“In engineering, incorporating sustainability into products, processes, technology systems, and services generally means integrating environmental, economic, and social factors in the evaluation of designs. While the concepts of engineering for sustainability may seem simple in the abstract, converting the concepts into the quantitative design tools and performance metrics that can be applied in engineering design is a challenge.” – David T. Allen and David R. Shonnard, Authors, Sustainable engineering: An introduction to sustainability
Defining Sustainable Development
Sustainable development was first introduced in 1992 by Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and Chair of the Brundtland Commission, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as "development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Since then, sustainable development became a priority for world leaders influencing economic, social and environmental development.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe had these thoughts to offer: “The concept of sustainable development supports strong economic and social development, in particular for people with a low standard of living. At the same time, it underlines the importance of protecting the natural resource base and the environment. Economic and social well-being cannot be improved with measures that destroy the environment. Intergenerational solidarity is also crucial; all development has to take into account its impact on the opportunities for future generations.”
Sustainability in Engineering Management
In David T. Allen and David R. Shonnard’s book, Sustainable engineering: An introduction to sustainability, the authors note that “growing populations and affluence, around the globe, have put increasing pressure on air and water, arable land, and raw materials. Concern over the ability of natural resources and environmental systems to support the needs and wants of global populations, now and in the future, is part of an emerging awareness of the concept of sustainability.”
It was no long ago that the idea of sustainability was seen by many as an obstacle to profit. Joseph Sarkis, Theo De Bruijin, and Qingghua Zhu, in their article, Sustainability in Engineering Management—Setting the Foundation for the Path Forward, echo this notion when they write “Sustainability has traditionally placed limits on organizations. More recently, it has become a source of inspiration and innovation. Organizations have initiated efforts to design their business models on the basis of sustainability. Sustainability and sustainable practices have become critical concerns for engineering managers within organizations.”
Robert Andrews, Partner and Project Manager of AHA Consulting Engineers, agrees. He says, “Sustainability Design Engineers are working intently on designing buildings that reduce usage of natural resources. Designing buildings in ways that reduce energy consumption, water consumption, and refrain from generating an excessive use of fossil fuels.” Doing this creates a healthier environment for employees and reduces a company’s carbon footprint.
Andrews further suggests that once sustainability projects, policies, and procedures are in place, companies will begin and continue to reap a wide variety of benefits such as:
- Adding value to the owner
- Reducing operation costs
- Reducing complaints
- Ability to increase rent
- Retaining tenants
- Increasing the market value of building
“Engineers in the 21st century will need to design for energy efficiency, mass efficiency, and low environmental emissions. Both short and long-term steps are needed to reduce fossil resource consumption and approach zero waste generation from engineered processes and products.” Questions for engineering sustainability in regards to products and process include:
- Will it be made from recycled materials?
- How much energy will it use?
- Will it be powered by a battery or solar cells?
- Will it be able to be recycled at the end of its useful life?
- Will it have parts that contain toxic metals that must be disposed of?
The process of designing and/or operating systems in a way that reduces energy, waste, and use of toxic materials, calls for senior leaders in engineering management to continue to recommend and refine the steps necessary to ensure sustainability for organizations, people, and the planet.