Kristen MacAskill at work in Christchurch, New Zealand Credit: Kristen MacAskill
Last month graduates of Cambridge’s MPhil course in Engineering for Sustainable Development (ESD) came back to the Engineering Department from all over the world to celebrate the programme’s tenth anniversary and catch up on developments.
Witnessing the deconstruction of the central business district is emotional, but also presents Christchurch with huge opportunities to shape a world-class city."
—Kristen MacAskill, graduate of Cambridge’s Engineering for Sustainable Development programme
When a fatal earthquake hit the city of Christchurch in New Zealand in February 2011, the most severe in a series of catastrophic events, Kristen MacAskill was the other side of the world studying for an MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development (ESD) at Cambridge University. Woken by a text from a friend, she spent the early hours of the morning on the internet following news updates. As a New Zealander, her immediate thoughts were for the safety of her family and friends back at home - and she was relieved to get a phone call from her mother who had been stuck in a high-rise building in the centre of the city.
Today Kristen is working as an engineer for the "Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team", a group dedicated to rebuilding the ’horizontal’ infrastructure of a devastated city, covering roads, waste water management, water supply and storm-water services. "Our team comprises people from a range of organisations delivering vital work that will cost in the order of $NZ2 billion," she says. "Witnessing the deconstruction of the central business district is emotional, but it also presents Christchurch with huge opportunities to implement changes and shape a world-class city. For me, the experience of playing a part in this critical work is tremendously rewarding."
When more than 170 engineers gathered in Cambridge last month to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the University’s MPhil course in Engineering for Sustainable Development (ESD), Kristen, who was in the ESD class of 2010-2011, was among them. She was keen to meet up with old friends, meet mover and shakers in the world of sustainable engineering, and get up to speed with new developments and talking points in the field.
Like most ESD students Kristen had a good chunk of industry experience behind her before she embarked on the MPhil. After graduating from Canterbury University, Christchurch, where she took an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering followed by a Masters in Engineering Management, Kristen had worked in Australia in the transport group of a global engineering consulting company. She says: "I decided to take Cambridge’s ESD course because she wanted to develop a better understanding of how to implement sustainability concepts within engineering and business. Sustainability is difficult to define as an end goal, but the course gave me insight into expanding thinking using a sustainability philosophy - a process which will ultimately support better development outcomes."
The ESD MPhil was set up in 2002 by the Engineering Department with support from the Cambridge-MIT Institute in order to introduce concepts of sustainability and explore the context in which engineering sustainability must take place. Each year it recruits around 35 to 40 students and a total of nearly 300 engineers have graduated from the programme over its ten-year history. The students come from all over the world. The latest cohort included participants from Europe, Nigeria, Latin America, South America, China and Australia.
Developed in close collaboration with expertise drawn from industry as well as from MIT, the course is designed for students from an engineering background.† The programme recognises that engineers operate within an increasing set of constraints and deal with an ever-widening range of challenges. It identifies key aspects that are needed when approaching engineering problems from a sustainability perspective and indicates the methods and approaches used to develop the skills required.
To engage students in a broad range of activities, the course is divided into three components. All students take a core programme which delivers tools and understanding to complement the technical background of participants. Similarly, all students engage with Management of Technology and Innovation taught by Cambridge Judge Business School. They also chose four elective modules from a list of around topics offered by the Centre for Sustainable Development, the Engineering Department and other Departments within the University. The final component is a dissertation which often involves working with companies, government agencies and other organisations.
Jason Porter (who took the ESD MPhil in 2007-2008) is now a senior engineer working for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development in Canada. He explains: "Many First Nations communities in Canada are similar to developing countries and have a much lower standard of living than typical Canadian communities. I provide engineering support to a group of these communities to help them develop close drinking water systems as well better housing and schools. Sustainable thinking is essential in this work as there are significant social and environmental issues and we have limited financial resources."
For Jason, who took his undergraduate degree (Mining Engineering) at Queens University in Ontario, the value of the ESD course lay in its exploration of the complex challenges that engineers and others face in terms of working towards sustainable solutions. "The programme didn’t alter my basic philosophy but showed that you don’t always need a well-defined solution to make progress," he remarks. "On a personal level, the most demanding aspect of the course was finding a balance between keeping up with the course work, spending time learning from fellow students, and enjoying all that Cambridge has to offer."
Just over a third of the students who take the ESD course are from developing countries and many of those who come from developed countries go on to work overseas in development projects.† Sinomnqa (Nomi) Bodlani (who also did the course in 2007-2008) works in Johannesburg as a senior analyst with Davies Consulting Associates. Much of her work is for mining companies whose activities have significant social and environmental impact on the communities and environment where they are located. Her day-to-day work involves identifying and implementing improvement opportunities at all levels of the business ranging from business support processes to environmental management and operational processes. This entails developing an understanding of a wide range of issues within overriding business strategy as well as actual operating realities.
Nomi did her first degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Cape Town followed by a research post looking at the energy absorption and crash characteristics of steel materials. Nomi was a Mandela Magdalene Scholar (a Commonwealth Scholarship) at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and this enabled her to take the ESD course. "I had not been exposed to the concept of sustainability before and quickly understood that everything has sustainability implications. Now I approach anything I’m doing with the question: what does this mean from a sustainability point of view?" she says. "Coming from South Africa, a particular challenge was contextualising sustainability as identified in the first world to the developing world. An aspect of the course useful for my personal development was reflecting and sharing during group work which involved translating our experiences to something that others could learn from."
James Dodds (another member of the class of 2007-2008) is a British national who spends much of his time working overseas as a renewable energy technical consultant for Mott MacDonald. He has recently been working in South Africa assisting the Government to procure several gigawatts of renewable energy generation: a programme that has been heralded by the World Bank as a leading example of a clean energy project in a developing country. "Cambridge’s MPhil in ESD is designed so that you learn through the experience of others. You’re encouraged to ask tricky questions and think independently. One of the best things about the course is its links with industry: you are hearing first-hand from leading industry professionals who come to give lectures and answer questions. I learnt more in one year at Cambridge than I have during five years of working in the industry," he says.
"What the course made me realise is the vast scope that exists for better sustainability and the dire consequences of continuing with business as usual. Where people are in embedded positions, there is often no easy way to introduce sustainable ways of working - but people aren’t daft and if you get them to ask the right questions and look on longer timescales then they will bring about their own changes."
At the end of their year in Cambridge, each cohort of ESD students presents summaries of the dissertations written as part of the course. Topics tackled by the class of 2012 provide a glimpse of the scope and reach of projects undertaken: they range from a study of sustainable management of waste water in Nigeria to an exploration of the use of bamboo as an alternative construction material in Ecuador, and from an analysis of incentives for green commercial building development in Hong Kong to research into sustainable energy for Ireland.