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ASCE President Urges Chinese Engineers to Join Sustainability Efforts

China Vision 2025 signing ceremony

ASCE 2010 President Blaine D. Leonard, P.E., D.GE, F.ASCE, traveled to Beijing in late May 2010 to encourage Chinese civil engineers to join their U.S. counterparts in embracing and encouraging sustainable practices, and to work together to develop innovative solutions. A highlight of the trip was the signing of a cooperative agreement with the China Civil Engineering Society to move toward the goals of Vision 2025. The China Association for Science and Technology, the umbrella body for the China Civil Engineering Society, also gave its blessing to the agreement.

The following is the transcript of Leonard's address delivered at the 13th China Beijing International High-Tech Expo on May 28.
Leonard also shared perspectives from his trip in  his President's Blog ; he encourages your feedback via comments to his blog. 

Transformation and Upgrade: Creating a Sustainable World

It is a great honor to be here with you today at The 13th China Beijing International High-Tech Expo.  My sincere thanks to the Organizing Committee for their invitation to speak and for their diligent care of their international guests both before and during this event.

This 13th China Beijing International High-Tech Expo is an honorable testament to your country’s dedication to the goals of the 11th Five-Year Program for National Economic and Social Development.  With more than 2,000 domestic and international high-tech enterprises and high-tech zones, the best and brightest minds are here today to help China continue its strong future development.  By bringing together both government and non-government entities from around the world to share their knowledge and innovation about emerging strategic industries and low-carbon green economy, China has taken great strides towards the goal of developing a sustainable and resilient economy.   Your country has recognized that economic growth and social progress need to travel hand-in-hand with environmental stewardship, and that sustainability is the key to responsible future growth and progress.  You are to be commended for this vision and deserving of all our support.

As the President of the American Society of Civil Engineers, I am here today with all of you as part of our outreach efforts to advance civil engineering globally.  With over 144,000 members, our technical society serves approximately 14,000 international members, has Agreements of Cooperation with 72 engineering organizations in 59 countries, and supports 12 International Sections and 19 International Groups.  The Society also has eight institutes that focus on such specialty areas as architectural engineering; coasts, oceans, port and rivers; transportation, construction, environmental and water resources, structural engineering, the Geo-Institute, and Engineering Mechanics.

The American Society of Civil Engineers serves a unique role in U.S. society.  We help our communities implement environmental solutions.  We assist in the development of infrastructure policy for government and private sector.  We inform the regulatory, monitoring and financing processes.  We provide new approaches to infrastructure development and environmental management.  Our close partnership with academia and the private sector means that we help develop and educate the first wave of engineers on new and growing topics.  Due to the technical expertise of our members, we participate in post-disaster response missions.  We have had ASCE teams involved in evaluating many disasters including 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, Haiti, Chile and even here in China.  Our teams observe and evaluate how the infrastructure responded to a natural or man-made disaster.  The lessons learned are later published and shared publicly.

All of us here today are partners in forging a new path to a global sustainable future.  Our goal is to draw upon the earth’s resources in a more responsible and efficient way.  Both of our nations are being watched by other countries around the world.  As two of the leading economies with advanced technology and growing populations, the rest of the world expects us to find solutions that can be emulated.  This is a challenge that we must accept.  If our nations can continue to recover and improve our economies in the future, maintain and expand our infrastructure, while protecting our citizens and the air, water, and land that supports our very existence, we will have succeeded.  We need to learn from natural disasters, and then utilize and share this knowledge as we design, build and plan ahead to minimize the health, safety and economic risks to our communities. To do so in a way that also creates a positive effect for our neighbors around the globe will benefit all of us.

The concept of sustainability is a key element in that journey.  If we build and maintain our infrastructure while focusing on the environmental, economic and social well-being of our society, we will create a foundation that will carry us efficiently and effectively into the future.

That’s really what I want to talk about today.  Our future, your future, and more importantly, how we can work together to improve the global future for all of us.

I’ll talk a little about the past, and the lessons we have learned that we would like to share with you in the spirit of collaboration and the desire to improve all our lives.  And I’ll talk a little about where we are headed, what we will encounter, and what we can do together to get ready for the future.

As an engineer, I have to marvel at some of China’s greatest engineering achievements. 

The Sutong Bridge, which was named the winner of the 2010 Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award (OCEA) at our American Society of Civil Engineers’ Outstanding Projects and Leaders Gala in March.  It won this prestigious award because the Sutong Bridge was deemed to embody the best in civil engineering and to make a significant contribution both to the civil engineering profession, and to society as a whole.  It is an elegant symbol of China’s ingenuity.

The speed and comfort achieved by the China Railway High Speed is the envy of many nations, including the U.S.  The beautiful Bird’s Nest Stadium, constructed when you hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, won the world’s recognition.  I come from Salt Lake City, where we hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, and I appreciate the great work you did to host the 2008 games.  The hydro-electric marvel, the Three Gorges Dam, and the recently completed artistic and inspiring structures of the Shanghai World Expo, are also on the list of notable engineering achievements.

All of these achievements are a reflection of your status as a global leader.  China has been able to create these magnificent structures because of what you have accomplished in transforming your society.   Our nations are very alike in many ways.

