To promote sustainable development, we must thoroughly understand the landscape ourselves. The Energy and Sustainability Engineering program at the University of Illinois (EaSE.illinois.edu) was launched with a considerable focus on the possibilities for, and fundamental limitations on, improved efficiency in energy conversion and materials use from a life cycle perspective. We have found, however, that the major challenge faced by our graduate students is not technical understanding, but how to articulate problems and potential solutions in the “big picture” context of development and deployment. The recent books by M. F. Ashby (Materials and the Environment, Materials and Sustainable Development) are among the resources that provide a clear conceptual framework and specific approaches for analysis.
We therefore challenge our students to define the following aspects of any proposal intended to improve sustainability. (i) What are the different objectives at play and the constraints on each one? (ii) What is the quantitative scale of the proposal in terms of technology to be deployed, spatial region and time scale? What does this imply in terms of the materials supply chain? (iii) Does the proposal depend on cost reductions as the technology matures? If so, what is reasonable to expect? (iv) What are the inevitable tradeoffs between the objectives – as well as the unintended consequences – and how should those tradeoffs be valued? (v) Who are the important stakeholders, and how should they be engaged? (vi) What are the demands for financial investment and the probable return on investment? How are these influenced by the hidden cost of externalities (which tends to favor investment in sustainability) and by economic discounting (which emphasizes short-term gains over lifecycle impact)?
In summary: we find that to advance sustainability, scientifically trained professionals need to construct and articulate a comprehensive and compelling business case around the technical possibilities made possible by engineering. I will provide key examples of the above challenges, the ways we attempt to provide insight, and welcome discussion with the audience.