Engineering Sustainable Development for the Future We Want

Keynote Address by Dr. Noeleen Heyzer,
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Executive Secretary of
the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, and Special Advisor of the United Nations Secretary-General for Timor-Leste

World Engineers Summit, Singapore

Your Excellency, Professor Tommy Koh,
Ambassador-at-Large and Special Advisor, Singapore Institute of Policy Studies

Mr. Bindu Lohani,
Vice President of the Asia Development Bank

Dr. Roland Busch, Member of Managing Board &
CEO Asia Pacific & Infrastructure & Cities, Siemens

Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is my great pleasure to address you today on issues of great importance to both our present and our future. My aim is to use this opportunity to impress upon you, as a key professional community, the vital role you have in forging our shared path to a more sustainable and inclusive future.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) reaffirmed a global commitment for a sustainable future to be forged through partnerships, to meet the greatest challenge of our time – that of balancing sustainable and equitable development, while meeting the need for economic opportunity, especially for the poor. This was encapsulated in its key outcome document, The Future We Want, setting aspirational goals for the global community.

What is clear, however, is that we will not achieve The Future We Want though existing paradigms of carbon-intensive growth and strategies of ‘pollute now and clean up later’. This is especially evident in meeting the pressing challenges of urbanization.

The United Nations estimates that, by the end of this century, 10 billion people will live on our planet, of which 8.5 billion will live in cities. Knowing this now, we must ask what kind of urban future this will be.

The recently released Report of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Agenda, A New Global Partnership, makes the point that “cities are where the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost”. Cities drive development and global GDP, through concentration, interaction, and creativity.

But this development comes at a steep cost. Through the built environment, urban areas contribute disproportionately to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, their increasing sprawl consumes land essential for food production, and they are voracious consumers of energy and water. Cities increasingly dominate and drive economic transformation, but in so doing they account for about 70 per cent of all energy use, and emit over 70 per cent of all GHG. It is essential for the future we want, that we find ways to change these patterns, and sever the relationship between urbanization and rapacious resource exploitation.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Engineering the Urban Future We Want

The ever-larger carbon footprint of cities is a direct result of urban sprawl and suburbanization, rising consumerism, and changing lifestyles, but also of poor urban planning, management and governance.

Most carbon emissions are derived from buildings, transport, waste, energy and industry. Engineers have an essential role to play in each of these sectors, and the relationships between them. Over the coming decades there will be unprecedented pressures on infrastructure, especially related to transportation and the need for housing, huge increases in the volume and complexity of waste, including hazardous e-waste, and quite extraordinary demands for energy, which cannot possibly be met through current fossil-fuel resources.

On this occasion I am reminded that, throughout history, engineers have played vital roles in ensuring social and economic prosperity, through innovations such as those in agricultural systems, which gave rise to modern civilization. In the Asia-Pacific region there are scores of examples, such as the rice terraces of the Philippines and the architectural achievements of Angkor, which underscore how engineering has reshaped societies and economies for the better.

If we are to take advantage of our urban future, such engineering breakthroughs will be needed in our urban environments. There is an urgent need for innovation and creativity in developing ‘leapfrog’ solutions to meet existing needs and future demands in energy, water and infrastructure, in ways which do not degrade our limited natural resources and the ecological systems on which we all depend.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Six Challenges for Engineering Sustainable Development

I would like to outline today six critical challenges in bringing about The Future We Want, and in particular The Urban Future We Want and need. Each of these challenges is also a key opportunity for the global engineering community.

First, we must change the way we design cities. This implies not cosmetic change, nor the piecemeal and ephemeral projects often seen in many cities, but a real paradigm shift in which sustainability moves from the periphery to the centre of urban planning. In recent years very meaningful efforts have been made in conceptualising eco-cities and green urbanism, and here, engineers have a vital role to play in converting these ideas into reality. We know that more compact development increases land-use efficiency, reduces the need for private cars, and increases liveability and accessibility to green space. Enhancing urban density and developing integrated mass transit systems can dramatically reduce GHG emissions from the transport sector. Cellular development creates integrated and multi-centred urban areas, reducing the need for travel and increasing access to services for communities and is essential for more inclusive societies.