Similar to the United States, China is a large country with a growing population.  The rapid industrial development of our countries has resulted in both positive and negative consequences.  Along with growth in GDP and higher standards of living, more energy and water is consumed and more waste is produced.  As the population increases, so do the challenges.  

On the positive side, technology has improved our lives dramatically.  On a larger scale, it is responsible for the smooth operation of our systems of transportation, manufacturing, construction and agriculture; on a smaller scale, with the advent of cell phones and computers, it has become seamlessly integrated into our daily lives.  We have learned to harness its power to find solutions to existing problems and those we foresee occurring in the future.  The exponential speed with which technology improves means that we can accomplish far more in the next twenty-five years than we have in the past fifty. 

Technology is only one of many tangible products we both create and use.  As global economic leaders, our two nations are the largest supplier and consumer of goods and services.   From airplanes and textiles, to computers and motorcycles, China provides the world with desirable commodities.  With your country’s increased interest in environmental protection and management of waste, more multi-national companies will come to China to provide products and services to help tackle these issues created by rapid industrialization.  Many non-governmental entities within China will also help to foster a viable economic and environmental future.  As we are starting to do in the U.S., this focus on sustainability will help you create strategies and use your natural resources more efficiently while minimizing costs in the future.

A couple of years ago, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering assembled a group of people and asked them, “What were the most significant engineering and scientific achievements that occurred over the last 100 years?”  Now think about that in your mind.  Think about what would you put on that list?

If you look at history and think about how far we have come, you will recognize there are a lot of things to put on this list.  What you see here are twenty significant achievements that made our society what it is today.  Now, I am going to put red boxes around three of these, because I think these three are largely, if not entirely, civil engineering achievements. 

Electrification is the top item on this list.  Bringing power into our homes has changed our lives in significant ways.  Some may say that this is not civil engineering.  But in fact, power generation is largely civil engineering.  The structures, the power plants, the dams, the roadway access, the transmission towers - these are all largely civil engineering works.

I have also noted water supply and distribution and highways as important civil engineering achievements.  A former chair of the Texas State Highway Commission, DeWitt Greer, once said, “We do not have great highways because we are a great nation.  We are a great nation because we have great highways.”  It’s the highway network that allows us to move good and services and people across the country.   Our interstate highway system in the United States was largely the outgrowth of the vision of President Dwight Eisenhower, who as a general during World War II, saw how efficiently the Germans could move troops and material back and forth across the country, and fight a war on both fronts with their Autobahn highway network.  We did not have that capability in the United States and he thought we needed that.  It has enabled our economy and unified our country.

Lewis Thomas, who is the former dean of Yale Medical School, had this to say about water: “…the greatest advances in improving human health were the development of clean drinking water and sewage systems.  So, we owe our health as much to civil engineering as we do to biology.”

Now this isn’t a statement from an engineer, this is a statement from a doctor.  A doctor who works in the biological and life-saving field, recognizing that clean water, and getting rid of dirty water, makes our lives possible and extends our life span.  In fact, 100 years ago, at the turn of the century, the average life span in the United States was 47 years.  Today the average life span in our country is 77.  So we’ve gained a 30-year increase in life span over the last 100 years.  And studies have demonstrated that of that 30-year increase, 20 of those have been the result of clean water.   

If you think about the major health problems that have killed millions of people on this planet, over the last several hundred years, they are often water-borne diseases. Clean water, an engineering achievement, has radically improved our health, transformed our quality of life, and dramatically extended our lifespans.

A widespread, functioning infrastructure really is the key to the society we live in today for our economic success and for the very social fabric of our lives.  Clearly, the last 100 years have brought us economic change, and significant progress.  China will enjoy the same benefits from its current infrastructure expansion.

But, despite this great progress, challenges still lie ahead.  As in your country, with an expanding population in the U.S., we have to take care of the infrastructure to meet our needs, and we also have to move it into the future. 

Now that our country has established a level of prosperity, we have begun to notice that the infrastructure we built fifty years ago is starting to age, and it is no longer adequate.  Although we made our best estimates then of how it would stand up to the pace of growth we would experience, we have outgrown it.  Similar to China, we didn’t originally think long and hard about the costs – to the environment and the infrastructure.  We haven’t invested adequately on maintenance and renewal.  We just didn’t consider the ramifications each time we built a new factory or airport.  We didn’t predict the impact of urban sprawl. 

We didn’t take into account the amount of waste produced by a growing society and dumped into our waterways, or the fact that it could some day harm our population or the ecosystem that supports it. 

We have learned the hard way that clean air and water is required for health and prosperity.  We have learned through unexpected blackouts how high our energy consumption has become, especially during periods of extreme hot or cold weather, or natural disasters.  To support people in rural areas, we have had to absorb the high cost of extending sewer, power  and communication lines.  This had enormous benefit, but now poses high maintenance and renewal costs.  As the population became more widespread, we had to build more roads, more bridges, more hospitals, more schools, and imposed more wear and tear on the transportation system.  Each year, we face larger needs for maintenance, renovation and replacement.  Our pattern of development is similar to what China is now experiencing, and you have an opportunity to benefit from our experience.

