Engineers taking a stand

Talking Resilience with Seth Schultz

For thousands of years, people and communities have been imagining, designing and building infrastructure that has allowed humans to congregate and interact, explore and thrive. Their ingenuity propelled the growth of human civilization and paved the way to the present.

Today, our infrastructure protects, connects and provides essential services for more people than previous generations of scientists and economists ever thought possible.

In navigating the urgent shift that we need towards more resilient critical infrastructure systems, engineers have a key role to play, and I’m really excited about our involvement with the International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure (ICSI).

In partnership with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and its ASCE Foundation, the Global Covenant of Mayors (GCoM), WSP, and LA Metro among many others, we are setting up a coalition of the engineering community with the aim of bringing together the entire value chain of infrastructure.

What this means in practice is that, as well as engineering companies, we’re also working with owners and operators, NGOs, policy makers, and the financial community at a leadership level to unlock the opportunity of using engineers as a driving positive force for impact.

Why engineers?

If you think about it, engineers are the missing link in all this.

There is a strong and emerging body of scientific work and literature around resilience and climate change in infrastructure. There is also growing awareness in the political space that we need to do more, with not only the burgeoning gap in the type of infrastructure we need, but also the impacts of shocks and stresses on old and ageing infrastructure.

It’s clear that we’ve got to do something about it urgently.

In early November of last year, myself and WSP’s Tom Lewis* led the development and facilitation of an international sustainability and resilience leadership summit in Los Angeles, hosted by the ASCE through its charitable foundation and representing more than 150,000 members in 177 countries.

The Future World Vision Leadership Summit included the participation of senior executives, specialists and infrastructure stakeholders from around the world. Their pledges led to the creation of the International Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure (ICSI) – clear evidence that leaders across the country and around the world are ready and willing to take a stand on resilience. The follow up ICSI Summit this April launched four Action Tracks and brought together over 50 leaders willing to step up with urgency and commitment.

Fortunately, more investors and financial institutions are beginning to divert their interests from non-climate-friendly investments to more sustainable and resilient infrastructure programs and projects. A major challenge is figuring out how to best convert these types of ambitions into practical results.

That’s where engineers come in. The engineering community of practice understands and can use science and data, but also has the technical know-how in terms of how to design and build. More than that, engineers have a code of ethics related to what they do, and a moral obligation on behalf of society, similar to other professions including doctors and lawyers. This means that they are an incredibly useful group to motivate, activate and collaborate with.

With ICSI and others, we must look together across every aspect of infrastructure to understand the opportunities for a step change. The potential of post-Covid economic stimuli requires us to ensure that we are picking the right infrastructure projects to fund and then designing and building them with resilience in mind from the outset. This will give us not only the short-term economic benefit of construction activity now but also the long-term benefits of sustainability and resilience.

I’ll end with my collaborator Tom Lewis who reminds us, “This is a unique time of opportunity for all infrastructure sustainability and resilience professionals to step up and initiate actions that will have long-lasting positive impacts. There are people looking to bring good minds to the discussion about how we restart the economy in a smarter way that will pay dividends for many decades to come.”

*Tom Lewis is a professional engineer specializing in sustainable infrastructure and climate adaptation, and the president in charge of disaster preparedness, response, recovery and resilience as well as federal programs for WSP USA Inc.

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