The humble engineer.
The built environment is becoming increasingly technological, exponentially complex. The pace of change is evident in our everyday experience. We are passive and active participants in a landscape that has become progressively mechanized, digitized, and automated. Behind the scenes, this technical infrastructure is being planned, designed, constructed, and maintained largely by one type of person: the engineer.
Engineers create buildings and infrastructure that have the capacity to negatively impact those around them, often with unintended consequences, like a kind of technological secondhand smoke. And as we experience global climate change and biodiversity loss, it is the humble engineer who has become, perhaps unwittingly, an ecological force on a planetary scale.
What to do?
Just add philosophy.
We need a more philosophical approach to the way we design, construct, and maintain buildings. We need to recognize that the focal point of the built environment should not be technology, but people. Creating a sustainable and humane built environment depends not just on technology itself, but on how we use and appropriately apply technology.
A sustainable built environment, in other words, depends on more than just physical structures and systems; it relies on how well buildings connect with infrastructure, nature, and people.
By employing the mindset of a philosopher, we can help achieve this. And by applying this way of thinking we can create more opportunity for innovation. A philosophical approach to our work as engineers can also serve to reinforce the ultimate aim of the projects we work on: to create buildings and cities that improve human health and well-being, that enhance ecological sustainability, and that are more valuable to society.
A Building's Typical Business Operating Costs ($/sf)
Internet of Things.
As many of these concepts become mainstream, we shouldn't lose sight of the end goal of why we employ them in the first place. Few people really understand what these words mean. Fewer still have stopped to consider their societal and environmental impacts in any philosophical way.
We seem to have forgotten that these are merely symbols, tools, or benchmarks. Technology can play an important role in making buildings and cities more sustainable and liveable -- but technology alone won’t solve our urban problems. It is a means to that end, not an end in itself.
OK. But why?
THE BUSINESS CASE
According to the World Green Building Council, “a new market demand is emerging within the building industry: to more intentionally address human experience, health, and wellness as core elements of green building practice.” The global wellness industry grew 74% between 2010-2014. Wellness in real estate and the workplace is already estimated to be a $140 billion industry -- and growing.
At the World Economic Forum in 2015, Stuart Russell, the UC Berkeley computer science and engineering professor, predicted that “in the future, moral philosophy will be a key industry sector”. In other words, an understand the nature of human values and moral decision-making will soon be a big business opportunity in the world of technology and engineering.
Furthermore, our clients want consultants who understand more than just a narrow field of knowledge. They want to work with teams who can see the whole picture. Project teams are looking beyond conventional backgrounds to redefine building design. Google’s internal Real Estate and Workplace Services team, for example, is focused on implementing what they call the "Three E’s" (Environment, Ecology and Experience) across the company’s global real estate portfolio.
Other building and sustainability consultancies use innovative communication platforms (e.g. here and here) as a means to convey to the public the philosophical and social nature of their work in ways that are both informal and effective.
PROJECT PERFORMANCE AND OUTCOMES
Addressing human experience has the added benefit of actually helping our projects achieve their goals. For example, as buildings get closer to the goal of net-zero energy, the impact of human behaviour on energy use -- understanding how people interact with their immediate environment -- becomes more important. Improving building energy performance will require that building professionals venture beyond their traditional skill set by thinking about psychology as much as physics.
As a global company, WSP has the capacity to greatly influence not just the environment sustainability of the built environment, but also people’s everyday experience. We have an obligation to be at the forefront of this change.
With the help of WSP, I hope for this website to serve as a platform and resource to hold these important conversations. about the philosophical and societal implications of our work.
Specifically, I hope to use this website to:
Showcase WSP’s internal expertise through interviews and blog posts on the philosophical, environmental and societal implications of technology in the built environment.
Interview external specialists with expertise in philosophy, technology, health, and/or sustainability.
Create a monthly newsletter summarizing the latest industry news, opinions and trends.
Write short blogs about relevant projects and industry best practices