Whether you like the “s” word or not, sustainability is here; it’s all around us. As engineer’s, many of the actions we take every day are about managing the myriad of project issues that arise now, today; and managing issues to shape future outcomes and when everything goes right, delivering planned benefits at the end of a project. What many engineers don’t do, however, is recognize how the project they’re working on impacts both the local environment and the larger regional or global environment.
I know that during my career, sustainability wasn’t something that I overtly considered during initiating, planning or executing a project. Sure, when I was leading facility management efforts, I had the design review process include a line item for ensuring maintainability considerations of facility and infrastructure projects. A little later when I was building a house I made sure to use materials — roof tiles and siding for instance – that would result in less maintenance and a longer service life.
But these actions were more a result of experience and a good idea versus a conscious decision to assess a project from initiation through its life cycle for sustainability factors. In the world in which we implement our projects, whether business or public sector, I suggest we develop greater understanding of the challenges the global WE face. We recognize diminishing resources on earth, the long-term impacts of environmental degradation, and the changing weather patterns. When thinking about our future existence, we realize we will have to put in more effort to maintain the same quality of life. Sustainability is not just about human survival; it is about our quality of life – and the quality of life for generations to come – here on earth.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABILITY ANYWAY?
So what is sustainability? Well, it’s not a tangible item but a concept. It’s a general, comprehensive concept to protect our quality of life for the future. This could mean preserving the environment, conserving resources, forming beneficial collaborations, or selecting one type of material over another. It could mean using mass transit, recycling, planting a tree, or designing a detail that will result in less water or energy usage to construct and then maintain. There are a wide variety of activities, and there is also a wide scale for implementation. Conserving potable water ranges from taking a shorter shower to watering your garden; from a rainwater cistern to installing reclaimed water piping.
The term “sustainability” is interpreted and used in a multiple of ways, however, it basically means to operate in a way that may be sustained indefinitely. That is, to generate benefits or outcomes without depleting or destroying necessary resources.
A way of thinking about it is this: limiting the impact to the immediate and larger environments from now on wards. It doesn’t necessarily help if a project being executed today requires less energy and uses recycled materials, but requires the removal of a forested area in a location prone to erosion and localized flooding.
The main focus of several concepts around sustainability is that sustainable development results in a move towards economic prosperity, environmental protection and social equity. In general, developments in one dimension shouldn’t compromise the other two dimensions.
For instance, economic growth should not be carried out only to have it result in degradation of the environment. An example of this might be the Exxon Valdez supertanker accident that took place in 1989 in Prince William Sound, or maybe the current work underway to construct the new Keystone pipeline. There are definitive economic benefits and outcomes in either case as well as definite environmental downsides. Societal tensions also can be raised by economic or environmental actions, potentially leading to armed conflict, which has been seen in Iraq and Syria spurred by the construction of dams in Turkey on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Therefore, when a company, government or other entity intends to undertake a project, its impact on all three dimensions – social, economic, and environmental – should be taken into account. The goal? Harmony between the three components.
As individuals, each of us understands that knowing about something and doing something are two entirely different things. A good example is healthy eating and exercise. How does this apply to sustainability, the environment and more importantly, your roll as an engineer? Like this: the warning signs from development in coastal areas prone to flooding and hurricanes; oil spills from drilling operations; and major natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 or the Fukushima Nuclear Plant Crisis resulting from the tsunami and earthquake of 2011 mean that projects we work on, whether residential developments along the coast line in North Carolina or major industrial facilities near St. Louis or Portland need our involvement in assessing the societal, environmental and economic aspects of project sustainability. Being bearable or equitable isn’t enough. The project needs to be viable.
PEOPLE, PLANET AND PROFIT
To make a project viable, that is optimizing the balance between the three dimensions of social equity, environmental protection and economic prosperity, more business organizations are looking at projects through the lenses of people, planet, and profit.
This is a concept by which a company makes it decisions by considering people – it’s employees as well as stakeholders and society – the planet, that is the environment, and the profit benefit. Most companies exist in large part to generate shareholder value, which means profit, something reflected in many corporate strategies.
Because of an increasing awareness of the need to protect the environment and the conditions in which goods and services are produced and or provided, more businesses are beginning to adopt the people, planet, profit perspective with regards to the project and programs they undertake.
Take for example the global engineering company AECOM. If you go their website you can easily navigate to that company’s view of sustainability and access a sustainability report that highlights how it is addressing people – the company’s employees, its stakeholders and society – the planet – through it’s green design advancements – and profit – an outcome that is a benefit to its shareholders. Businesses beyond engineering companies understand that adopting a strategy of sustainability leads to greater market share, better marketing, easier access to capital for growth investments, or an increased bottom line.
