Engineering and sustainability: three experts give their views

The 2019 World Engineers Convention will be held in Melbourne later this year, with sustainability as its focus. In the lead-up to the major global talkfest, we asked three leading Australian engineers about the future.

With the urban population of the world expected to top five billion by 2030, how is it going to be possible to provide everyone with the food, energy and clean water they need?
It’s a huge question, and part of the reason why sustainability will be a major topic of debate at this year’s World Engineers Convention in Melbourne, which will explore themes aligned to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
The convention will focus on a number of pressing environmental issues such as green infrastructure, population growth, smart farming, clean water and the gulf between urban and rural populations.
We asked three of Australia’s most prominent engineers and educators working in the area of sustainable engineering to share their thoughts.

Professor Salah Sukkarieh

Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the University of Sydney.
What is the nexus between engineering and sustainability?
“Most of what we do now cannot be sustained and around the globe and through all levels of society there are active calls to live more sustainably. This means that we have to move from our current practices to more sustainable forms, and engineering has a key role in this matter.”
What role can or should engineers play in achieving a more sustainable global economy?
“Primarily, engineers are also citizens, but with their capabilities and skill sets there is also responsibility. So their thinking should actively focus on what to design and build next that will contribute to the economy, environment and society in a more sustainable manner.”

Associate Professor Tommy Wiedmann

Associate Professor of Sustainability Research in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of New South Wales.
What is sustainable systems engineering?
Sustainable systems engineering and industrial ecology are concepts that take environmental engineering to the next level by considering interactions between technical, ecological, social and economic systems.”
How do we design cities that don’t consume the earth?
“All the efforts to reduce emissions from buildings and traffic are good, but we need to make equal efforts to reduce emissions in building materials and from food production. Smart and sustainable cities of the future will have to absorb CO2 emissions from the atmosphere through green infrastructure.”

Professor Michele John

Director of the Sustainable Engineering Group, School of Civil and Mechanical Engineering, Curtin University.
Do engineers need to become greater advocates for sustainable and holistic practices?
“Absolutely. Engineers are not playing a particularly assertive role in pushing renewable energy agendas, preparing for climate change and the strategic use of mineral resources. There’s a whole discourse about ethical responsibilities and moral norms around 21st-century engineering that didn’t exist in the Industrial Revolution.”
Is the new generation of Australian engineering students more engaged with sustainability?
“No, I don’t think so. I reckon about 20 per cent really get it. I ask my renewable energy classes every year: how many of you are in a household that offsets the coal-fired power that you are using with green power? Most of them have no idea. Getting that message across is jolly hard work.”
The World Engineers Convention will be held in Melbourne from 20 to 22 November 2019.

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