 2016 the National Academy of Engineering recognized her Corporate Social Responsibility course as a national exemplar in teaching engineering ethics. Her book Extracting Accountability: Engineers and Corporate Social Responsibility will be published by The MIT Press in 2021. She is also the co-editor of Energy and Ethics? (Wiley-Blackwell, 2019) and the author of Mining Coal and Undermining Gender: Rhythms of Work and Family in the American West (Rutgers University Press, 2014). She regularly publishes in peer-reviewed journals in anthropology, science and technology studies, engineering studies, and engineering education. Her research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the British Academy.

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The “social license to operate” (SLO) has emerged as a key industry framework for conceptualizing the need to responsibly engage communities. The social license loosely refers to public acceptance, but the term is usually invoked without clear definition [1]. Advocates for the SLO define it as “the level of tolerance, acceptance, or approval of an organization’s activities by the stakeholders with the greatest concern about the activity” [2]. From its original use in the pulp/paper and mining industries in the 1990s, the term has since migrated to chemical manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, construction, and biotechnology. One review found that “social license to operate” appeared in about 10 articles each year from 1997-2002, but in more than 2,000 articles in 2016 [3]. Yet scholars raise strident critiques of the SLO. First, it can treat communities as manageable risks, precluding more trusting and collaborative partnerships necessary for sustainable development [4]. Second, private forms of governance can detract from rights-based community engagement frameworks, such as the United Nations mandated Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), for projects involving indigenous peoples. Third, it provides no guidance on “navigating power inequalities, divergent interests, and diverse cultures of communication and governance” [5].

We investigate how a critical take on corporate social responsibility shapes the ways in which engineering students conceptualize and critique the SLO. Drawing on pre- and post-surveys of 172 students who participated in our research, we explore: 1) how they defined the SLO; 2) whether and how those definitions changed through their course learning; and 3) the extent to which they recognized that the SLO can hinder a company’s overall social responsibility goals. We conclude by providing recommendations for engineering educators who seek to contrast industry models for community engagement with those that are grounded in justice-based frameworks.

[1] Martin Brueckner and Marian Eabrasu, “Pinning down the Social License to Operate (SLO): The Problem of Normative Complexity,” Resources Policy, July 1, 2018, and Eabrasu; Owen and Kemp, Extractive Relations. [2] Robert Boutilier and Ian Thomson, The Social License: The Story of the San Cristobal Mine (Routledge, 2018). For an earlier iteration see Ian Thomson and Robert Boutilier, “The Social Licence to Operate,” SME Mining Engineering Handbook, January 1, 2011, 1779–96. [3] Gehman, J., L. Lefsrud, and S. Fast . (2017). “Social License to Operate: Legitimacy by Another Name?,” Canadian Public Administration 60(2): 293–317. [4] Owen, J. R., & Kemp, D. (2013). Social licence and mining: A critical perspective. Resources Policy, 38(1), 29–35. [5] Delborne, J. A., Kokotovich, A. E., & Lunshof, J. E. (2020). Social license and synthetic biology: The trouble with mining terms. Journal of Responsible Innovation, 0(0), 1–18. In press.

Rulifson, G., & Smith, J. M. (2021, July), Beyond the Social License to Operate: Training Socially Responsible Engineers to Contend with Corporate Frameworks for Community Engagement Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36747

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