A couple of our previous blogs have discussed the recently released UN High Level Panel of Eminent Persons (HLP) report ‘A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies Through Sustainable Development’. This is part of a process of research and consultation to develop recommendations for a post-2015 framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals. The concurrent intergovernmental process to create environmentally-focused Sustainable Development Goals has also continued following the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. There is some consensus on the need for a strong coupling between these two processes, to eventually arrive with a single development agenda for the post-2015 period, which includes sustainable development at its core.

So what is ‘sustainable development’? Is this an oxymoron? Unfortunately there are a number of diverse definitions and to an extent it very much depends on the actor or sector you ask. One of the best accepted definitions is from the Brundtland Report (1987): ‘Our Common Future’ and this suggests that ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Two concepts that are prominent in this vision are: (1) dealing with the needs of the world’s poor should be given high priority and (2) dealing with the limitations due to technology and social organization on the environment and its ability to address the world’s needs. What has evolved over the last three decades is a greater understanding of the importance of addressing these issues through a more encompassing, global approach. This has become even more apparent as the evidence for climate change has strengthened.

These themes were continued in the recently published outcome document for Rio+20, entitled ‘The Future We Want’. To achieve the objectives of this conference, an action framework was developed and one of the major areas of focus was ‘Sustainable cities and human settlements’. Over the next twenty years, the world population will increase by 2 billion and 95% of these people will be living in developing countries (Bartlett, 1998). This growth will result in an unprecedented demand for energy, food, land, water, transportation, health care, telecommunication, waste disposal and other infrastructure. By 2030, 60% of the world’s population is expected to be living in urban areas. Rio+20 made commitments to promote sustainable societies through integrated planning and management approaches for urban communities and areas. These improvements of the quality of human settlements, which includes the living and working conditions of urban dwellers, requires all people to have access to basic services, housing and mobility. Engineers will therefore be heavily involved in the creation and maintenance of the necessary urban infrastructure, e.g. roads, buildings, dams, waste systems, communication networks, energy plants, etc., for this sustainable global future.

So far, so good; indeed, the terms ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ have been part of the engineering lexicon for more than twenty years. However, if you ask an engineer for a definition, you will most likely be informed of only environmental issues, including sustainable land and resource usage, and recycling, etc. Not surprising given that the current relationship between client and engineer for projects emphasizes the creation of infrastructure on the basis of purely economic considerations (Levitt, 2007). What is missing is the vision of sustainable urban development that considers the interdependence and weighting between economic, social and environment in engineering. Significant steps are starting to be made in this direction (e.g. Misra and Basu, 2012), but this will require a dramatic paradigm shift in the engineering sector, that reconsiders their interactions with non-technical fields. The forefront of this transition is the corporate social responsibility movement (the mining sector is an obvious example), but these concepts are not sufficiently embedded within the engineering project process as yet. However, we may soon see public sector clients demanding projects that deliver shared societal value with balanced economic, social and environmental components. That said, it is less clear how or why private sector clients would be persuaded to create the same value for society from their projects without significant inducements or legislation – they are businesses first and foremost.

If the engineering sector and their clients do embrace these changes, then the sector and society will have to adopt appropriate decision-making tools, to allow rationale choices when evaluating and planning sustainable urban development projects. Recent suggestions by Brucker et al. (2013) include social cost-benefit analysis (SCBA) and multi-criteria analysis (MCA). SCBA assumes market forces will decide on the optimal solutions and project effects are described in purely economic terms. In contrast, MCA considers an aggregated project score from multiple criteria, allowing weightings from experts, policy makers and other stakeholders. Within this approach, equity of control and distribution of benefits between significant numbers of stakeholder groups is vital. However we decide to proceed, it seems inevitable that disparate societal stakeholders on multiple sides of ‘sustainable development’ concept must learn to interact effectively and start to speak a common language. This will ensure that the vision and development goals of our post-2015 world will be addressed successfully and within sufficient time