Fit for purpose, fit for people, fit for the planet?
Brittany Harris shares her thoughts on globally responsible engineering and challenges the sector to take a critical look at itself.
In the last 15 years we’ve seen a huge shift in awareness and regulation and the industry has responded to that. Not just to meet the regulations, but also to meet changing social and political expectations.
Engineering companies are far more serious about the sustainability and the environmental impacts of their developments.
Globally responsible engineering is thinking beyond the specification. It’s considering all the external effects that we have on the world as we do our job.
We work with construction companies to help them manage their environmental impact and the sustainability of the construction process. The client will say: “Can you help me build a building that houses 100 people and 100 offices?” And we say: “We’re going to help you achieve that, and we’re going to make sure that you don’t upset local residents, you don’t produce excessive waste and you don’t pollute the local area.”
Globally responsible engineering is making sure that you deliver projects without negatively affecting the local area or the global ecosystem.
Brittany is CEO and co-founder of Qualis Flow, a company improving the environmental footprint of the construction sector through better data.
She was involved with the Engineers Without Borders Bristol Chapter when she was studying and has participated in an overseas project with us in Peru.
I went into engineering to build a more sustainable future. When I was younger, I visited Uganda and I realised that the challenges that were holding back sustainable growth were associated with infrastructure. So I went to study civil engineering.
On my first day at the University of Bristol I met the president of the Engineers Without Borders Bristol Chapter. I knew instantly that I had to be a part of it. I went from being society vice-president, to head of projects, to doing a placement in Peru.
Everything I learned during my placement at Ecoswell about the importance of considering local people in the design of infrastructure projects has completely shaped what I do now.
We were looking into alternative sanitation solutions. I had a preconception that people would want to keep their flushing toilets. But I did a survey and after presenting the options people said that composting sounded like the best solution. It’s a bit more work but they didn’t have any water to flush their existing system so they needed something that was waterless and they wanted something that produces a nutrient-rich compost at the end of it.
If I hadn’t spent time with local people and got their input, I wouldn’t have fully appreciated the importance of really understanding the user in the infrastructure that we build.
My involvement with Engineers Without Borders UK has given me perspective on what engineers are for and how we should operate. It’s shaped my entire engineering career.
Big challenges, better solutions
The big challenges are the ones that we’ve always had. They’re just going to get a lot harder.
In London, for example, we need to house more and more people in less and less space. With that, the demand for water, sanitation and energy goes up.
Maintaining the infrastructure to keep the quality of life that people expect under increasing pressure from population growth, mass migration and more extreme weather patterns is a huge challenge for engineers.
But the biggest challenge is that all these problems are interlinked. As the effects of climate change worsen, more people will move, putting infrastructure under more strain. Political pressure is going to increase as well.
Engineering has to take a really critical look at itself. People know that we have a problem as an industry; we’ve been doing things the same way for 150 years. We need to look to other industries, make use of cutting-edge technology and change our processes.
Engineers are so fundamental in ensuring that people live healthy lives. We’re really going to have to get our heads in gear, stop fannying around with vanity projects, and start focusing on how we deliver what is being asked of us – from society but also from the planet.
There are too many instances where we base solutions on something that we thought was a good idea 20 years ago. We don’t really consider whether it’s fit for purpose now or whether it fits new technology.
HS2 is a fascinating project and rail still has a really important place in our lives. But large infrastructure projects like HS2, Hinkley or Tideway are using old tools to fix new problems.
We need to rethink our approach.