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Social sustainability vs environmental sustainability. Which matters most?

26 June 2018

When it comes to infrastructure are opportunities being missed that could create lasting value for all stakeholders? Mott MacDonald's Davide Stronati discusses this issue ahead of an ICE UN SDG seminar in July.

Social sustainability vs environmental sustainability. Which matters most?
Image credit: Shutterstock

We commonly talk about the 3 pillars of sustainability – economic, environmental, and social. Yet the social pillar tends to attract the least attention when we’re thinking about infrastructure projects.

Infrastructure is rightly seen as requisite for economic growth, and environmental protection is now seen as fundamental to the progress of projects. This is all as it should be. But rarely is attention paid to who in society benefits most from economic infrastructure.

The reality is that the dividend is unequal and we all know that inequality breeds insecurity – and that poses a fundamental risk to society. At the extremes, it provokes conflict between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ which can manifest itself in many ways: crime, civil disobedience and even war.  It’s clear that the world is a more fragile place when it leaves large sections of society behind in the pursuit of growth.

We still need environmental sustainability

I am not suggesting that environmental sustainability is no longer important. On the contrary, the link between environmental sustainability and social outcomes is even more crucial when you think of the importance of maintaining an environment for healthy and prosperous lives.

Climate change, air pollution, water quality and availability, ecosystem fragility, species loss – all are issues that impact directly on our health and wellbeing, and thus on society at large. The mass migration of people we’re seeing are not just the result of conflict but also of environmental degradation, the struggle to survive and the desire of people living at the margins to find a better life.

But we need social sustainability as well

In the infrastructure sector we work towards building the communities of tomorrow and what’s become increasingly clear in recent times is that we have an obligation to provide solutions that are more inclusive and to play our part in addressing inequalities. We need to remember that most, if not all, of what we do is about improving people’s lives.

It’s easy to lay the blame for deepening inequality at the feet of others but all of us in the infrastructure industry – clients, investors, consultants, contractors and suppliers – need to change the way in which we think about projects,and the way we conduct business. We need to help foster more socially inclusive outcomes.

Delivering UN SDGs for all through infrastructure

In September 2015 the UN launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for developed and developing countries alike. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals which were only for the developing world the SDGs are for everyone.

Our industry has an obligation to contribute to their fulfilment. Planned and delivered with thought, infrastructure can enable outcomes that help resolve many of the challenges we face as a society today and will face tomorrow.

In July in order to help us achieve the SDGs ICE’s Sustainability Leadership Team is hosting a half day seminar to showcase leading infrastructure projects that have embedded social value as a key project outcome.

These projects reveal both elegant design solutions that ‘take infrastructure to another level’, and the unexpected opportunities available to our sector from being open to frank community engagement responses. 

Join us at the Global Engineering Congress (GEC)

Places for the ICE and WFEO-led Global Engineering Congress are now filling up fast with delegates booked to attend from over 70 countries. Make sure you don’t miss the chance to attend this ground-breaking event being held in London from 22-26 October 2018. The week-long congress will see the world’s best engineering minds will come together to find solutions to help deliver the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Book your place today at from just £150 for a one-day ticket which includes access to the Congress, lunch, entrance to a range of discussion-led sessions and the chance to network with leading experts and industry professionals from around the world.
Now is the time for the engineering community to step up and take action to help make millions of lives across the world better.
  • Davide Stronati, Chair of the Committee of Engineering & Environment at World Federation of Engineering Organisations