Wednesday, 25 November 2020

What does the future of civil engineering look like? A sustainability perspective

Carys Aspden, SELA Cohort 2019

Skyine photo with sky scrapers against sunset sky
You don’t need to look far to find news on the new tallest building, longest bridge, or thinnest skyscraper (I would highly recommend the B1M YouTube channel). Even though I marvel at these exciting new construction projects being carried out all over the world, this competition between countries and corporations to build the next best thing is unsustainable. After a certain number of storeys, the building of skyscrapers becomes economically unviable, and so whilst these feats of engineering are very impressive, they may be deemed as essentially just boastful displays of wealth.

Perhaps the most prominent consequence of this issue is the impact on the environment. Josh Gabbatiss (2020) explores how the construction and demolition of buildings in China in 2015 accounted for 20% of the country’s carbon emissions. The severity of the so-called “construction fever” (Xinyi Shen, Greenpeace Asia) in China has been clearly demonstrated earlier this year by the country’s ban on building skyscrapers taller than 500m.

Close up of the top of a tower in construction, with cranes against the blue sky
Whilst, of course, it is important to congratulate the use of low carbon construction methods and design, it is also important to consider these methods as the standard, rather than award-winning. Moving forward, consideration of carbon emissions is integral to all new construction projects. There is a need for new building regulations, such as the Regenerate Tool, developed by Sheffield academics, which “[assesses] how circular buildings are, from conception to completion” (Day, 2020). In other words, the construction will be assessed on how efficiently it reuses resources and eliminates waste.

Furthermore, whilst eye-watering amounts of money are being invested into extravagant structures, there are so many different communities around the world that don’t even have access to shelter or safe drinking water. In my eyes, innovation should be used to benefit the wider community and world; there is a wealth of knowledge that exists in the engineering industry, and if this is coordinated in the right way, there is potential to genuinely change the world.

Many civil engineering companies are already involved in international development. There are a few programmes set up within the industry, such as the Institution of Civil Engineer’s Shaping the World initiative, which aims to help the UN achieve their Sustainable Development Goals. However, the inequality in infrastructure across the world is still very prevalent; there is room for civil engineering companies to commit to doing more.

Photo off bridge leading towards floodlit buildings in evening light
The implementation of regulations may help to reach low-carbon quotas, but imposing rules on companies to help poorer communities is more complex, and so incentives may be used instead to drive change. I think that the UN and civil engineering institutions have a shared responsibility to persuade more companies to get involved. Although it differs from international development, as it is a UK-based award, the RIBA Neave Brown Award for Housing (2020) is a good example of how to incentivise less appealing construction projects. The award recognises the best new affordable housing in the UK, and so hopefully will drive the housing revolution that is needed in this country. This is just one example of how companies can be motivated to use innovation to help people in need.

This post is entitled ‘what does the future of civil engineering look like’, but perhaps a more appropriate question is: What do we want it to look like? Engineers have the privilege that the power to make change is in their hands. As a newcomer to the industry, I am not aware of all the discussions that are already taking place. However, from my current point of view there is a need for dialogue regarding change – in the way we think about engineering – and a shift in the priorities of the industry at present. I hope that the future of civil engineering will look more ethical. I am excited to be part of the change that needs to occur, helping to build an industry that challenges current practices and emphasises the importance of environmental consideration.

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