Stepping down from the pedestal to see more: At the Centre for Sustainable Development, with Peter Guthrie and Kristen MacAskill

Fernando García-Dory - October 2014

In my second day at Cambridge, already enjoying cycling across fields past such venerable walls, I visited the Engineering Department. Kristen met us and took us for a cup of tea, before showing us around. She is PhD student, working on the process of post-catastrophy recovery, in particular in relation to the cities in New Zealand affected by the earthquake of 2011. She explains to us how the ground 0 situation, beyond despair, opens opportunities to "build back better" and advance the sustainability/resilience agenda for infrastructure development. Actually her research topic, that she pursues with determination and talent, is exploring decision-making in post-disaster urban infrastructure reconstruction activities, with an aim to understand the extent to which sustainability, resilience and uncertainty factors influence the reconstruction programme outcome. In other words, her expertise is dealing with risk and uncertainty. A new form of engineering.

This is the expertise of the Centre for Sustainable Development (CSD) of the Engineering Department. Beyond a traditional understanding of Engineering, a major driving force of our highly mechanised industrial societies, more than mechanics or infrastructures, the Department, and in particular CSD, is considering this technical science under the new paradigm of sustainability. A form of Engineering that is adaptative to multidimensional problems with a growing complexity, requesting innovative solutions. A new understanding of the role of the Engineer, that "walks through the place instead of looking from a birds-eye view". The profession is re-thinking the frame itself, the elusive aspects of the process, promoting a notion of qualitative growth that involves transformation and questions basic assumptions. The question is: Can the engineer be more part of the solution than of the problem?

It is very well articulated by Peter Guthrie, pioneer and mentor of CSD and current Head of the institution, he is an engineer himself and a wise man. One of the Department's aims is to:"Widen engineering horizons: addressing the complexity of sustainable development". Guthrie and his colleagues Fenner, Cruickshank and Ainger address the question of engineers having to make choices based on values that go beyond the simple dictums of "quality, cost, time". Instead areas such as environmental issues or social justice are addressed in a more holistic approach:

"Engineers do not operate in a vacuum but are constantly required to make value judgements. Often these judgements have not been recognised as value-based and we have acted as if they are 'objective science' even when they are not. In order to guide these judgements a system of ethics is essential. The first Engineer of the 21st Century Inquiry 9 insisted: 'Practical change in our ethics is absolutely necessary if sustainability is to be achieved—just as necessary as scientific and technological advance'. Such ethics may be framed by reference to the aims of sustainable development. The Earth Charter 10 states: 'We urgently need a shared vision of basic values to provide an ethical foundation for the emerging world community' and goes on to suggest that interdependent sustainable development principles can be used 'as a common standard by which the conduct of all individuals, organisations, businesses, governments and trans-national institutions is to be guided and assessed'. The relevance of ethics to our framework is on the intellectual underpinning that an ethical foundation provides. Such rigour is important in justifying specific courses of engineering action (or avoidance)."

The perceived central limitation of this traditional "machinistic " approach to engineering is also summarised in the same paper as: "The fundamental dilemma is the translation from a problem needing to be defined by complexity science to a solution that must be delivered by Newtonian science."

The complex, fragmented and diverse aspects of a sustainable development perspective that we are facing are translated into an eight-point framework (Fig. 3) that defines a structure far more outward looking than that traditionally adopted by civil engineers.

The North West Cambridge Development building site on the other hand responds to the imperative of quantitative growth as a goal, fuelled by the projection of an ideal state, represented by renderings, an aspiration to "the new", the cutting edge. I am interested in creating forms to enable CSD to relate and contribute to the North West Cambridge Development, and very specifically looking at this from the perspective of sustainability and the transitional processes towards it. How can both worlds/ paradigms meet? How can there be an influence? The new Engineer observes and navigates through unpredictability, like in permaculture, adapting and designing with nature. For example, understanding and adapting urban design to the flood of a river, without pretending to control or master it. Learning by error, and mending. This notion of refusal to master leads to another plan (other than the masterplan). An uncontrolled space of freedom, similar to the one we all claimed as children.

Mending and childhood could refer to a sentimental nostalgia. Or to a certain sense of history, of memory. This is also the role of the monument. When walking around Rome when one sees the Memorial to King Vittorio Emmanuelle (Fig. 4), it is inevitable to experience the pungent feeling of pretentious banality it transmits now, that surmounts the intended grandiosity. An image failure. What happens when raised expectations are not fulfilled? For these cases, maybe, in the new Engineering, that will be sustainable or not be, we could say there is a notion of achievement within the failure, and of resilience and capacity for bouncing back from an impact.

In last years archaeological digs on the North West Cambridge Development building site they found the remains of ancient huts and dwellings. There once lived the swamp people, the excluded from an unequal and unjust social system, in the mud, exposed to the floods, the mud-lurkers. We could draw a connection from that primeval condition of excluding radical class system with the existing work by CSD, designing a refugee camp in no man´s land after war time in Afghanistan, or arranging shelters in the aftermath of climatic disturbance, usually in tropical impoverished, post-colonised regions. Can the buildings of the new development somehow incorporate this memory, the presence of the excluded absent, the pariah, in our hi-tech green new towns? How far is the new Engineer rethinking their position, scope, and capacity? Are there new spaces of dialogue, of re-appropriation, a dialogue of knowledge with the non-technician, the non-specialist?


Have your say...

comments powered by Disqus


Fernando García-Dory

Fernando García-Dory´s collaborative projects involve using art as a means to try to precipitate social change, often addressing attitudes towards food production, community and tradition.


Sustainable Development

Fernando García-Dory

April 2014 to March 2015


Privacy Policy - Cookies Policy - Website Terms
Site by LMNOP Studios