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21st January 2021, Virtual Discussion

"The challenge for UK engineers is to realise – as they did at the turn of the twentieth century – that other countries are starting to dominate how best practice is agreed.  Without action, this will have a major impact on UK competitiveness and influence. ” - Scott Steedman

Cartoon by Roger Penwill, architect and cartoonist

Standards Cartoon.jpg

The Great Game of the late nineteenth century was fought over the barren steppes of central Asia, as competing powers sought to control supply chains and access to precious resources. The Great Game today has moved on, but the ambition is the same. Today countries seek to control the shaping of international standards, standards that facilitate trade, innovation and economic success.

Standards are not regulation. Only 10-15% of British Standards (over 85% of which are international and European regional standards, all influenced by UK experts) are used by government to support the delivery of regulatory policy and even then, almost all of these are voluntary. There is no education on the true role of standards as knowledge in any university or business school in the UK.

The challenge for UK engineers is to realise – as they did at the turn of the twentieth century – that other countries are starting to dominate how best practice is agreed and without action, this will have a major impact on UK competitiveness and influence. We are seeing this play out today in the controversy over the role of Huawei in our national telecoms infrastructure, but we have seen it also in the behaviours of US manufacturers (aerospace, construction products, software) for many years.

The UK has been at the top table in international standards work alongside the US, Germany, France, Japan and China from the outset and is a global leader in policy and strategy. However, unless British experts step up their participation in shaping the international consensus, we risk losing our place and influence over the standards which underpin our UK economy, society and the environment.

Standards are how countries exert soft power in the modern age. Of the five top asks by the US in the US-UK trade negotiations, two are on standards. Yet British engineers are largely oblivious to the new game. How can we raise awareness and understanding amongst the engineering professions in the UK of the risks and huge opportunities that come from engagement through soft power?

The Speaker

The discussion was introduced by Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng FICE.

Scott Steedman is Director-General, Standards and an executive director on the Board of BSI Group, where he is responsible for BSI’s activity as a global standards organisation and its role as the National Standards Body, appointed by the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He is a member of the Department for International Trade’s Strategic Trade Advisory Group, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s Task Force on Telecoms Diversification led by Lord Livingston, supporting the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government to develop new standards on competence in the built environment in line with the Building Safety Bill 2021 and a member of the China Standardization International Expert Committee, which advises the State Council. He has been Vice President (policy) for the International Standards Organisation (ISO) since 2017. He is a former Vice President of the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Civil Engineers. He was appointed CBE in 2010 for services to engineering.

Introductory Presentation

The Speaker introduced the subject as one that touches all of us but which, after eight years at BSI, he sees that very few people in the UK know anything about, even engineers. He stressed that standards are being used increasingly by other countries to pursue their own agendas and to support their own trade, innovation and economic success. Influencing standards brings competitive advantage. The subject is confusing because governments and the media often refer to standards when they mean ‘rules’ or regulatory requirements, but consensus standards developed by stakeholder experts are not legally binding (in almost all cases) and should be thought of as best practice rather than a compliance tool. Only 10-15% of British Standards are used by government to support the delivery of regulatory policy and even then, the vast majority of these are voluntary, respecting the performance-based market regulatory model that covers most products and services in the UK. Over 85% of British Standards today (around 37,000 in total) are international and European regional standards, all influenced by UK stakeholder experts through the principle of national delegation.

He emphasised the lack of education in UK universities and business schools on the true role of standards as an enabler for performance improvement. Where standards are taught, they are seen as a compliance tool. People talk about ‘meeting standards’, not ‘using standards’, conflating the concept of a consensus of best practice with a regulatory or contractual requirement.

Though the UK has been at the top table in international standards work alongside the US, Germany, France, Japan and China for decades, he said, we need to step up our participation in shaping the international consensus, or we risk losing our place and influence over the standards which underpin our UK economy, society and the environment.

The urgency for UK engineers to get more involved in international standards reflects the growing geo-political dimension to the use of standards, as countries seek to exert soft power in the modern age through the promotion of their own innovation or preferred business practices. Standards that enable interoperable engineering solutions are the key to avoiding lock-in to proprietary technologies, for example in telecoms or other infrastructure where the UK relies on foreign providers. Standards feature heavily in the US demands over the Technical Barriers to Trade chapter in the US-UK trade negotiations. Yet British engineers are largely oblivious to the new ‘great game’.

Post-EU exit, post-transition, the UK needs to assert its influence over global standards more than ever. As a founder member of the IEC in 1906 and ISO in 1947 (both organisations originating from conferences hosted in London), the UK still holds one of the six permanent seats in the international system, alongside France, Germany, US, Japan and more recently, China. If the UK loses its influence over the shaping of international and European regional standards, UK industry, consumers and government could be forced to accept standards written by others, becoming a standards taker, not a standards maker.

