Canadian Consulting Engineer

The Environmental Revolution: Round Two

November 1, 2004
By John Boyd, P. Eng.

The following is a presentation given at the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada annual conference held at Deerhurst Resort, Huntsville, Ontario in June. John Boyd, P.Eng. is a senior principal of Golder Associates in Mississauga, Ontari...

The following is a presentation given at the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada annual conference held at Deerhurst Resort, Huntsville, Ontario in June. John Boyd, P.Eng. is a senior principal of Golder Associates in Mississauga, Ontario and a member of the Executive Committee of the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC).

It is a privilege to talk to you today about a subject that I believe over the next couple of decades will gradually shape the face and form of our practice in as fundamental a way as the changes that occurred in the environmental revolution that we have all lived through.

When I first began to practise as a consultant, the engineer had to pay attention only to the technical and financial aspects of the project. Within a few years we were tacking on environmental considerations (largely as an afterthought) and a few years after that, environmental specialists became key members of project teams. We learned to speak the new language of human health risk and ecological damage and to weigh issues that gradually displaced traditional engineering considerations as the most important discriminators between successful and unsuccessful projects.

Traditional engineering activities — the technical aspects of our profession –started to take a back seat to environmental activities. We learned, we grew, and our businesses became much more complex and interesting.

Well, buckle your seatbelts, because change is about to happen again and the name of the new game is sustainability.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is a simple enough concept on a global scale. The Bruntland Commission that really got the movement going in their 1987 report defined it as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

Note that sustainability is about development and development is about engineering, so I have a modest suggestion — if we are to achieve a sustainable world, it will be because engineers built it that way.

The whole thing rests on your shoulders. Now as you sink into the floor up to your calves under the weight of this new responsibility, you are undoubtedly asking, Why engineers?

If we don’t take it on, who will? The management consultants? The lawyers? The politicians? I think all of us would be worried about these alternatives.

Something necessary

After the Brundtland commission got this all going in 1987 when they released a report on the environment and development, FIDIC, the International Federation of Consulting Engineers, began to make sustainability a regular feature of its annual conferences from 1990. It became obvious very quickly that our industry could affect sustainability in two ways:

By running our own firms sustainably, and

By influencing our clients to include sustainability considerations in their projects.

The latter was by far the most powerful lever.

In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, political leaders and others concerned about sustainability agreed that something needed to be done. Agenda 21 was the result. It is a weighty tome of some 800 pages.

Agenda 21 was a key document because it contained 120 specific issues that needed to be addressed to make sustainability a reality. It also encouraged local governments to use the 120 issues to look at their own needs and to produce a “local agenda 21.” By 2001, some 6,000 municipalities and local governments in 100 countries had either produced a document of their own or were in the process of doing so.

FIDIC, representing our industry, summarized the discussions of many meetings in a report entitled “Business Guidelines for Sustainable Development.” The report looked at the way sustainability interacts with our business, and looked at the factors that might prevent us from being successful in responding to the sustainability challenge.

The Earth Summit envisaged a follow-up meeting 10 years after Rio to measure progress. FIDIC, in conjunction with the United Nations, developed a strategy paper entitled “Sustainable Development in the Consulting Engineering Industry,” which concluded that there were two deficiencies in the way our industry was approaching the subject. We needed to include more stakeholders in our design considerations and we needed a way to measure the sustainability of projects. Accordingly, a task force was struck to develop project indicators for sustainability.

Meanwhile everybody else was getting into the indicator business. Non-governmental organizations were using indicators to advance their rather narrow spectrum of interests. To the International Labour Organization for example, sustainability is all about continuous employment — full stop, end of discussion. They are right, it is about that, but it is also about a lot of other things.

The financial industry was using indicators to identify companies for investment that had a sustainability approach to their operations, hence the sustainability index for investments. Agencies and institutions like the World Bank were developing their own indicators that served their purposes through tools like the Equator Principles. They wanted to distinguish between investments likely to lead to a sustainable product and those that were not so they could focus on the former.

