Apr 1, 2010

AIChE regional conference

Last week, our own Laura Musikanski and Eldan Goldenberg were invited to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' first Puget Sound regional sustainability conference. We kept our talk short, as neither of us are exactly chemistry experts, but used the brief presentation to open up a round table discussion about sustainability.

This is important work for us, as building a truly sustainable world will require getting everybody on board, not just those whose career specialises in this. In the initial presentation we talked about how much of sustainability is simply good engineering practice, and then we asked the audience to break up into small groups and brainstorm about ways the industrialised world could be more sustainable. The group came up with a very broad range of ideas, touching on many aspects of sustainability: everything from reducing paper use in offices to ensuring that cities maintain enough open space for residents' well-being.

A few key principles came up in the closing discussion which seem worth sharing, because they are insights from engineers, which apply to many fields:
  • Technological advances can be a useful tool, but they are never complete solutions to problems, and people who would rely on future tech as a magic bullet are simply avoiding thinking their problem through.
  • It's dangerous to be too wedded to any given technology.
  • In designing anything new, it's important to watch for unforeseen consequences: for instance the car was initially welcomed because it freed cities from one of their biggest environmental problems—horse manure—and the drawbacks did not become obvious until mass car ownership.
We are grateful to AIChE for inviting us to this conference, and we hope we will have more chances to reach out to groups of experts like this in future.

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