Sustainability and Engineering

This past weekend, in Austin, TX, ESW held it's first Chapter Leaders Summit. Though more information on this event will be posted on the site soon, I wanted to call out here an interesting discussion that evolved at one point somewhat unintentionally yet organically and provide a few thoughts. That discussion centered on a key word in our organization's name: "sustainable." The conversation that emerged began a dialogue simply asking "What does 'sustainability' mean?"

Many different organizations define sustainability in their own context. ESW has its own philosophy on what the term means as well. Yet with such a statement and a mandate to uphold the principles of sustainability, it is important to revisit from time to time what this actually means, and the conference provided the perfect venue for this.

For those to whom sustainability is a relatively new concept, a starting point is often the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report on Sustainable Development. This report succinctly defines sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Initially, this seems to be very comprehensive, yet with a little closer inspection, this definition leaves much to interpretation--what are "needs" and how do you define the "ability" of future generations to meet them? Furthermore, this says nothing about the quality of resources or life now or in the future. Since this report, other definitions have tried to clarify and update this framework to make it more specific for different applications, industries, or projects. A common, almost trite, expression today is the "triple bottom line"--economic, environmental, and social (also called people, planet, prosperity and a host of other catchy phrases). But even this definition fails to discuss the tradeoffs between the three pillars--what defines sustainability in each realm?

Yet despite these written definitions (many of which are instituted through policy), the connotation of sustainability today is often purely environmental. Sustainability means conserving resources, eliminating non-renewable resources, and reducing environmental degradation. After all, having an earth on which to live for generations is at the core of a sustainable future. Yet to think only along the environmental line ignores the reality that many will not act purely altruistically and change completely the economic and social framework to which we are accustomed simply for the sake of the environment. Furthermore, to expect us to do so is not necessarily sustainable. We already have a social framework at least at a community level that is sustainable. Until three years ago, I probably would have argued as well that we had found an economic framework that was sustainable too (the fall of Iceland, Greece, Spain, and other world economies makes me question this currently). So is it necessary to revise these models too for the sake of just the environmental?

I bring these up mostly as points of departure for thought--I don't have the silver bullet solution. I think that there are ways of solving the environmental challenges progressively without totally revamping the social and economic systems already in place. and for this reason, I think that one person, an engineer like myself, cannot define "sustainability." It is too large a concept to be left just to one person or one organization. Inherently the concept requires integration. It demands that we reach outside of our silos, outside of just "engineering" or whatever discipline and make bonds with others. It frustrates me to see sustainable engineering education programs that fail to bring in economists, sociologists, anthropologists, urban planners, architects, biologists, chemists, and a litany of other disciplines to their courses and round table discussions. As engineers, we tend to focus on a single aspect of a problem. We are very good at finding technical solutions to reduce the environmental impact of our work. Yet if this is as far as we take our concepts of sustainability, then we have not gone far enough. We must reach beyond the technical solutions to find out how our designs and projects impact the users, the financial backers, and other stakeholders.

As an example, I recently had a conversation with colleagues about defining a sustainable building. As a civil engineer in a sustainable design and construction program, this is a typical topic of conversation. as our discussion progressed, it became clear that we were all honing in on just a few metrics of "sustainability"--energy performance, water use, and embodied energy and carbon. What was interesting and ironic is that we had this conversation in an ostensibly "sustainable" building yet one about which we constantly complain because it is not comfortable for occupants and does not provide adequately for the uses we need (two social parameters). And yet we were not connecting our own perceived social needs with our definition of a sustainable building. Clearly, something was wrong in our dialogue.

While I may not have an answer for what sustainability means, I can offer a few thoughts on how to develop the concept, and it begins with the story I have just related. I would urge all who want to understand sustainability to have conversations with scholars, colleagues, and friends outside your own department or silo. You'll get a new perspective and perhaps realize an aspect of a problem you never saw before. With every project, whether for ESW, a class, or professionally, have these conversations and learn what others see as being sustainable. Find out what concepts are important to them and how to integrate them technically, socially, and economically. It is too easy sometimes to get caught up in a single definition of a word and not think outside your own world. Who knows, if you do, maybe it will lead to a new definition of what it means to be an "engineer" creating a "sustainable" world.