Final Report of the Workshop on Frontier Research Directions and International Collaborations in Sustainability Engineering

6 June 2007

Workshop on Frontier Research Directions and International Collaborations in Sustainability Engineering, 24 February 2007, Auckland, NZ

Sponsored by: U.S. National Science Foundation (Grant No.CMMI-0652351)

Organized by:
Chris Hendrickson, Duquesne Light Professor of Eng, Carnegie Mellon
David Allen, Melven Gertz Regents Chair in Chemical Engineering, Univ. Texas Austin
Brad Allenby, Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, Arizona State University
Michael Griffin, Executive Director, Green Design Institute, Carnegie Mellon
Amy Landis, Doctoral Student, University of Illinois, Chicago
Deanna Matthews, Research Associate, Green Design Institute, Carnegie Mellon
Cindy Murphy, Res Sci., Ctr for Energy and Envr. Resources, Univ. Texas Austin
Jorge Vanegas, Professor of Architecture, Texas A&M
Heather Wakeley, Doctoral Student, Carnegie Mellon

In co-operation with:
The International Centre for Sustainability Engineering and Research, University of Auckland, NZ

Summary and Recommendations

The Workshop on Frontier Research Directions and International Collaborations in Sustainability Engineering was held near Auckland, New Zealand, on February 24, 2007. Supported by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and organized jointly with the International Centre for Sustainability Engineering and Research (ICSER, University of Auckland, New Zealand), the workshop brought together 28 US and 38 international participants. The ICSER is a group of researchers and education at the University of Auckland who act in close association with the New Zealand Society for Sustainability Engineering and Science, a special interest group of the Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand.

The workshop provided numerous valuable insights for sustainability engineering and an unusual opportunity for international interaction. Some summary observations and recommendations follow, as formulated by the organizing committee.

Importance of Sustainability Engineering

There is widespread social and political interest in the topic of sustainability. For example, the New Zealand government set ambitious goals for reduced emissions of pollutants associated with global climate change, only shortly before the workshop. As another example of the interest in sustainability, the announcement of the availability of travel funds to the workshop resulted in nearly 150 US applications, well exceeding the travel budget. This occurred despite a late announcement and the workshop taking place in the middle of an academic term (in the northern half of the globe). While there is widespread interest in promoting sustainability, there are very different concepts about the policy changes needed to achieve significant movement towards sustainability. There is also considerable lack of scientific knowledge and a degree of uncertainty about sustainable technologies, impacts of human activities on natural systems, and the various trade-offs associated with different policies and technologies. Moreover, many participants emphasized the need for sustainability education for students, practitioners, policy makers and the general public.

Given this worldwide importance and a significant level of ignorance of sustainability, it is encouraging that the National Science Foundation has initiated two new programs directed at this field: ‘Environmental Sustainability’ and ‘Energy for Sustainability.’ However, the end of the NSF Materials Use: Science, Engineering, and Society (MUSES) program leaves a void for multi-disciplinary, multi-center funding for sustainability research.

Recommendation: A new NSF initiative for larger projects similar to MUSES would be valuable, solely or in partnership with other federal agencies.

Potential Research Topics

There is no lack of exciting and potentially valuable research topics in the general area of sustainability engineering. Improved understanding and management of energy, water and material flows have formed the core of initial work in sustainability engineering, but much remains to be done on these areas, especially with regard to coping with growth, new policy directions for climate change control, and new technologies. In particular, better understanding of the limits of natural systems is a critical need. Risks and vulnerabilities are also important research areas to aid in understanding the deleterious effects that policies and decisions made in isolation might have on an entire region. A systems approach is essential, typically involving several distinct specialty disciplines. Expanding engineering research to include economic, environmental, and societal goals provides opportunities for useful collaboration with social scientists and other professionals. It is this systems element that motivates the need for larger projects than a single investigator and student. The NSF Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program has made a preliminary announcement of a topic area for FY 2008 involving sustainability: Resilient and Sustainable Infrastructures. However, this topic covers only a portion of sustainability engineering issues and is limited to a single year.

The activity of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides an interesting model of a potential research strategy. The IPCC has issued numerous reports indicating areas of uncertainty and substantial scientific consensus. The result has been a process with growing credibility in the area of climate change research. Researchers associated with sustainable engineering could adopt a similar strategy for reporting on the state of practice, perhaps with the assistance of a relevant professional society or government organization.

The workshop provided numerous valuable insights for sustainability engineering and an unusual opportunity for international interaction. Without attempting to be comprehensive about research opportunities and potential collaborations, in this section the organizing committee attempts to synthesize some conclusions, observations and recommendations. A detailed discussion of the workshop follows the recommendations.

Recommendation: The international research community should review the core knowledge of sustainability engineering, emphasizing areas of international consensus and uncertainty on energy, water and materials flows.

Potential International Collaborations

Sustainability engineering research is a topic of great interest throughout the world. However, there are few programs with critical mass in all the relevant dimensions of sustainability, including areas such as engineering design, energy alternatives, life cycle assessment, materials properties, natural systems, public health, toxics and social sciences. Moreover, there are clearly different rates of scientific progress and experience around the world. As a result, international collaborations are valuable and welcome. While the workshop focused upon potential Pacific collaborations, similar opportunities exist for other areas of the world. Continuing international collaboration in this education and research domain is a priority.

Continuing the dialogue on international collaborations and seeking international funding in sustainability engineering is an important priority for the research community. Professional societies such as the New Zealand Institute for Professional Engineers or the International Society of Industrial Ecology can serve an important role facilitating this collaboration.