The Enabling Role of Engineers
in Sustainable Development
Keynote Speech by Ir Albert Lai,
Chairman of The Professional Commons
at the 9th International Symposium on Environmental Geotechnology
and Sustainable Development
2 June 2008, Hong Kong
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am honoured today to be invited by the organisers to address such a distinguished audience of engineers and scientists. My task today is to explore the role of engineers in perhaps the greatest challenge to the human race today – the pursuit for sustainable development.
Ever since the concept of sustainable development was raised in the Bruntland Report in 1987, and endorsed by the international community in the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, it has gone down an undulating path. The goals of protecting our environment and achieving social justice through smart economic development seem as remote as ever.
Take the challenge of climate change. When I led the Hong Kong NGO delegation to the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali last December, we had high hopes on an international consensus. We were hoping that governments from developed and developing countries alike would at last be forced to agree on the way forward, riding on the waves of worldwide public support and the overwhelming scientific evidence on the looming crisis. Instead, after the US delegate was told by the audience to move aside in the final hours, the Conference only managed to agree to more talks. The best hope now lies with another conference in Copenhagen next year. The talk shop shall be moving from the heat in the tropics to the freezing cold in the Nordic. Who knows whether this will improve the chance for a consensus?
What about the other sustainability challenge – the question of social justice? The World Bank estimated that the recent food crisis has just thrown another 100 million people worldwide into starvation over the last six months. Today, as in every other day, 25,000 people died because of food shortage, including many children. In Hong Kong, the number of visitors to a charity-run food bank went up many times. Yet we are throwing 3000 tonnes per day of unused food into the landfills. In the United States, a quarter of all food products are thrown into waste bins everyday.
The scale of the sustainability challenge is huge. Can engineers help?
Yes, I believe engineers can and should play a crucial role – enabling solutions to be found and implemented in answer to the global sustainability challenge.
The Power of Engineering
In response to the challenge, we are never short of people who offer problem-solving ideas. Scientists, lawyers, businessmen, politicians and policy-makers alike are never shy of offering ideas. Yet it is engineers who enable ideas to be turned into reality.
In the words of Lord Browne, the President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, U.K., “The hinge between an idea and the realization of that idea in practice. That is the power of engineering.”
Those who have travelled by train to Shenzhen recently may have used the Long Valley spur line. You can be forgiven for not realising that this 7.4 km-long spur line actually cuts across the largest freshwater wetland in Hong Kong – a haven for 210 species of birds. Six years ago, this project became a major battle between green groups and the railway developer. At that time, there seemed to be an unavoidable clash between infrastructure development and nature conservation. Either one had to be sacrificed.
Engineers came to the rescue. Instead of building a surface rail line, a 3.2 km tunnel was drilled underneath the wetland. Moreover, to prevent groundwater loss, a ground-freezing method and a computer-controlled mechanical excavation machine were deployed to safeguard the wetland. An extra HK$2 billion was added to the original HK$8 billion engineering bill. Yet neither conservation nor development was compromised. The power of engineering.
The enabling role of engineers can go further. We are the profession which best understands the complexities and fine details of each project. We know the constraints we face, and the opportunities each project may present. Armed with this knowledge, we are the vital link between what the community wishes to see happen, and what any investment may deliver. In essence, engineers can enable community values be articulated into public policies or market decisions.
An Enabler of Community Values
About a year ago, I started to get involved in the Central Kowloon Route Project, which involves the construction of a much-needed highway linking the east and the west across the most congested part of the Kowloon peninsula. At that time, the project was facing a risk of deadlock because the government proposal included a plan to demolish part of the Yaumatei Police Station heritage complex, which aroused major concern among the public and many Legislative Council members.
Trying to find ways to break the deadlock, the responsible government departments reached out for the views of key stakeholders. I had lengthy discussions with the responsible engineers on two occasions, during which I offered three suggestions:
(1) To re-launch the project, a public engagement process should be conducted as soon as possible, involving especially the local residents and the disadvantaged groups of Yaumatei so that they can participate in the planning process and voice their views;
(2) To build mutual trust, it would be advisable for an independent body to host those public engagement activities instead of following the traditional mode of public consultation;
(3) To nurture consensus, the project should be visualised not merely as a road-building project, but also a community improvement project. Stakeholders can be encouraged to look into new development possibilities, which might have been overlooked in the past.
In the ensuing six months, government engineers, consultants and the mediating body worked hard as a team. They organised three public forums and charettes, arranged public visits to the Yaumatei Police Station and held an inter-school planning competition. From being rather cynical at the beginning, local residents, shop owners of Temple Street and the Jade Market, as well as conservation groups became more and more involved in searching for mutually acceptable solutions to the problems.
As of today, engineers managed to incorporate the community's aspirations and came up with a new plan - enabling the highway to be built as a tunnel, reducing noise pollution, opening up new ground-level areas as public open space and a new site for a popular jade market, relocating community facilities into the underground space made available from tunnel building, and most importantly, improving the welfare of the many disadvantaged groups in the neighbourhood. Again, the enabling role of engineers.
The concept of public participation in environmental policy-making has its roots in the Rio Declaration, a definitive document signed by many countries of the world including China, at the Earth Summit in 1992. By now, the concept has become an international consensus and one of the key principles in sustainable development. I can still remember, when leading a Hong Kong NGO delegation to attend the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in South Africa in 2002, the Chinese Government's official exhibition was largely focused on how public participation could make development more balanced and more suited to local needs.
The New Agenda
To consolidate engineers' enabling role in sustainable development, I believe we should embrace a new agenda.
1. To lead: engineers can take the lead in institutionalising an appropriate public engagement mechanism and a corresponding policy framework. Engineers will become facilitators of multi-stakeholder debate, decoders of technical information, and articulators of public interest.
2. To innovate: a new vision for sustainable communities demands new solutions, and hence innovations from engineers are in ever higher demand. In turn, this will open up new development opportunities for the engineering profession.
3. To expand: new engineering solutions can only be delivered effectively and efficiently in a complementary policy framework. Hence, engineers must expand their horizon and sphere of influence into higher levels of public policy making, and not limit themselves to technical details.
4. To collaborate: the practice of sustainable development worldwide has demonstrated one simple truth: sustainability can only be achieved, whether at a local or global level, only if partnerships can be nurtured among government, business and the civil society. Engineers can play an essential role to encourage collaboration among key stakeholders.
Movers and Shakers
About two weeks ago, in response to the Sichuan earthquake, I sent an emergency appeal message to Hong Kong engineers. I raised the idea for the set-up of a new body, “Engineers Without Borders” in Hong Kong. In a period of 48 hours, I received numerous responses, including a call from a Hong Kong engineer in Sydney who has helped set up the New South Wales branch of EWB, Australia; another call from a female engineer from Beijing who is helping Sowers Action, a local charity to build rural school in Mainland China; and another message from an earthquake engineer who had experience in working with EWB Germany. I was so overwhelmed by the response that I felt obliged to organise the first preparatory meeting on a Sunday afternoon four days after my appeal message.
Engineers are often perceived as practical and rational to the point that they become quite boring – not necessarily the most attractive lot to the opposite sex. Yet most people unfamiliar with the profession miss the point. Engineers have passion. Engineers have the passion to deliver solutions; the passion to enable the world be changed to a better, more equitable place to live in. That is sustainable development.
If you want to change the world, be an engineer*.
Ir Albert Lai
2 June 2008
*Lord Browne, “The Power of Engineering”, The Royal Academy of Engineering Hinton Lecture, 12 December 2005