The construction industry developed LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) and BREEAM (building research establishment environmental assessment method). Individual consulting firms developed proprietary approaches such as Arup’s SPEAR.

All of this culminated in the Johannesburg Summit in 2002, which was a sort of report card on world progress. That summit in turn has led to a multi-year segment-by-segment approach to measuring progress and setting priorities that is being operated by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

By now clients had started to report on sustainability in their annual reports and corporate boards were directing their companies to establish sustainability programs.

A moving target

Like everybody else, FIDIC has been thrashing through these same woods for some time now. When FIDIC’s Sustainable Development Task Force tried to find project indicators, we found they were too narrow to cover the wide range of activities in which engineers engage. When we looked at what was already out there, we came to the same conclusion: most of the indicator sets had been developed by special interest groups and did not cover the range of global sustainability as defined by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. Some indicator systems even contradicted one another. Gradually, however, we realized that we were developing some principles that could be our guide.

1. Sustainability is a whole society concept that is dependent upon location. To a small tribal village in the Third World a sustainable water supply might look like a clean source of water out of a single central pipe outlet, even if the pipe is PVC. To a city the size of Tokyo or New York, the problem is what comes out of each pipe outlet in every building.

One of the thorny issues in sustainability is the question of who are the stakeholders. We believe that local stakeholders who are affected directly by the project should have much more say than distant ones.

2. We haven’t seen or heard the last word on this subject; definitive statements that we publish today will be obsolete by tomorrow. Sustainability is a moving target so our measurements must move with it. Consider the construction of a new manufacturing facility; it has a lifetime of say 10, 20, 30 years. A sustainable design has to consider permitting and construction, operation and refurbishing, demolition and the ultimate disposal and reuse of the constituent materials. I am willing to bet that in 30 years the requirements for sustainability will look very different than they do today, as will the regulatory environment. Our indicators for performance therefore must be allowed to change over the lifetime of the project.

3. Sustainability will be ac
hieved one project at a time. We are not about to suddenly redevelop all of the world’s infrastructure or recast the world’s financial systems, so progress will be incremental — and those involved in developing the projects are in the best position to make them sustainable.

Because progress will be incremental, measurement is critical. Engineers care about the things that we measure, and the act of measurement persuades others that we are serious about progress. Indicators must be measurable, must be measured, and the results must be posted where others can see them.

4. Project contributions to sustainability do not have to be perfect or even succeed in all indicators, so long as the project is better than the last one in areas for which indicators are used.

Indicators are targets, and stretch targets at that, not a cast-iron promise to deliver. It is very important that the distinction is accepted and understood.

5. Very few existing indicator systems go back to basic principles as set out in Agenda 21, with the result that progress might be achieved on one front at the expense of backsliding on another. Project indicators need to help us focus on issues affected by the project, not allow us to forget the inconvenient ones on which we may not be making progress.

Indicator sets must be complete and traceable to Agenda 21 until such time as Agenda 21 itself is replaced as the defined target for sustainability.

6. The prerequisite for progress is an environment of innovation in our industry. Each project has to be better than the last one.

So how do we do all this?

We recommend a basic set of indicators directly traceable to Agenda 21.

We couple these indicators with a set of activities that involve the engineer, the client, and the other stakeholders in a transparent and open process to tailor these basic indicators to fit the needs of the project and allow migration of those targets over time.

We require an environment for innovation as the essential ingredient for success.

Core indicators

What does a core indicator look like and how would I recognize one it if it bit me in the leg?

The U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development came up with categories, themes, sub-themes, and indicators — 65 of them — in Agenda 21. The task force kept the social environmental and financial indicators, but dropped the institutional category since most of our projects are not involved in setting global or national policies and strategies.