Perhaps the most pressing urban design priority is the need for cities to be made more resilient to the impacts of climate change. In the Asia-Pacific region, the future of coastal cities, encompassing regional megacities and global economic centres, is of increasing concern. Managing the relationship between cities and water will be a key challenge. This includes ‘making way for water’ in reducing risk and exposure to disaster, but it is also no exaggeration to say that the coastal cities of the future will need to take on amphibious characteristics. Already we see exciting designs emerging in infrastructure, including housing which adapts to floods and typhoons in such a way that lives are not lost and communities are saved.

Second, we must change the way we design and operate buildings. We must shift from a built environment which is energy wasting to energy saving, or better yet to one which generates energy. Improving the efficiency and creativity of buildings has a critical role in reducing the demands placed upon our natural resources, and is key to making cities more liveable, creative and inclusive.

Energy-efficient engineering and construction technologies need to be at the core of reformulated building codes, supported by tax incentives and stricter regulations. We must recognize the huge carbon footprints of buildings, and the impact of this on our environment, through the construction materials used; the carbon consumed in their manufacture; construction-related cooling and heating requirements; as well as the energy requirements of services, such as water supply, wastewater, and solid waste disposal.

Addressing the energy demand of the built environment should motivate us all to look at ways of greening the building industry, which could provide the basis for technological innovations, new livelihoods through green jobs, new ways of envisaging the city, and new urban economies in green products and building materials.

Recently the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) has been engaged in two initiatives related to these areas: working on linking social enterprises, green building materials such as bamboo, and meeting the need for housing the urban poor. Likewise, in Myanmar, we have been working to support the development of the country’s revised building codes to incorporate environmentally sustainable and disaster-resilient designs and regulations. There are so many opportunities for the building profession, inclusive of energy specialists, civil engineers, and architects, to shift the frameworks of the built environment towards future needs, and away from the status quo.

In greening our infrastructure however, we must meet the needs of our poorest communities. It is sobering to note that about 30 per cent of urban citizens in Asia and the Pacific live in slums – a figure still rising in many countries. Any strategy for low-carbon cities must address this reality. There are real opportunities for in-situ slum upgrading through innovative design, green spaces and gardens, and the use of low-carbon building materials. Meeting the needs of the poorest in creative and sustainable ways, will be a big step towards creating sustainable cities for all.

Third, we must change the way people move. In short we need to shift away from private cars to public transport, from road to rail, and to reduce the need for movement wherever possible. In order to support global reductions in CO2 emissions from the transport sector, technological innovation will have to work in parallel with ‘smart policy’ and government commitments. In recent years there has been a growing trend towards ‘eco-mobility’, but again, we must turn these ideas into reality.

The Asia-Pacific region is experiencing rapid motorization, but car-centred transport systems contain significant hidden and visible costs, such as chronic congestion, carbon emissions, air pollution, and traffic accidents. Transport accounts for 23 per cent of global energy-related CO2 emissions, and it is the fastest growing source of emissions in developing countries. We need solutions which integrate transportation, housing and land-use planning, develop mass transit-oriented policies, promote ‘walkable cities’, and eliminate the ‘disabling environments’ which characterize so many of our urban areas.

Indeed, the transport sector offers many possibilities for cities to become smarter and greener, but aspirational targets are also required to support transport engineering. For example, Brisbane City in Australia has a target that by 2026, 40 per cent of peak hour traffic will move through public transport, by bicycle or on foot, and the Abu Dhabi Urban Street Design Manual guides designers in creating walkable streets and pedestrian-friendly environments. Such policies provide environments that support creativity in design and systems thinking.

