A Green Workforce for a Connected and Sustainable World

September 19, 2013 by  
Filed under Operations and Culture

By Jovin Hurry

World Engineers Summit 2013

Business as usual is not an option, so we are told. Global crises keep increasing: climate emergencies, biodiversity loss, population explosion, resource scarcity and cognitive dissonance. What kind of workforce is needed to bring in new thinking to handle these crises? Do the talents in companies in Singapore have what it takes intellectually, socially and culturally to make triple-bottom line decisions?

Eminent speakers at the inaugural World Engineers Summit 2013 (WES 2013) shared their thoughts on September 13, impressing upon the audience the urgency and the relevance of the right environmental engineering education tailored to address the above concerns.

The general workforce must be able to work across sectors and cultures. “Environmental problem complexities require broad working with social workers, scientists, engineers from many disciplines to seek solutions,” argued Professor Perry McCarty, Silas Palmer Professor Emeritus, Environmental Engineering & Science, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Stanford University, USA.

Professor Perry highlighted the climate change impacts of the global issues we are facing. He then pushed for a different thinking to adopt, e.g. look at waste as resources, and move to capture the energy, water and nutrients from wastewater. He asked the professionals to tread cautiously with divisive issues, like the food vs fuel debate in a world with rising costs of food and severe droughts.

Moreover, the engineering workforce should be familiar with systems analysis, inter and intra disciplinary approaches, and complexity science. “They must think things in a broader context. Integrating as a whole will reduce resource use. Look at the synergistic effect of infrastructural symbiosis,” commented Professor John Crittenden, Director of Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems, USA and Eminent Scholar in Environmental Technologies at Georgia Institute of Technology, USA.

Professor Crittenden was one of the handful, if not the only one at the WES who reflected on integrating the human perspective with big data, through both structured and unstructured media. The professionals should tap on crowdsourcing to mine the huge amount of data generated, for e.g. to refine their thinking on predicting the emerging property flows of resources.

Finally, the workforce is to overcome stagnation, and to eagerly look for conditions whereby its intellectual ferment is stirred, its passion for learning ignited, and a sense of urgency upbeat to bring about changes. “Our impact is a product of population, affluence and technology. On affluence, we should care about our psychological footprint. On technology, we can have smart engineering, but bad application,” remarked Associate Professor Jeff Obbard, from the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering of the National University of Singapore, and Director of Sustainable Development & Water Alliance.

Professor Obbard shared his innovative ways of teaching his students the fundamentals of climate change and sustainable development (e.g. stunning and captivating videos), to polish their fluency in the science of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere and biosphere; to develop a workforce able to not only carve through emerging complexities and but also apply their hard-won skills to create a better future.

Hence, the workforce to tackle these crises must be all-rounded, well-versed in systems thinking, catch up with contemporary trends and be willing to take action on them. If needed, going back to the school for an upgrade should be an option. After all, the challenges are too serious to take them lightly or to implement poor short-term solutions.

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