Sustainability is a matter of perspective
Richard BurtonView bio
Two of the practical projects I undertook during my Bachelor of Engineering studies gave me a much deeper view of sustainability than can be found between the covers of a textbook.
The first of these, a hands-on aid project in Uganda, helped me see that while sustainability in developed nations like Australia is often about consuming less, in the Majority World, it can be about obtaining enough of the essentials for a reasonable standard of living.
I was part of a team of three people in an Engineering World Health delegation to Uganda that was tasked with improving care outcomes in a resource-poor community. The team comprised two Sydney students and one engineering student from Uganda.
We were assigned to Kiboga Hospital and had to collaboratively conceive of and deliver solutions that would improve care and patient outcomes on a very limited budget.
We found that the hospital had an issue with intermittent power supplies, due to deficiencies in the local grid infrastructure. This meant that fridges and freezers - including those that store temperature-sensitive vaccines and other supplies at temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees - were not reliable. This would lead to the loss of crucial medical supplies in a region where maintaining adequate stocks is generally a challenge.
We designed a solution that would require a very small budget and incorporated solar PV and battery storage. I also helped maintain, repair, and install over USD$200K of medical equipment including autoclaves, electrosurgical units, and medical refrigeration devices.
The cultural learning involved was an important part of the experience. We had some days of orientation with our Ugandan team-mate learning some of the etiquette of the region; a very different culture to my home base of Sydney.
One my return to Australia, I reflected that the situation in Uganda really puts our circumstances here in Australia in perspective. We might work extremely hard on a design that saves a small amount of energy, but sometimes that seems less important than problems elsewhere in the majority world like struggling to have access to basic healthcare.
My other significant project was also in the renewable energy space, and involved original research as part of my Honours thesis. There has been considerable interest in smart glass as part of improving the performance of Australian buildings, but there is not yet a substantial body of research findings across all Australian climate zones.
For my thesis, I analysed the viability of the emerging technology of electro-chromic glass to mitigate building energy consumption for cooling in response to solar heat gain and to determine if this is a feasible solution for Australian buildings.
The study involved detailed building simulations in each of the major climate zones of Australia and analysing their respective financial feasibilities. I also analysed the learning curve for the market in terms of EC technology, to map out a possible commercialisation timeline.
This was another valuable experience in my career development, as modelling and analysis are fundamental tools in the sustainability consultant’s kit. Every building is different, and climate zone plays a major part in determining how it will perform in terms of occupant comfort and energy requirements.
Of course, the cultural dimension is key. How comfortable we feel can often be affected by our expectations of comfort. In some places, having indoor environments at around 20-odd degrees all year round is simply not a common expectation. Perspective, along with experience and expectations, are in this regard a major factor in what is considered sustainable and reasonable.