Increase public engagement to deliver true sustainability

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Making global infrastructure truly sustainable will require rethink of the way the industry works.

Peter Guthrie, professor of engineering for sustainability at Cambridge University, issued a stark message to an online global construction sector audience, as he said that, at long last, the world was finally waking up to the need to address global warning and climate instability. “This is no longer a matter of concern, it is a precondition for any decision-making,” he said. Reimagining society and increasing public engagement in that decision-making process would be essential going forward, Guthrie claimed.

Speaking today (10.9.21) at a session on “How can we make global infrastructure truly sustainable?” as part of FIDIC’s Global Infrastructure Conference today, Guthrie said: “It is a global challenge we are facing that threatens all nations around the globe and countries will each need to rise to the challenge. Engineers will be crucial in developing strategies to step up to that challenge and I am confident that they have the skills to do it.”

Highlighting the key importance of social justice and economic enablement, Lou Cornell, president and CEO of WSP in the USA said that “any infrastructure that does not place equity at its centre could not be considered sustainable”. More community and public engagement were prerequisites for public acceptability of the sustainable infrastructure development needed to address climate change and achieve net zero, said Cornell.

Cowi group operating officer, Rasmus Ødum, said there were still real challenges involved in designing truly carbon neutral infrastructure. There was therefore a need to invest much more in new materials. “This is all about risk and we need a new approach. All parties to a construction project – engineers, clients, contractors, funders, architects – need to get around the table and take a more sensible approach to risk,” said Ødum.

Despite his straight-talking, Ødum thought that there were some hopeful signs as an industry that change could be on the way. “There is huge ambition around these issues, but often the political will is not forthcoming,” he said, and this needed to change.

Jens-Peter Saul, group chief executive at Ramboll, made the point that a high level of early engagement was essential in making investment decisions. “Take transport infrastructure – we need to ask the public what is needed to move them away from fossil fuel modes of travel,” he said. Early involvement of citizens in Denmark had led to a much greater uptake of green solutions and option than might have otherwise been the case, said Saul.

“The mood music is changing around sustainability,” said Peter Guthrie “and it’s time for the industry to embrace the political opportunity. There can be no business as usual on this and those who think there can be, need to be challenged,” he said.

Mott MacDonald group external engagement director, Denise Bower, said that effective and early public engagement on key infrastructure developments was just just a desirable approach, “it was absolutely essential in building the powerful coalitions of interest that we need to ensure that better decisions are made”.