As an engineer and a parent/grandparent, one of the questions I often ponder is around sustainable development. It is dated but the 1987 Brundiland commission of the UN still gives one of the best definitions of sustainable development:
"Development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own need."
That might seem a simple enough thing to say but in practice it’s much trickier. It’s easy to see the needs of the future generations as being similar or even identical to our own – using the same things, at the same rate, in the same way. Now that might be true or it may not be true. Consumption at the rate the developed world operates is unlikely to continue, but the point is that it is unpredictable. And any sensible thinking around sustainable development starts with an appreciation of that unpredictability.
However, there are some topics for which that predictability becomes easier – burning carbon, coal and gas, at the rate we are over the next 30 years is one such case. Climate change is a threat to our future and that means two things - change and innovation. (It also means political commitment and confronting of denial but that is another blog for another day.)
Where should that change and innovation come from? Who should those innovators be?
These are questions that too often present mental images of ‘the experts’: men and women in white coats working in distant laboratories. But climate change is not just a science problem; it’s a social problem, a leadership problem and a human problem. Because even when we can get the science right, who is there to deal with unseen, consequential difficulties? Who is there to see that the necessity becomes a reality?
Idea sharing is a good example of this. If you look in cities around the world we have many genuine solutions to most of the problems we’re facing in resources (e.g. water), transport, energy and infrastructure – but when we should be applying these solutions globally, we struggle even to apply them nationally or regionally. We have to come to terms with the fact that the scientists and engineers who develop technical solutions may not be the best people to make sure they are adopted and shared from city to city. And so when Bangalore doesn’t have access to the fantastic new technology that Singapore is developing – or vice versa – I don’t see that as a science and engineering problem, I see it as a leadership problem; a leadership problem we all can help to address in our own small ways.
Another barrier comes when people do not identify as innovators because they see innovation as inherently technological. But what is innovation? Yes it can be a product, but it can also be an idea, a way of working, a way of thinking or using an existing thing in a different more useful way. When we consider innovation this way, we realise that we all need to be involved in producing change.
When it comes to climate change, there is no space for us to have any spectators. We are all in this particular game and need to play our part. We need to have a meaningful conversation that is open and accessible. For this we need people who can communicate and, perhaps more importantly, we need people who can lead.