Skip to content
ICE Community blog

Can cultural barriers to sustainability be overcome?

28 August 2019

Paula Kulczyk, who attended the first ICE Global Summer School in Shanghai, shares what she learnt through this experience and what civil engineers can do to encourage sustainable development.

Can cultural barriers to sustainability be overcome?
Paula Kulczyk in Shanghai

The industry in the UK is talking about a holistic approach to construction, that is, including three aspects: social, economical and environmental. However, based on my observations, this approach is unlikely to be widely implemented on an international scale.

Fortunate enough to spend two weeks in Shanghai on the first ICE International Global Summer School, I found myself immersed in a truly all-embracing environment, comprising of people from wide spectrum of cultures and courses, with different stories and experience. And I refined my perception of sustainability.

But let me first explain how I found myself boarding the aeroplane to Shanghai Pudong.

A summer school on sustainability

I'm always all ears when it comes to exciting opportunities relating to my pet subject – sustainability.

When scrolling through my regional ICE social media page, I came across the title “China’s Sustainable Development in Infrastructure: Green City & Green Future”.

Reading further, I came to the obvious (to me) conclusion – this opportunity is tailored to me and I just need to go there.

Perhaps my personal interests in oriental culture or the vision of studying at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, a top China university, led me to think that the Summer School would be a great summer adventure.

It certainly was, but I learnt so much more than I could imagine.

At the first lecture, I encountered a new model of sustainability – besides the common ones, it included culture.Listening with growing intrigue, I came to understand that sustainability needs to consider the traditions, beliefs and aspirations of the community, be it cultural or religious.

Is cultural diversity a barrier to sustainability?

My first encounter with this dilemma was a delicious one – at the Global Forum dinner.

Having sat at the table together with my new friends at the university restaurant, I noticed that the tabletop was placed on a rotating shaft. Soon, many traditional Chinese dishes were put on it and we took our chopsticks to eat – from the same bowl, turning the tabletop so that each of us could taste the dish.

I immediately appreciated the foreign (to me) custom and that in this way, I was able to taste around 10 different dishes.

However, I grew worried with every new big ornamental plate arriving – the table was crowded with much more food than all of us could eat.

When my Chinese friend encouraged me to try dessert sponge hearts, I took one bite and left the rest. With a full tummy, I looked at what was left on the table – "all that food mountain is going to waste", I thought.

The sustainability of a mosque

The cultural and sustainability clash was even more vivid when I entered a group project.

As part of a summer school, I was expected to produce a report on how my discipline can embrace sustainability.

My teammate touched upon the Muslim tradition of ritual washing before prayer, which requires a considerable amount of water.

Interested in the topic, I researched sustainability studies on mosques.

Apparently, mosques use huge amounts of resources, since they need good ventilation or heating when worshippers gather five times a day. As mosques tend to be spacious and thus, need ample time to establish desirable conditions, they constantly use electricity despite the mosque being almost empty outside prayer time.

However, I did find exemplary designs of sustainable mosques (The Great Mosque of Djenné or the Khalifa Al Tajer Mosque, for example) and, with enthusiasm, I wrote my paragraph in the group report.

Use of vernacular materials and positioning the building so that it can derive as much natural light as possible are just a few solutions of where mosques can be more sustainable.

Then I realised that the Global Forum dinner could have less of an impact on the environment as well as the university's costs - if the tray accommodated small servings of sesame chicken, just enough that everybody could try it, and if more people were seated at each table (so that there wasn't a need to put another five or so magnificent bowls with the same food at the other tables).

That way, there would be no compromise on the experience of new cuisine!

An international perspective on sustainability

What I gained thanks to the Summer School is the international perspective on sustainability.

While I see the emphasis on sustainability in the UK is being addressed almost everywhere – from coffee shops to civil engineering, with the latter observing debates on use of autonomous vehicles or offsite manufacturing. I needed to travel over 9,000km to learn that the international efforts are somewhat less visible.

This was the topic of one of the many discussions that I engaged in, with sustainability enthusiasts from around the world.

My Indian friend told me that the release of toxic chemicals from a factory resulted in several deaths of the city dwellers.

Just recent news of massive fires in the Amazon brings me back to the memories when I met another friend - from Brazil, who felt sorry for how little is done regarding sustainability in her country.

The south, as well as the capital, of my home country – Poland – are polluted because people burn household rubbish and coal to heat their dwellings, and drive their cars with low-quality fuel.

The UK's role as a leader

This isn't t to say that the UK can be freed from its obligations because of its more sustainable practices. In fact, I believe it should lead the charge to stress the need for global change.

We all live on the same planet and the efforts need to come from everybody. However, in some parts of the world, sustainability is unheard of and various factors, including poverty, lack of education or abuse of power, stand against the positive movement.

But, as explained above, cultural diversity is not one of these barriers.

Fortunately civil engineers, with the technical expertise, resources and support from institutions such as ICE, are probably the most able to effectively start an international sustainability revolution.

We need to lead the change in international sustainable development.

  • Paula Kulczyk, liaison office & communictions representative at the University of Bradford