Like any business strategy, however, there needs to be a clear objective, as well as associated metrics to measure outcomes of actions. One such strategy, which comes from a book by John Elkington titled Cannibals with Forks is termed triple bottom line, or TBL. This concept is based, as you probably can guess, from the accounting term “bottom line”. Essentially, Elkington suggested that companies not solely fixate on their financial bottom line, their profit or net income, but also on their achievements with regards to social and environmental aspects. A company that does this measures, monitors, documents and reports on its ability to perform according to social, environmental and economic factors. For instance, financial indicators might include sales, returns-on-investment, or profit. Environmental factors might include air or water quality, energy usage, or number of LEED Silver projects designed in a year’s time. Finally, social measures might include jobs created, community impacts, or professional development sessions attended by employees.
If one goes to AECOMs sustainability report, you’ll find information about its performance along the people and planet factors. The profit factor is addressed for this company in its prospectus for investors. But the take away is that this global engineering company is considering its triple bottom line and how it performs for the factors of people, planet and profit.
PRINCIPLES OF SUSTAINABILITY
Businesses are increasingly understanding the importance of incorporating sustainability into their strategies to increase the financial bottom line and maintain benefits for shareholders and good will of external customers. Your engineering firm may, or may not, be fully matured with regards to incorporating sustainability into its processes. Depending on where your organization is in its stage of maturity, you can benefit from a framework to help guide business and design decisions or develop associated processes.
One such framework is based on the six principles of sustainability, which comes from the book . Their work is derived from previous writings on sustainability from both the business and environmental contexts.
#1. Sustainability is about balancing social, environmental and economic interests. To contribute to sustainable development, a company should satisfy each of these three pillars people, planet and profit. The key take away is that these three components are interrelated and they influence each other in various ways, some that aren’t readily apparent. An example of addressing the interrelation of the three components is found in the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure’s Envision framework, which provides a holistic framework for evaluating and rating the community, environmental, and economic benefits of all types and sizes of infrastructure projects
#2. Sustainability has both a short- and long-term orientation. Sustainable companies assess the near and far timeframes when considering the consequences that a project they are implementing might cause. While higher profits might come in the short-term from a certain project decision, that same decision might have negative impacts on an adjacent neighborhood or result in future costs to fix a design feature that was deemed not important. As the engineer, you should look at the project plan through lenses of people, planet and profit in the immediate and future, through the life cycle of the project.
#3. Sustainability is both local and global in orientation. The implications of globalization of economies and ease of information sharing make a local issue global in a matter of minutes. Living in Germany, it was immediately broadcast in German media about the lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan. While this situation was linked to a specific environmental catastrophe, it can serve as an example that the projects on which we work can quickly move from a local to a global audience within a matter of hours with very little effort. The behavior of organization, and that of its engineers, can have economic, social, and environmental impacts that resonate over a wide audience.
#4. Sustainability is about consuming income, not capital. Each project we manage or design has an impact on people, the planet and profit. What this principle implies, is that the project should be planned, designed and executed in such a fashion that it doesn’t deplete a resource to a point that it cannot be renewed. For people this might mean not working everyone on the project team to the point of mental exhaustion; with financial resources it means not working beyond the budget for the project; and with regards to environmental aspects, it means following or exceeding established sustainability guidelines, codes or best practices in material selection, site layout, etcetera.
#5. Sustainability is about transparency and accountability. As already highlighted, AECOM’s sustainability report serves to both announce to clients, stakeholders, and the general public about the company’s efforts at social equity and environmental protection and to serve as transparency and accountability for the actions of the company and it’s many thousands of employees. While we may not be privy to the company’s internal policies, it’s clear from this report and the existence of a Director of Sustainability in its organization hierarchy that the company is striving to be transparent and accountable in is sustainable practices.
#6. Sustainability is about personal values and ethics. I think this is a really important principle because of the importance it plays in determining how an organization is going to recognize sustainability, and in turn, how it’s going to manage its projects both internally and for external customers. If you don’t believe in anything I’ve covered in this article, then it’s going to be pretty hard for you to embrace social responsibility or environmental stewardship. Tactically, you’re not going to worry too much about the local impact the project you manage will have once it’s complete, or in 25 or 40 years when it’s demolished and all of the materials have to go into a landfill. Or about the energy resource load it might have today and over the life cycle, or the impact on water run-off. If you do embrace the concepts of sustainability, then these things will matter and you’ll go about putting the mechanisms in place to help you consider social, environmental and economic factors in conjunction with the cost, scope and schedule management is the daily focus of project mangers everywhere.
A lot of material covered in this post. Maybe more of a lecture than you’d normally see here on The Engineer Career Coach, but as I mentioned already: sustainability was a concept that I didn’t consider for a long time in my career. I’d like to hear that you’re already considering sustainability and if not, that maybe this article will help shape your mindset that it’s not a nice-to-have, but a necessity.
If we can all move towards building in the concepts of sustainability from the initiation of a project through its life cycle to demolition or disposal, then we’ll be not only be doing a great service for society and our clients, but also optimizing the scope, cost and schedule on our projects.
More on that aspect in a future article…
Christian J. Knutson, P.E., PMP
The Engineering Career Coach