At ASCE’s Sustainability Summit, the message was clear – the world needs civil engineers’ help, and it needs it now.
“I call them the holders of the keys,” said Ron Sims, former U.S. Housing and Urban Development deputy secretary, one of many industry leaders and stakeholders who gathered for the summit. “If civil engineers open the door, we will see extraordinary things happen. If they let the door remain shut, I think the impact will be very negative.”
Held Jan. 7 through 9 in Herndon, VA, the summit built on a foundation provided by ASCE’s aspirational Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025.
Sims’ call to action captured the tremendous opportunity in front of civil engineers, while also presenting a daunting challenge. The concept of rebuilding infrastructure in a sustainable manner amid unprecedented environmental unpredictability requires a sea change within the industry.
“I think what is so critical about this particular summit is people are actually undertaking the process of reinventing a whole profession,” said Laurel Sukup, AIPG, ENV SP, chief of sustainability and business support for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. “This is laying out the map so we know where we’re going to go.”
Doug Sereno, P.E., ENV SP, D.P.E., F.ASCE, director of program management for Long Beach, CA, and Michael Mucha, P.E., ENV SP, F.ASCE, chief engineer and director for the Madison (WI) Metropolitan Sewerage District, served as summit co-chairs.
ASCE President Mark Woodson, P.E., L.S., D.WRE, F.ASCE, opened the summit by placing it in the context of the Paris climate accord recently signed by more than 200 countries. “This is truly a historic agreement. As civil engineers, we have the capacity to change the world. We are the builders of society’s infrastructure.”
Discussions included how to create greater urgency to adopt sustainability practices, tangible measures of success, and financial upsides of sustainable engineering. Small groups fostered healthy dialogue among participants from all over the map – literally and figuratively.
“It’s so important because sustainability has been a big part of ASCE’s code of ethics for a long time. It’s been one of our strategic initiatives for a number of years,” said ASCE Past President Bob Stevens, Ph.D., P.E., Pres.15.ASCE. “And yet, we have a long way to go in terms of making our infrastructure sustainable.”
To that end, the ASCE Industry Leaders Council has launched a Grand Challenge to dramatically reduce infrastructure life-cycle costs over the next 10 years.
“Sustainability really becomes a requirement for the way we as a society act and behave,” said Richard Wright, Ph.D., NAE, Dist.M.ASCE. “So it becomes a tremendous challenge for the engineer to understand how the projects and systems for which she or he is responsible are contributing positively to sustainability.”
Executive Director Tom Smith, ENV SP, CAE, F.ASCE, recently wrote about sustainability and its priority among the Society’s goals: “I have always been passionate about civil engineering because of the profession’s profound impact on the quality of our lives and the sustainability of our planet. My dream is that society will understand and appreciate the critical role of civil engineers in creating a sustainable world and enhancing our global quality of life, so we can achieve ASCE’s Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025 and in turn make progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015.”
Leadership, and the civil engineer’s role in driving sustainable solutions, was a major topic at the Summit.
“Civil engineers have to see themselves as leaders,” said ASCE President-elect Norma Jean Mattei, Ph.D., P.E. F.SEI, F.ASCE. “We really have to wear the hat and be brave and tell the politicians, tell the folks that are making the decisions on these large projects, that sustainability is the way we have to go if we want to be stewards of the planet. The time is now. We can’t wait any longer.”
Leadership increasingly means working to serve the complete project. Many attendees spoke of success stories they have taken part in that included civil engineers collaborating with local communities, project owners, politicians, social scientists, economists – all working to prioritize sustainability as a driver in the finished product.
For Sims, though, sustainability all starts with the civil engineer, or, as he says, the holders of the keys.
“I think in an era of climate change which will have profound impacts on societies, on nations, on food sources, water sources, on how we live, it comes down to skills that, I believe, only civil engineers have,” Sims said.
“Now more than ever civil engineers are going to have to re-fashion us at a much more rapid pace, using a lot more technologies. But I think they’re ready for it. They just have to be unleashed.”