Civil engineering and infrastructure are central to sustainability and vice versa. Without infrastructure to meet society’s development, there won’t be any sustainability, whether we’re talking about social, economic or environmental sustainability.
But the infrastructure sector often expects too much, or the wrong thing, from their sustainability colleagues.
Infrastructure professionals all seem to expect that their sustainability colleagues will provide ‘the’ answer to the sustainability issues for each and every project.
In addition, sustainability professionals often act in a way that supports this expectation. This misunderstanding of sustainability is not delivering the innovative solutions we need.
Great and usually unrealistic expectations
It starts at conferences with sustainability professionals giving presentations that show how they can provide all the answers for everything.
“Here’s our wonderful project in which we started with problems X, Y, and Z, and the sustainability team/professional proposed solutions M, N, and O which all worked perfectly.” Hidden message: sustainability is a great way to solve lots of infrastructure or engineering challenges. This sounds great, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, no. The unintended consequence of this message is the expectation that ‘the’ (single, best fit) sustainability solution already exists and that it can easily be found just by asking the project’s sustainability professional or sustainability team.
Take a recent example of a major infrastructure project costing a few billion pounds at which I was expected to explain ‘the’ sustainability ‘solution’ for the whole project in a single afternoon workshop to the senior team. How can I possibly sort out the sustainability issues for such a project in a single workshop and to the senior team only?
This is a significant misunderstanding of sustainability because sustainability requires an almost bespoke response by an individual or a team. The approach to sustainability may be the same across different projects but the solutions are not. If we are to pursue infrastructure excellence then sustainability cannot be delivered in an afternoon workshop.
It requires an ongoing strategic engagement with many different stakeholders and constant dialogue with the teams delivering the project. Presentations of ‘the’ answer by sustainability professionals have the unfortunate effect of compounding the misunderstanding of the collective response at all levels that is needed.
In addition, this single answer misunderstanding of sustainability prevents it from being a powerful force for innovation as well as social, environmental and economic goods. To innovate, sustainability must be allowed to function as a critical friend or mirror on projects.
So, what should we expect from sustainability professionals?
On projects myself and my fellow sustainability professionals can provide the right questions and share best practice. Each professional is not an expert in water engineering, geotechnics, structures, planning, contracting, to name just a few disciplines.
Other professionals know their domain far better than us sustainability professionals. But by providing the spaces and moments for the experts already working on the project we can facilitate the identification and working through of engineering questions. This different lens enables all the professionals on the project to develop solutions to the sustainability questions.
If we can live and work with the numerous sustainability questions for each project and give up on expecting others to provide the answer we will be able to start providing the sustainability solutions society requires.