The Sustainable Perspective

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Getting to do work experience in an area I was passionate about at a young age radically changed my level of passion and commitment. It enable me to have a completely different understanding of maths and physics and how they could be used practically to solve real world problems. Yet this fascination for the technical aspects of civil engineering was not the must memorable part of the work experience. One morning when I went into the office, my mentors set me the task of interviewing all the staff and finding out about their story. For a shy introvert this was a big challenge that had my fourteen year old self feeling rather disconcerted. What I learnt from this experience completely changed the way I look at my career.

During the interviews I asked each member if staff what they where passionate about, what role they played in the company and how they had got into that role. Each member of staff answered my questions in an open and honest manner. I came out of the experience with an understanding of who an engineering consultancy worked. How each individual played their role and had a purpose within their company. I also learnt about their purpose, their story and their passions. My mentor taught me about the diverse environment of engineering and the different disciplines involved in a consultancy. This taught me to always try and understand where engineering fits into the bigger picture. This has encouraged me to understand how different perspectives can help understand and overcome challenges.

Diversity is a word we through around a lot but what does it really mean and how can we create a more diverse engineering community? Diversity is about creating a workspace that is representative of society. This is vital for civil engineering as we work on solutions that shape the society in which we live. To create a real diversity within engineering we can’t just promote engineering as a career choice, we have to encourage people to bring their passions and interest into engineering. In doing so we can bring a wider perspective into engineering, and build up an innovative approach to the problems we are solving.

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Sustainable Development: A Strategic Human Centred Approach

Series 1/14: Grass Route Social Innovation – Understanding the road towards integrating genuine grassroots social innovation into sustainable development.

Mini Series 1/3: Human Centred Design – The following series covers the concepts and ideas behind Human Centred Design?

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Over the past few years I have been challenged by the impact of unsustainable growth. We have exceeded the planetary boundaries, the safe and sustainable working boundaries in terms of climate change, ocean acidification and nitrogen cycle… Our cities continue to grow with 1/3 of the urban population living below the poverty line. We haven’t just abused the environment in which we live we have let the few take, abuse and squander our resources. There seems to be no perfect solution to designing sustainably and creating equal opportunities. When designing large infrastructure projects we have a responsibility to manage resources effectively and consider conflicting demand. There is however a limit to what we can achieve through strategic thinking. We cannot design a resilient transport system, resilient flood defence system, resilient energy supply, or resilient social housing. Supply and demand simply means we cannot bridge the gap in between the resources we have available and the continual increment in demand; as the world population increases and leads more complex lifestyles. The current situation does not require a blame game, it requires a sustainable solution but how do we design innovatively and bridge this impossible gap?

To achieve this we have to embrace the most important resource we have; each other. As engineers we need to design solutions which empower communities to take control of their own future; their potential. This isn’t simply about placing people at the centre of the design process but about working with and listening to the community to understand their strengths and skill set. There is hope for a more sustainable future, this requires grass route initiative and social entrepreneurs, who can make a difference and create positive change. Over the last few months I have met different social entrepreneurs, I have researched the reasons behind social entrepreneurship and worked on understanding what makes a successful social entrepreneur. More importantly I have worked on one challenging question: how does grass route social innovation work with strategic planning?

The problems society faces are integrated they cross boundaries and cultures. They are not limited to one sector or discipline. More than ever we need strategic thinking and Integrated Resource Management (IRM). We can no longer work on solving problems separately, we need to work together to avoid unintended negative impact. However we will not achieve this objective if we do not also work/design with the community. The problem with strategic thinking is that it creates distance in between the designer and end user; there are too many stakeholders and it is impossible to manage. How do social entrepreneurs work with and design with the community? How can this be applied back into strategic planning? How can designers work on large scale global challenges without losing sight of you and me? The following series will attempt to explore these questions. It will study different concepts in sustainable development, community engagement, peace and conflict resolution, and understand how it enables us develop new ideas for strategic thinking in large scale infrastructure projects.

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The Art of Global Challenge

Series 3/3: The Artist and the Engineer – This series reflects on the relationship in between Art and Engineering.

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From climate change to rapid urbanization civilization is facing radical challenges in the way we approach and solve problems. In this vast and growing world how do we understand the personal and intimate nature of these challenges. When there is a constant pressure for economic growth how do we value life and resources. In order to achieve this we must value creativity. Upholding the belief that we can overcome these challenges by working together valuing our different giftings. The answer is not to lose hope and to see borders and countries break down under the pressure for resources. If we value growth more than we value each other we will have lost sense of what it means to be a civilization.

Tipping Point is a project that brings scientist and artists together to study climate change and understand how it effects us. It takes the abstract and overwhelming idea of climate change and breaks it down to a quantifiable and identifiable idea. This is part of a global effort by artists to understand the human aspect of these global challenges. Art enables us to relate to these big ideas and see the different perspectives and outlooks into these challenges. Art can enable us to grow in our understanding of these challenges and our passion to bring about positive change.

Art doesn’t have to have a message or uphold social values. At its core art should remind us of the creativity of humanity. It should encourage us that as a civilisation there are solutions to these challenges. My wife loves searching for patterns in photography and prints. The different work she creates presents varied and complex patterns. This reminds me of the design we find throughout our environment. The challenges society face may be varied and complex but there are underlying patterns throughout, we need to work together to understand these complex patterns and build a better future.

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To Lego and Beyond

Series 3/3: For the Love of Lego – This series reflects on the role Lego can play in understanding and tackling engineering problems.

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In my final year of university I was researching the impact of the span rise ratio (bridge length over height) of masonry arch bridges on its capacity. This was a complex challenge and involved creating an excel model based on the equations of different geometric forms. The excel model predicted the force line throughout the structure and compare it with the material properties. This was a complex procedure and was able to provide a great deal of insight into the problem. After testing thousands of different bridges I was able to provide updated curves to the current standard which improved the accuracy of current methods and increased capacity by up to 40%. This could present enormous savings in the cost of detailed bridge inspections. The problem was this was all theoretical and experimentation on masonry arch bridges was costly. How do I test the theory in a quick, accurate and simple manner?

Experimentation can often be seen as complex procedure involving hefty equipment and never ending health and safety checks. This is not the case, experimentation can take any form and testing paper bridges is one of the simplest structural experiments you can do. If you have ever wondered why bridges come in all different shapes grab some paper and pennies and try loading different types of paper bridges. This is exactly what I undertook for my research and enabled me to test hundreds of different bridges with different span rise ratios and paper thickness. Creating a modular loading rig out of Lego made testing the different bridges a simple and fast process. With a large data set I was able to confirm that the results from the theoretical model were correct.

Lego wasn’t at the center of the solution but it did provide me with the creativity required to design the solution. When undertaking research the task may often seem complex and endless. It is easy to loose sight of the challenge and get caught up in the complexity of the detail. Innovation is about persevering and staying focused. There are many challenges around modelling a scale masonry arch bridge instead of trying to create the perfect model, I created a simple model that enabled me to respond to the challenge I had set. The best innovations can rise up from simple and creative insights into complex challenges.

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