Six questions were raised:

  • How could we raise the profile of standards with engineering companies and academics and increase the number of engineers participating in national and international standards work?

  • How can we brief chief executives, civil servants and ministers on the true value of standards as a tool for industry transformation and competitive advantage?

  • How could we use standards in the UK to increase public trust in the quality, safety and predictability of engineering projects?

  • How could we encourage standards to be used as a tool to drive sustainability, productivity and efficiency gains on major projects?

  • How could we accelerate the use of international standards in other countries, particularly across the Commonwealth and developing nations, as a driver for sustainable development? 

  • There is no education at all in the UK on the true role of standards in the economy. How could we promote education on the role of standards as knowledge in our engineering and business schools?


These questions were addressed by five discussion groups, which all addressed the first question and then focused on one other. Rapporteurs summary presentations brought together the discussions:

Profile raising for Standards

Participants agreed that profile was lacking and that the curriculum for engineers and other professions needed to include training in the use and the development of standards as setting out ‘what good looks like’ and an enabler for industry. Standards need to get away from an image of being restrictive and obstructive and participation in standards committees needs to be seen and presented not as a chore, but as an accolade, a part of an engineer’s professional development. Participants felt that encouraging younger engineers to participate in standards development processes would be enormously useful but needed to be rewarded and encouraged by senior engineers.

Promoting the value of standards

There was agreement that the role of standards as aspirational practices bringing value to the user and not just a compliance tool could and should be better understood by CEOs and that the Professional Engineering Institutions (PEI) should be encouraged to campaign around this topic. Some thought that the value of standards should be seen more widely than through a UK competitive lens alone but reflecting the global dimension and challenges such as climate change and the pandemic. Deep concern was expressed about the way in which standards were sometimes ignored, with potentially very serious consequences, such as in the Grenfell fire tragedy.

Performance improvement through standards

The idea of standards enabling performance improvement was felt to go to the heart of understanding what standards should be about, not seen as a regulatory baseline, but aspirational.  Standards do not just exist as technical specifications for products but also address business processes (quality, environmental management, governance), behaviours (smart working) and good business practice (risk management, customer care).  Any campaign on the value of standards needs to recognise that because of the power of the stakeholder consensus model, standards can address ethical issues (for example the ethics of AI), as well as technical and business issues. Fundamentally, encouraging more widespread use of standards for business performance improvement (for example to improve cybersecurity in small companies) can’t be left to the specialists but should engage policy makers at the highest level. Creating public awareness of, and interest in, standards development is also an important route to building trust in what engineers do and to reducing risk.

Promoting standards for sustainable development

It was agreed that standards are not only key to economic growth, but they have an important role in advancing societal and environmental good.  New and improved standards will be essential for the world to tackle issues such as climate change, public issues including health (especially relevant in the current pandemic), public safety and ensuring a more sustainable global economy.

Promoting standards through education

A number of suggestions were made on how to include the role of standards, their development and use in education courses, though there were obvious concerns that making space in any existing curricula would be difficult. The importance of ethics and integrity in the consensus building process was a strong hook which would also attract students. Standards making should be seen as part of building the future, not just the preserve of ‘old grey engineers’ but a badge of honour, part of the career development of academic staff and recognised in exercises such as the Research Excellence Framework. The role of the PEIs in promoting standards work as part of Continuous Professional Development should not be underestimated.

Concluding Remarks

Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal, as President of the Society and Chair of the discussion, added her own observations on the subject.

In conclusion, the Speaker reflected a few of the key themes from the discussion, welcoming the responses from the rapporteurs to his presentation. He focused on how standards should be seen as an enabler, a voluntary tool for performance improvement. Standards should be as international as possible (common standards used everywhere would be a good outcome). They should promote innovation and focus on performance, being output or outcome driven rather than prescriptive. He welcomed the idea that there should be a campaign to raise public awareness, including easy to understand explanations of what standards are and case studies of benefits. This should promote the advantage of using standards to build trust, reduce risk and bring direct benefits to organisations through higher productivity, reduced insurance premiums and legal costs. He welcomed the interest from many contributors in the important role of voluntary standards in building trust and embedding ethical practices across business, complementing the delivery of regulatory policy. Beyond the role of standards to describe products and business process, he highlighted the growing amount of work to develop consensus standards setting out the principles of better business behaviour, for example principles of diversity and inclusivity in the workplace, or frameworks that build a common understanding of what good business practice looks like for entire supply chains.

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