Fourth, we must change the way we produce, transport and consume energy. This involves improving the efficiency of energy systems and accelerating the move towards a greater share for renewable energy sources. There is an urgent need to interrupt the cycle of economic growth, high energy consumption and growing carbon emissions. We need measures which reduce both supply and demand-side inefficiencies, and which vigorously support renewable and alternative energy sources.

There are successes from which to draw inspiration. Through a greater commitment to compact city design, Shanghai for instance has overseen a declining level of carbon intensity per capita; Seoul has committed to reduce GHGs by 40 per cent by 2030 through energy efficiency; and Tokyo has initiated a 10 year project for a ‘Carbon-Minus Tokyo’ through advanced energy saving measures and strict compliance.

Fifth, we must change the way water resources are managed. Eco-efficient water infrastructure requires a shift in policies, from piecemeal to integrated, and a shift in infrastructure design, from centralized single-purpose to decentralized and multipurpose. Urban planning and infrastructure planning needs to integrate water supply, rainwater harvesting, wastewater treatment and recycling and flood control measures. Some countries have already transformed previously unsustainable use of water resources in creative ways, an excellent example of this being the Republic of Korea’s Four Rivers Restoration Project which utilizes green engineering interventions to simultaneously restore the health of rivers, improve water quality, alleviate flooding, increase storage capacity, and better regulate the flow of the rivers that will be rehabilitated under the project. A major objective of the project is to provide adequate, reliable supplies of water for municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses, but it also has a high aesthetic value for communities.

Sixth, we must change the way solid waste is managed. In particular we need to turn waste from a cost into a resource. In many developing countries between 60 to 80 per cent of urban solid waste is organic, with open dumping which produces large and increasing amounts of methane. Yet, with very simple technology and design, 90 per cent of waste could be turned into a resource by composting, recycling, production of bio-gas, and resource-derived fuel. But current approaches focus on end-of-pipe measures that are capital and technology intensive – as well as expensive to build and operate. It is difficult to reconcile the fact that cash-strapped local governments spend 30-40 per cent of their budget on waste management, with little or no revenue derived, when very simple innovations can turn waste into the resource it should be. We must develop these alternatives further if we are to cope with the waste that will be generated from the billions of people who will enter the middle classes in Asia and Africa through this century.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,


In conclusion, the challenges are great, but so too are the opportunities to fundamentally shape our better, more sustainable shared future.

This requires a quantum shift in thinking and action: in governance, in innovation, in technology, in efficiency, and in getting the policy and economic enablers right. All designers — particularly engineers, architects, and industrial designers — need to understand and implement nexus and systems thinking in their work – and this involves being part of a much greater community which is working on the fundamental challenges of sustainable development and poverty reduction.

So, finally, we must change the nature of partnerships and relationships, paying more attention to both the institutional and the ‘soft infrastructure’ required. We will not achieve the aspirational goals of Rio+20 or the recommendations of High-level Panel of Eminent Persons, by continuing to work in isolated sectors and remaining focused on solving individual problems. We need, instead, to seek multiple system-wide gains through our solutions, encompassing social, economic and environmental outcomes, and strengthen relationships across professions, institutions and communities.

Engineers, through local, national and global communities, are critical agents of change. You are our link between science and society, between policy and practice. Much of our current systems need to be reengineered to become more sustainable and resilient, and such initiatives need to be made a more prominent part of public participation and debate.

At the first Rio conference, ‘the Earth Summit’ in 1992, the Secretary-General of the conference stated that “sustainable development will be impossible without the full input by the engineering profession”. The challenges and opportunities are even greater today.

Engineers have a critical role to play, as creators of ideas and facilitators of change, through multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral partnerships which foster collaboration and inspire the change in thinking and action that is needed to build The Future We Want.

An engaged and committed engineering community is therefore essential for the achievement of the outcomes of Rio+20, and the realization of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda. I challenge you to be at the forefront of that debate, and I welcome your role as our partners in bringing about that change.

I thank you.