Forum: Achieving Sustainability through Innovation

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Although making global economic development more sustainable has been labeled a critical issue for the 21st century, little progress has been made.  Making economic development sustainable over the long term will require a complete overhaul of our infrastructures, replacing legacy materials, processes, systems, and structures with those that are increasingly more sustainable.  To meet this challenge, the engineering community—the sector most qualified to effect this change—must alter substantially the way it approaches planning, design, construction, and operation. Acquiescence to the status quo is no longer acceptable. The engineering community needs to take the lead in developing and applying more innovative technologies to achieve sustainability. 

Right now other groups are beginning to fulfill that need, and are doing so at the engineering community’s expense. For example, Rocky Mountain Institute has begun a program called Factor Ten Engineering (10XE) to develop an instructive toolkit and associated case studies showing how whole-system design can boost resource productivity at least tenfold over traditional engineering approaches. Interestingly, the program’s stated goal is the “nonviolent overthrow of bad engineering.”

This article is intended to stimulate discussion, specifically exploring the connection between sustainable development and innovation. Many questions still exist in the minds of the public as well as the practitioners: Is sustainability a significant issue? What are the impacts of nonsustainability and are they serious enough to warrant substantial action? What are the barriers to achieving conditions of sustainability? What has been our experience to date in projects that purport to deliver improved sustainable performance? What is keeping the engineering community from becoming more involved in addressing the problems? What should be done to improve our facilities and infrastructure? By identifying the issues and the barriers to addressing them, it is hoped that more rapid progress toward sustainability can be made.

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