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Converging over Coffee… Doing Sustainability -for Engineers

27 May 2022

So who’s “Doing Sustainability”? Quite a few of us actually, even if we don’t talk about it very much. Many more are eager to get onboard, but don’t have a good idea HOW.

This Converging over Coffee series speaks to the Engineer, who are the ones that really need to get with the agenda of “doing sustainability”. Engineers hold the key to driving sustainability with the rigor & execution that is required for real progress. However, it’s very fuzzy for many who are trying to understand their role in advancing the sustainability cause.

In this series, we look to those inspired engineers who are already change-makers and deep-dive into what they do when addressing sustainability - which we consider here to also cover the topics of climate change, resilience and ESG.

We found 4 things that Engineers do differently when “Doing Sustainability”.

  1. Integrating New into Old

  2. Optimizing the Outside

  3. Designing Tomorrow Today

  4. Building Intangibles

Integrating New into Old

Engineering work can sometimes feel somewhat transactional. Design criteria has been determined. Work methods are well defined. But when driving sustainability, we have shifted the broader goals & criteria. When setting out to deliver positive change, we need a bit more than our trusted best practices.

Our better instincts prevent us from jumping into new solutions blindly, but we have to learn how to discern genuine value from ‘strange’ new technologies that accomplish new goals and we need a willingness to seek ways to adopt & integrate them into the existing environment to improve outcomes.

We don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken, but we need to recognize when the requirements have expanded. Avoiding the imperative to find new ways to do old things isn’t being safe or focused or cost-effective, it is just a high-certainty path to losing relevant & personal value.

The “old” contains the wisdom that gave us the progress we achieved. The “new” contains our hopes for the progress we now seek. We need to cultivate the finesse to integrate the new into the old.

Optimizing the Outside

The engineers I know are great at optimizing a given solution to make it perform, produce better results and easier to use. These sound basic but are absolutely critical components of an engineer’s work. Great ideas don’t go very far if this important work isn’t done well. People still look to engineers to “make things work”.

However, the engineers who are “doing sustainability” know something else. They know that there are limits to how much you can optimize something. And those limits come from outside the immediate problem boundaries. The understanding of the external environment, the solution’s relationship with others in the ecosystem, the future conditions that may affect the solution… are already a few that deserves a lot of thought.

Sustainability asks that we challenge the outcomes we’ve achieved to-date, expand that reach and seek what is possible. And to do this, is to challenge those limits from the outside.

Doing sustainability requires optimizing the way the “outside” influences the solution, and sometimes even the problem itself.

Designing Tomorrow Today

Making sustainable choices, by definition, means choosing to account for the future when designing what we build and use today. The trouble with designing for tomorrow is in the art of defining the requirements of a future condition. This is huge because it not only affects what we design for, but also how we invest our money and energies to develop solutions we don’t have yet.

Too often, designing for tomorrow is construed as designing with the newest or most efficient tech that is available to us, or anything AI/ML driven. But there must be more to this. Technology helps for sure, but it’s the design process that selects the technology we need to deliver sustainable outcomes well into the future.

Designing tomorrow is very much the engineer’s mission. And this is not only about lofty big ideas.

It can mean designing for a client’s inevitable future challenges that may not yet be an issue today. It can mean designing solutions with a focus on the stakeholders who will need it even years after. It can mean designing systems that can take both the owner & the ecosystem forward.

Building Intangibles

What do we build?

Do we build roads, or create the freedom to live in one place & and work & play at another?

Do we build offices, or make places where we can collaborate & work as our best selves?

Do we build water systems, or realize the fundamental right to build lives to our full potential?

If we recognize that the physical, tangible things we engineer & build have a far greater, intangible purpose, then engineers who are doing sustainability must surely cultivate the skills and competencies for “building intangibles”.

No matter what we are building, the intangibles - including sustainability - are found throughout the journey.

When building it, the intangible is unlocking the desired achievements and knowing the job that needs to be done. When using it, the intangible lies in the deliberate design of the user experience. And when we want to contribute to a sustainable future, the intangibles of Impact & Progress must drive what and how we build.

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