Finding Your Footing in an Uncertain Future

June 20, 2019

Chris Luebkeman is an Arup Fellow, based in their San Francisco office, with the rather daunting title of director for global foresight, research and innovation.

Is he a fortune teller? Can he predict the future?

Not exactly. But he has his finger on the pulse of change, embraces the challenges, and stresses that we must all find our new role in these new times.

Recently, he delivered a keynote address at the ASCE Civil Engineering Education Summit and then talked with ASCE News about finding your footing amid an uncertain future.

ASCE News: Should I fear the future?

Chris Luebkeman: The future scares many and excites others. I don’t know you well enough to know whether you should be scared or not. There are profound changes on the horizon with many of them starting to manifest now; the changing of our climate, deep drought and burning forests, the crumbling of our infrastructure, the alterations of geo-political empires, mass migration.

So, there’s an awful lot of change of every kind. That might make you excited. That might scare you. It really depends on your attitude.

ASCE News: Some of the changes you mention there are certainly dramatic, maybe even traumatic. How would you suggest someone approach that future, so they can be among those are who excited and not scared?

Luebkeman: We can’t stop change nor wish or gate it away. Time will march on. The sun will rise in the east and set in the west. I think the most important thing is to be honest about the change that is upon us. To be curious to understand not just how things are changing, but to really learn about why. This will, by necessity, challenge many preconceived notions of ‘normal’. Then, we need to imagine what our role can be in this changing and changed world.

ASCE News: I think every generation has faced an uncertain future. Every generation has probably thought they were in times that no one else had ever imagined or faced. But do you see factors now with the current trends that may truly make this future uniquely challenging?

Luebkeman: Yes, it’s interesting. Arup sponsored part of the Leonardo DaVinci papers exhibition in the United Kingdom … and I was invited to host a dinner in our office in Sheffield.

In preparing for that talk, I was looking back at the life and times of Leonardo – the end of the 1400s and early 1500s; the Renaissance. It was a very bizarre thing to me, because, in reading about the politics of the time, the science of the time, the environment, it was all as wacky as ours is today.

There were assaults upon scientific exploration by the church, by those who didn’t want to recognize that the body had functions that were not governed by unknown deities, that there were not just vapors moving around inside. And my gosh, the politics made our current politics look almost like a simple playground.

So, in a very bizarre way, it gave me solace. Humanity has here before, and we will come out of this in some way.

“There’s an awful lot of change of every kind. That might make you excited. That might scare you. It really depends on your attitude.” – Chris Luebkeman

However, at that time, humanity was not the major driver of change on the planet. There were still vast swaths of natural landscapes that were left undisturbed. We hadn’t started massacring the passenger pigeon or bison, decimating the thousand-year-old redwoods or plowing the carbon-sequestering grasslands of the prairies of North America and Siberia. The major difference between then and now is the state of our planet.

And frankly, we are the first generation to understand the cumulative impact of humanity. And there remain those who deny. Just as there were skeptics in the 1400s and 1500s about how things worked in our bodies. There are those who deny the same reality. As then, time moved on, it was proven that the heart did beat, and blood did circulate.

So when I look at that context, I’m a little more hesitant about what our future is going to look like.

ASCE News: The good news is that there remain opportunities, right?

Luebkeman: Tremendous opportunities.

Just look around the world at the profound needs of our societies for new and improved civil infrastructure – infrastructure that works with the natural systems. We need to be honest about the state of play and look at these challenges straight in the face. Engineers are problem solvers and we have done this for millennia. The context has simply changed and now there’s a systemic challenge for us to embrace.

I believe the opportunities for engineers and systems thinkers and problem solvers are only expanding right now; if – and only if – we’re open and honest about those changes and challenges. Understanding not just the way to pour concrete but understanding the way the natural systems work where it is being poured, so that we can regenerate and repair a lot of these systems and evolve the way we take our place in them.

That, to me, is the way this huge opportunity is super-exciting, because we now understand so much more. We can model it. We can test out ideas. We can look at impacts.

For example, with all the structural analysis tools we’ve created, we now have a carbon calculator. So we optimize not just for stress, deflection or dynamic performance, we can now also optimize for carbon. This is our new context.

As engineers, we’re great at solving problems – as long as we’re looking at the right problems to solve. We need to keep our eyes open. Our future generations are depending on it.

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