That left us with 42 indicators, many of which did not apparently tie to things that engineers or their clients controlled. As an example, under the financial category in the equity theme and the poverty sub-theme, one of the UN Commission’s indicators is the percentage of the population living below the poverty line. We changed the indicator to read “proportion of workers or companies employed on the project from the local area,” because it is something that we could influence.

A lot of our core indicators still ended up looking very different from things that engineers are traditionally involved with, but we think it is possible to further focus them on issues that affect the way we do projects, to measure our success, and to report it.

For any project there will be a range of possible goals by the owner, compared to a range of implementation choices. The minimum would be to achieve compliance with local laws and regulations. If state-of-the-art practice is used we would expect to achieve a little more, i.e. to exceed the benchmark imposed by law and regulation.

If we stretch further to “best in class” practice we would get a little farther along the axis, and if we were really innovative we could perhaps establish a new benchmark. We think that full sustainability requires yet more progress and lies even farther along the axis.

If one looks at all 42 indicators, the relationship between categories, themes, sub-themes and indicators becomes apparent. In each case, the FIDIC approach is to examine a project’s achievement against the background of what is achievable.

How is this applied to a project?

We start with our knowledge of previous achievements and with the current state of practice, with the core indicators, and with our scope of work. With the knowledge of client objectives for the sustainability of the project and with input from key stakeholder groups, we develop a first cut at indicators for the project. Then we apply local sustainability considerations, like safeguard policies if we are in the Third World, or local Agenda 21 indicators if they exist, or other indicator sets required by the client, adjusted to local conditions. Once these factors are tested for viability we have the final set of indicators specific to the project. Stakeholder engagement continues throughout the process.

What does the “environment for innovation” do to our industry?

We base our claim of a contribution to sustainability on demonstrated advances in the methodology of the project along the dimensions of the indicators. This requires our industry to know current practice and to be innovative in advancing the execution of that practice on the project.

Progress is measured by benchmarking and benchmarking is achieved by open and honest disclosure.

You can’t provide sustainability services for your client unless the client is prepared to provide access to the full objectives of his company or organization and a perspective that encompasses the complete project from inception to decommissioning.

Our industry has to learn how to involve public stakeholder groups in a positive dialogue on what is achievable. This means both educating and listening to diverse opinions and recasting these opinions in the form of the design brief. We have taken some steps in this direction as a result of the environmental revolution, but many more are required before we will be up to the challenges of the sustainability revolution.

And finally, the exercise in sustainability design distances us from being a commodity provider, and requires us to demonstrate those qualities that we argue should be the basis for our selection in the first place.

We aren’t in this to follow, we’re in it to lead.

All the above is written up in the form of a FIDIC Guideline entitled “Project Sustainability Management.” It was published for the FIDIC annual conference in Copenhagen in September and is being presented at conferences worldwide. The guideline is available through

Early next spring, FIDIC will be starting a round of workshops designed to train consulting firms to use the process that we have designed. The workshops will probably take the form of one- or two-day hands-on sessions using the guidelines and with supplementary materials. They will be aimed at providing the participants with services that they can sell their clients and bring to bear on real world projects. The first workshop will be held in conjunction with ACEC here in Canada.

FIDIC will also be putting on seminars and workshops aimed at client groups — a sort of bootstrapping operation in which we set out to establish a market and the means to satisfy that market at one and the same time. The preliminary discussions that we have held with the World Bank, with UNEP, with ISO groups and with others are very encouraging. It seems that while everyone is familiar with the concepts of sustainability and with early indicator systems, everybody is looking for a more flexible but rigorous way to measure progress in achieving our global objectives.

To close — a quote from Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations: “We inhabit the earth. And we must rehabilitate our one and only planet.”

We can do this.

Postscript. FIDIC’s annual meeting next year in Beijing will be on the subject of Sustainability – Global Leadership. It will deal in its technical sessions with the use of the guidelines, and their implications on water supply, municipal infrastructure, project financing, and sustainable procurement. In particular the Chinese are wrestling with making en
ormous cities into livable places that work properly.


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories