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Bruce German (left) and Clair Pomeroy, at Sustainable Development event at UC Davis.

Bruce German (left) and Clair Pomeroy, at Sustainable Development event at UC Davis.

Sustainable Development conference offers engineering solutions to 21st Century challenges

Posted on: September 28, 2012

By: Derrick Bang

At the conference, Sustainable Development for the 21st Century: The Role of the Modern University held September 26, 2012 at UC Davis, Diran Apelian—an Alcoa-Howmet Professor of Engineering and Director of the Metal Processing Institute at Massachusetts' Worcester Polytechnic Institute—opened with an instructive metaphor:

"Imagine driving down a residential street in your home town, following an expensive SUV. Suddenly, the SUV's passengers begin tossing cans, bottles, paper cups and all manner of trash out the windows, leaving an inexcusable collection of litter in their wake. You're horrified, and you wonder how people can be so selfish and inconsiderate.

"But inside the SUV, oblivious to the greater world around them, the driver and passengers congratulate themselves for regularly cleaning their vehicle so thoroughly."

Professor Apelian's parable speaks to the often myopic approaches to so-called "sustainable development" currently adopted by the United States and other first-world nations: Reduce our own carbon footprint by whatever means necessary ... while conveniently overlooking how such methods might impact other parts of the world. "This is not sustainable development," insisted many of the conference speakers. "It cannot continue."

The conference, one of many high-profile events designed to celebrate the UC Davis College of Engineering's 50th anniversary, attracted more than 120 attendees from academia and industry in numerous states and countries. "Sustainability is the greatest challenge we face as a society," observed Enrique Lavernia, dean of the College of Engineering at UC Davis, in his introductory remarks. "It's also a problem, as a whole, that UC Davis is uniquely positioned to engage."

The conference was divided into five sessions — Energy, Water and Climate Change; Health and Nutrition; Mobility and Transportation; The Built Environment; and Engineering Frontiers — each of which featured two or three presentations. In all cases, the speakers displayed the optimistic, can-do spirit that has long characterized the engineering profession.

"Our cars now have 50 different sensors to monitor their 'health' and performance," noted Bruce German, a UC Davis professor of food science and technology, and director of the Foods for Health Institute. "People have none. Devices to measure human health will be one of the next big engineering challenges."

But Professor German also insisted that we cannot look solely to technological solutions. "We need to make diet the primary engine of health and disease prevention," he insisted.

"Solutions start with ourselves," echoed Claire Pomeroy, vice chancellor and dean of the UC Davis Health System. "We must make healthy lifestyle choices. We can't just treat disease; we must prevent it."

Dean Pomeroy also noted that natural disasters sometimes lead to unexpected benefits. Hurricane Katrina's devastation included the destruction of an overburdened New Orleans charity hospital that had tried gamely — but unsuccessfully — to serve the huge surrounding community. Rather than rebuild that one large medical center, the reconstruction process established numerous smaller neighborhood clinics: a much more practical and efficient means of medical care that likely would not have been implemented otherwise, due to expense, apathy and political intransience.

Tom Anklam, who leads LIFE (Laser Inertial Fusion Energy) systems engineering and analysis at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, captivated listeners with the symposium's most far-reaching concept: "Could we build a miniature sun on Earth," he asked, "to provide significant carbon-free energy for mankind?"

The question wasn't rhetorical. Anklam expects LIFE plants to produce fusion power, triggered by high-energy lasers, that should be able to enter the market by 2030. To further bolster this belief, he cited additional LIFE plants soon to come online in France, China, Russia, Japan and other countries around the world.

Sociologist Nicole Woolsey Biggart, a professor of management at the Graduate School of Management, UC Davis, and director of the UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center, cited herself as the daylong symposium's most unlikely speaker ... and yet it quickly became clear that she spoke for an essential but often overlooked piece of the sustainability equation.

"Building a perfect solution isn't enough," Biggart cautioned. "It must be embraced by the relevant market." She thus echoed a similar sentiment expressed earlier by Professor Apelian, when he noted that, moving forward with technological advancement, "the limiting factors will be social, rather than physical. We need new ways of organizing our habitat, and new ways of thinking about 'the good life.' "

This gave led to Biggart's discussion of UC Davis' $280 million West Village project, the largest planned zero-net-energy community in the United States. It will be a "living laboratory" for its 5,000 residents, and also for the campus.

West Village was cited by several of the day's speakers, while others emphasized additional UC Davis sustainability projects, such as the Smart Lighting Initiative, implemented in 2010 to reduce campus electrical use by 30 million kilowatt hours within five years. In June of this year, the initiative — expected to help the campus save $3.3 million annually, when fully implemented — unveiled a $1 million network of "smart" lights that talk to each other and adapt to their environment.

The day's other speakers included Mark Caffarey, of Umicore USA, who discussed "The Changing Dynamics of Recycling"; Dan Sperling, founding director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, who demonstrated how to "Transform Transportation"; Stephen Lee, head of Carnegie Mellon University's School of Architecture, who illustrated the enthusiasm of architectural students who are challenged to create innovative structures in Pittsburgh's surrounding neighborhoods; Martin Burt, founder and CEO of Fundacion Paraguaya, who discussed "Social Entrepreneurship: Designing Solutions for the Majority"; Anil K. Sachdev, group manager of the General Motors Chemical and Materials System Lab, who shared "The New Automotive DNA: Driving to a Sustainable Future"; and Sheri Sheppard, co-director of Stanford University's Center for Design Research, who elaborated on another of the day's many intriguing questions, "Entrepreneurial Engineers: A Passing Fad or a Killer App?"

"The complexity of these multi-faceted challenges provides many opportunities for groups such as this one," observed UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, referencing the conference's many participants, "but it's necessary to pay careful attention to the nature of the systems involved. Holistic solutions require the equation to be balanced. Smart lighting technology may allow the United States to save substantially in terms of energy costs, but if the industry that produces these components pollutes another country — which we do not see, or consider to be part of the system — this supposed 'solution' is not sustainable.

"That's why sustainability challenges are so appropriate for universities: as a topic of education, and of research, and also as a culture and a quality of life. We can bring many possible solutions to the table."

—Derrick Bang

More information: Sustainable Development for the 21st Century: The Role of the Modern University