Natural and manufactured resources provide the raw materials for civil engineers in their role of supporting civilised life. The finite nature of natural resources is frequently referred to, while their fickle nature – too little (droughts), too much (floods), wrong place (construction in the South East, virgin aggregates in the Midlands), wrong time (diurnal peaks and troughs in electricity demands) – all adds to the challenge of marshalling our resources and working within what the planet has to offer. Civil engineers are necessarily concerned with their current and future supply, but are not, perhaps, always as conscious of the wider picture and the (inter)dependencies between the various supplies of resources when going about their daily business. For example, water supply depends on energy for its distribution, which is why a flooded substation stops the supply of both electricity and water. It is for this reason that the subject has been chosen by the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Innovation & Research Panel (IRP) for detailed exploration as its cross-cutting theme for 2014-15. Indeed, it is a topic that is in danger of being overlooked precisely because it is one that cuts across the ‘engineering silos’ of expertise.
Importantly, the topic is not only concerned with interdependencies but is also inter-generational, since the ability to supply the needs of future citizens is dependent upon the decisions made by civil engineers to meet today’s needs. So, alongside the demographic and environmental challenges that complicate a civil engineer’s role is the responsibility to adopt appropriate stewardship of our natural resources.
The UK Government addressed the topic in a 2012 report: Resource Security Action Plan – Making the most of valuable materials (BIS and Defra, March 2012). This provides a helpful introduction, yet one that focuses on a UK business perspective in relation to the supply of metals and minerals, whereas the resource issue is far broader in scope.
The IRP’s initiative seeks to deliver changes in awareness, and hence practice, via a call for papers, to be published in different parts of the ICE Proceedings, and a seminar in late 2015. To inform the call, a workshop was held with representatives from the IRP, academia, consulting and contracting industries, the Highways Agency, Natural England, WRAP, Defra, International Synergies, EPSRC and the Technology Strategies Board. More specifically, it concerned invited individuals who are central to these debates. Alongside the challenging questions already mentioned, a number of interesting contextual points emerged.
Resources are typically won (harvested, mined, quarried) and refined prior to being supplied into engineering or building projects, yet in many cases the externalities (the environmental, social and indirect economic impacts and costs) are not accounted for in the price. Moreover, there is a ‘first cost’ in terms of resource use, but also an operational cost, and this holistic picture is often not properly considered during design and construction. Allied to this, civil engineers create artefacts (infrastructure, buildings) with long lives, and these condition, or ‘lock-in’, user or operational behaviours, and consequently ‘lock-in’ resource consumption patterns that are often difficult or expensive to change.
The same argument applies to the adoption of technologies. There is a trade-off between installing ‘more-efficient’ technologies and system robustness, which might be provided by techno-diversity within systems – i.e. avoiding ‘lock-in’ to technologies that might potentially become vulnerable due to future resource criticality.
This idea of ‘lock-in’ (and avoiding it) extends to professional and societal practices – perpetuating practices on the basis of past experience. This led to the interesting question at our workshop of whether our regulatory and decision-making environments produce, or tend to produce, ‘bounded rationality’ (rational choices made in irrational frameworks) and therefore lead to perverse decisions. For example, Councils may seek to maximise resource use because they have to spend their annual budget each year (or risk it being reduced the following year). Such action is perverse in the extreme when viewed in the context of austerity.
There is a body of research that is starting to underpin the decisions that civil engineers need to make, from two perspectives: materials (http://sure-infrastructure.leeds.ac.uk/ui/) and urban metabolism (www.liveablecities.org.uk). In addition, alternative business models to capture the value opportunities offered by the interdependencies between infrastructures are being explored (https://research.ncl.ac.uk/ibuild/). There are also many innovations in practice, with shining high-profile examples included in the Olympic Park – see http://learninglegacy.independent.gov.uk/.
The IRP initiative seeks to draw together the research findings and good practice from industrial developments and case study applications so as to inform, inspire and empower practitioners to bring about, and indeed to be ambassadors for, more-responsible resource use. Such an evidence base would equally provide the foundation for further innovations, while resource constraints provide the necessary drivers.
We live in a world of finite resources. At least in some parts of the world, resource scarcity is projected to result in civil unrest and civil conflict. It is our collective responsibility to work towards (civil) engineering solutions that ease this situation.