THE ZWEIG LETTER | OCTOBER 31, 2011, ISSUE 933
B E S T P R A C T I C E S
History and hindsight lead to innovation Foresight, action, and leadership can lead to transformation. H istorically, changes in engineering practices have occurred because of a failure. In my own state, the Engineering Practice Act in Texas was created after the New London School explosion in East Texas in March 1937. The Act set new standards to “safeguard life, health and property and protect the public welfare” – and to regulate the practice of engineering through licensing and rules of practice governed by the Texas Board of Professional Engineers. Changes in designing safer structures such as bridges, buildings, levees, and dams have been predicated on monumental failures that caused significant loss of life and property, and hindered economic prosperity. We have only to look at the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina for examples. The A/E/P and environmental consulting community traditionally responds quickly to these extraordinary natural and man-made disasters. We are eager to embrace the work that not only provides short-term solutions but also puts us in the spotlight. We know how to fix what is in front of us. But how and when do we address the long-term view to prevent similar tragic events from occurring? We know our coastlines are vulnerable, yet we seem shocked when another hurricane ravages the area. Our West Coast is prone to seismic events, but millions of people continue to live there. We live in arid regions like Phoenix, but we panic when there are water shortages. Who is responsible for leading the serious, sustainable conversations about future planning, building, and the impact of population growth? We are. When the U.S. government reports that 36 states will face water shortages due to a combination of population growth, rising temperatures, drought, urban sprawl, waste, and excess, who is responsible for bringing long- term solutions to the table? The client? The planner? The politician? The engineer? Who is responsible for leading the serious, sustainable conversations about future planning, building, and the impact of population growth? We are.
One place to look for answers to this question is the first fundamental canon of ASCE’s Code of Ethics, which states, “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.” Isn’t it time to insist on the long view?
Built-in conflicts of interest. If our first duty is to serve the public; above our duty to our clients and our- selves, how do we accomplish that effectively? We are sup- posed to protect the public, but also the interests of our cli- ents. There is political risk, especially in terms of infrastruc- ture work, as you may be challenging those who give you work, which is like walking the plank with the saw behind you. If we are to focus on the technical and ethical aspects of the engineering profession to pursue the greater good, then we must move to a level of discussion and policymaking that other organizations have mastered. AEC organizations have lobbying arms, but they pale in comparison to other lobbying powerhouses. Yet despite these powerhouses, engineers are the first go- to resource after catastrophic events. Given that position, we have the opportunity to lead for the long term, but only if we are prepared to embrace that role. We are already advising about the future, but our political system is mired in rehashing past events and ignoring developing disasters. While we are making advances in engineering, some driven by technology and by design, there is still a myriad of issues that should be addressed, including supplying water, improving transportation and communication networks, improving air quality, advancing agricultural practices, and other infrastructure needs to support our standard of living, economic growth, and prosperity. Sustainability is the key. Our industry has become apathetic about important drivers of sustainability. Now that many hold their LEED APs with various additional green credentials, we still accept five-year payback models for a project’s feasibility and marketability. Have we allowed the sustainability discussion to be a philosophical one, or one that slips away based on short- term ROI? In a world of 3 percent interest rates, does the payback still have to be 15 percent? Still no progress on infrastructure. Since ASCE produced its 2009 Report Card on America’s Infra- structure, little progress occurred. We are very good at eval- uating how bad we are doing, but as a profession, we have failed to lead efforts to correct or solve long-term problems. We keep working short-term and hoping for a silver bullet to solve the long-term problems. In 2011, ASCE partnered with the American Public Works Association and the American Council of Engineering Companies to establish the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure. ISI has created a rating system that certifies the sustainability of infrastructure projects named
See LUCY, page 12
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