| By Dennis Price |
Are 9.5 billion people too many for one planet?
Not really, according to Dr. Tim Fox, lead author of a new report on engineering’s role in responding to the sustainable development challenges of an increasingly crowded planet.
Fox, and the United Kingdom’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) report assert that the engineering field has the technical solutions to address the new challenges that will arise due to the impending population explosion. What is lacking, according to the engineers, is the political, social, and economic will to implement them.
The basic message from IMechE? Engineers can solve our part of the problem. You solve your part.
The Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy invited Fox to present the report’s findings at Columbia University at a speaker-panel session on March 5th, 2012. Columbia University Professors Joel Cohen, Glenn Denning, Elliott Sclar, and Alex de Sherbinin, experts on population, agriculture, urbanization, and the environment, respectively, were on hand to respond to Fox’s talk. I was in the audience.
Considering a middle estimate of population growth in which global population peaks at 9.5 billion by the end of the century (a 36% increase over today), Fox believes we have the engineering knowledge to address the new challenges posed to life’s basic needs: food, water, shelter, and energy. It’s not a question of what we need from engineers; it’s a question of how development practitioners and policy makers are using engineering breakthroughs. According to Fox, the challenges exist beyond engineering. It’s a problem inherent in development practice itself.
So how did he come to this conclusion?
Fox examined engineering responses for basic human needs including food, water, shelter, and access to affordable energy based on population projections. Fox considered climate change as a “stress inducer,” something that could compound the challenges. Population growth was his defining challenge.
According to Fox, population growth will lead to unique challenges to basic needs in three emerging regions: fully developed countries (think United States) with stable or declining populations, slower economic growth, and aging residents; late-stage developing countries (think China) with decelerating population growth, increasing affluence, and aging residents; newly developing countries (think Nigeria) with accelerating population growth, industrialization, younger residents, and increased urbanization.
To summarize a very thorough analysis, Fox and IMechE found that most of the coming challenges are challenges for which we already have technology to deal with. In providing food, for example, he identified the need for mechanization to assist planting and harvesting, storage and transportation to reduce post-harvest losses, and land drainage technologies to address salinity in soils. These are all challenges for which we know what to do, but according to Fox, how to put the solutions into use is the limiting factor.
So what are the constraints to integrating engineering solutions into sustainable development practice?
The report cites “politics, social ethics, funding mechanisms, regulation and international relations.” In his address Fox claimed that it is the responsibility of government to create a stable and long-term vision for development to provide a market for engineering contributions. He proposes the creation and adoption of a set Engineering Development Goals (EDGs), much like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), “to achieve a successful outcome in meeting future population growth and demographic change.”
In responding to Fox’s presentation, Professor Glenn Denning, from the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development, agreed on the importance of answering important “how” question. He highlighted the misalignment of supply and demand. In Africa, for example, there is an abundance of land and water yet the region is a net importer of food. In Iowa farmers use GPS laser-guided systems to apply fertilizers while in Kenya farmers apply fertilizer with bottle caps. How can we bridge that gap?
Denning was not convinced of the need for a new set of EDGs. He suggested rather the need for a collaboration manifesto, that isolating EDGs might work against the report’s call for collaboration. Denning suggested instead that engineers be at the table for the creation of more sustainability-focused MDGs in 2015. He also highlighted Columbia University’s Master’s in Development Practice Program (MDP) as an example of an academic program that uniquely brings various disciplines together to address sustainable development challenges.
I decided to reach out to students within the MDP program – ones with engineering experience, to hear their thoughts on Fox’s conclusions. .
Stephane Keil Rios, a second year MDP student, is a computer science engineer by trade with experience in using geographic information systems (GIS) software to improve efficiency within the automobile industry. He now uses GIS to analyze malnutrition in Timor Leste, access to social services in Uganda, and the impact of infrastructure on child health. Francisco J.Noguera, another second-year MDP student, has a degree in industrial engineering. He applies management and engineering skills to projects that advance sustainable development.
Rios partly empathized with policy makers and practitioners. He believes engineers tend to be optimists; they see a problem and create a solution but underestimate the cost benefit tradeoff policymakers must make when developing policy. Further, he believes, engineers underestimate the rate of diffusion and adoption of new technologies at the local level. “For example, the polio vaccine can be administered orally or through injection. The injection is more expensive but higher probability of polio prevention. However, most of the developing world still uses the oral vaccinations, it is clear that there is something else going on.”
Noguera also seemed to agree with Fox. “I agree that technical feasibility is only a small part of the equation for any solution to work and reach scale… critical issues need more than gadgets and or infrastructure to be solved; they require systems that integrate answers to all the questions above.”
Rios addressed how the MDP program works by focusing on having the right stakeholders at the table. “You need to sit down with the engineer, the economist, the sociologist, the politician and the entrepreneur to start understanding what elements are real bottle necks and which are just disciplinary misunderstanding,”
Noguera highlighted the program’s systems approach which attempts to put solutions to different challenges in the context of larger systems.
Finally, I asked the MDP students to share an example of a Columbia University project that has successfully overcome barriers to adoption and integrated a technical engineering solution into a sustainable development project.
An example of a Columbia University project that has successfully overcome barriers to adoption and integrated a technical engineering solution is one in which a new shared solar energy technology used in the Millennium Villages Project, which is being paired with an innovative business model. Another example is Childcount- a project which introduces a technical health innovation in a community where the team actively involved those who would use the tool so to eliminate barriers to adoption.
Going back to Fox’s presentation, there was a long discussion about the complexities of saving the planet from its own demographic time bomb, at the end of which Professor Alex de Sherbinin, from the Center for International Earth Science Information, posed an esoteric question to the group. Where do you place your hope for solving these challenges? He suggested that hope is not the ability to save ourselves. It’s the obligation to act as stewards, to share and to create a more equitable earth.
My hope lies in those endeavoring to answer the how question.
Dennis Price is a first-year Master of International Affairs student. This article first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of CQ Magazine.