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The importance of people in engineering design

Sustainability By Dr Elisabeth C Marlow, Principal Consultant, Sustainability – 13 September 2022

Many people crossing a zebra crossing


Head and sholders shot of Elisabeth in the London office

Dr Elisabeth C Marlow

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Originally published by The Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE)

Attending the Economist’s Sustainability Week 2022 as virtual member, I was lucky to be able to hear Ban Ki-Moon (Former Secretary-General of the UN) speak about the progress of the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). Whilst we are progressing towards the goals for 2030, Ban Ki-Moon highlighted that inter-generational social engagement was still limited. Frustrations with the lack of interaction with the younger generations and the vulnerable, have been expressed by Extinction Rebellion. His speech made me consider how this applies to the built environment, and how our role as structural engineers must surely extend beyond measuring and reducing carbon, and consider social usefulness to address the broader ideals of delivering sustainable urban development.

This struck me hard because I feel our construction industry is not considering the legacy of what is being built with regards to climate change hazards and the social purpose. As an industry we still need to think more broadly and remember Brundtland’s definition of sustainability and Wisner’s Risk Equation. To go beyond the UN SDGs, and looking past the year 2030, the people who will go on to use and occupy the buildings and infrastructure that we design still need to be engaged with the sustainability agenda – and why aren’t they? Fractures are starting to appear in society, where some know a lot about climate change and its impacts, but this needs to become broader so that society becomes engaged and understand the risks being created as the “extreme” is becoming the new normal. After all, most of our inherited building stock may not be climate ready and has already locked in large amounts of embodied and operational carbon.

Young voices now, such as my eight-year-old son, will be the generation that inherits both the legacy of the UN SDGs and the urban environment that we’re creating today. I have genuine concern this generation is not consulted and an opportunity missed to understand that cars are not as important as boats will be. They may not know what’s best to do now to secure their future, and so they trust this generation with looking after their future needs. So, I ask – are we?

Many of the people making decisions now are also working in the full knowledge that we are currently heading into a world where fuel and food prices are high. Already, the Ukraine war has caused disruption to our energy supply, so why do we build even a single building that has high energy needs and low adaptability? Structural engineers should be the driving force of the circular economy and working with local communities to reduce embodied carbon and create projects built by and for those communities to cope with disruptions. If you can’t build it locally, should you build it at all? As shipment prices continue to rise and materials take longer and longer to arrive, the time has come to look locally to tackle climate and societal crises in tandem to increase adaptability.

As I grapple with these intertwined issues of social responsibility, sustainability and structural engineering, I realise that we need more narrative about social usefulness – both to make good decisions, and to show future generations and other parts of society that we in the built environment are acting today to protect their future. Younger generations are already engaged and actively contacting IStructE about what they are learning about embodied carbon. The BBC is also raising issues about how children want more involvement in the decision-making of their environmental legacy. So again, how do we use this feedback and learn from it in the design process?

Dr Elisabeth C Marlow is Trustee and Vice-President of IStructE's UK & Europe Region 2023-2025.