We have also learned a lot about the environmental impact of infrastructure development.

In the 1960s, the United States started discovering the impact of our rapid industrialization.  Pesticides used for agriculture were poisoning the water, land and air and was threatening human health.  With the publication of a book by Rachel Carson titled "Silent Spring," public awareness and discussion prompted action by state and local governments.  Laws were passed to control the use of pesticides and to provide punishment for those who ignored them.  After awhile, a federal law was required to clarify and provide an all-encompassing policy for the entire nation.

By the summer of 1970, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal department that develops monitors and enforces environmental laws.

The EPA oversees regulation of chemicals and protects human health by safeguarding the natural environment: air, water, and land.  Important legislation was passed shortly afterwards including the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act of 1972. 

With the advent of emissions standards, ozone protection, acid rain and waste water monitoring, we are making inroads to improving the damage we created and in protecting our natural resources now and for the future.  Over time, we have seen the impact of that legislation.  We have cleaned up bodies of water, improved the air and rehabilitated land that was badly polluted.  Our citizens are getting involved in recycling programs in almost every community and businesses are learning that “going green” is not only good for the environment; it is also good for business. 

Your country has also made progress on your own path towards environmental improvement. In 1998, your State Environmental Protection Agency became a ministry-level agency and in 2005, China joined the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development.  You invested heavily in pollution control as host of the 2008 Summer Olympics and now the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.  As you prepared for these major international events, you had to enhance and improve your infrastructure.

The lesson we have learned is that damage to the environment has a long-term cost.  And it is a cost that crosses all borders.  We need to be sensitive to the environments of our countries, because it greatly affects the global environment.  As we move forward, we must do so and pay attention the sustainability of what we are doing.  And while we have discussed environmental impacts for 40 years, the word “sustainable” is relatively new.  Within the last 10 years, this word has become common in our language, not only in the design and construction world, but also in the language of everyday life.  Sustainability is everywhere.

It’s in every university.  It’s in every engineering program.  And it wasn’t there 10 years ago.  That’s how thoroughly the concept of sustainability has become immersed in our society.

We have also learned that we can create significant change.

There’s an old saying that “if you always do what you always did, you will always get the same result.”  And the same result is just not adequate enough today.  We have to do things differently in the future.  And we have to get a different outcome.  As civil engineers and as a society, we need to transform to meet the needs of tomorrow. 

As we, at the American Society of Civil Engineers, began to think about the future of civil engineering, we realized that we needed to define our profession’s future role.  And so we gathered together a group of 60 people and asked them to brainstorm about the future and develop a vision.  The target we set for that vision was the year 2025, not really that far off.  We asked them – what were the world look like in 2025, and what will our role as civil engineers be in that world?

This was an interesting group of people.  There were young people and old people; there were academics, people from construction, people from government, people from design; people from outside the engineering profession; people from outside the United States.  We wanted a global vision for civil engineering.  And they came up with a truly inspirational vision, one that is very carefully worded.  Let me share that vision with you.  I ask you to think about the words.

“Entrusted by society to create a sustainable world and enhance the global quality of life, civil engineers serve competently, collaboratively, and ethically as…”

  • Master Builders – master planners, designers, and constructors of society’s economic and social engine (what we call the built environment);
  • Master Stewards - of the natural environment and its resources;
  • Master Innovators - and integrators of ideas and technology across the public, private and academic sectors;
  • Managers of Risk - and uncertainty, caused by natural events, accidents and other threats;
  • And Leaders in discussions and decisions shaping public environmental and infrastructure policy.

We believe this vision does not describe who civil engineers are today.  It might describe some of us – but it does not describe all of us… yet.  It is truly an inspiration - a vision of who we want to become.  This sets a target for us - a global state of affairs where civil engineers have a leading role in the economy of the future.  A role where we are trusted, where we are innovators in the sense of helping to define problems, not just solve them.

Now Dr. Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State, once said “If you don’t know where you are going, every road will lead you nowhere.”  With the development of Vision 2025, we know where we are going.  We have a vision.  But we still didn’t know how we were going to get there.  So, the next step was to build a detailed plan on how we are going to get to the vision.  We call this the “Roadmap.” 

And last September, ASCE produced this publication.  “Achieving the Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025.”  I invite you to get copies of and read these two documents.

To get each of these two publications, please visit the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Web site at  And at the top of the home page, you will see four labels, each with a little colored box beside it.  If you move your pointer over the third label that says “Issues and Advocacy,” a drop down menu will appear.  In that menu, simply select “Vision 2025,” the last box on the right side.  You can download a free PDF of the Vision 2025 document and the Roadmap:  Achieving the Vision document.  I think you will find them interesting and enthusiastic about the future.  We are gratified that many who have reviewed these documents have found them valuable.  They provide us with a purpose, and a goal.

As I indicated earlier, the Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025 contains five outcome statements.  The Roadmap document expands on each of these outcomes.  First, it breaks down the broad outcomes into narrower outcome statements.  Then, it presents a series of action-oriented tasks necessary to accomplish each of these narrower outcomes.

Within all of these tasks, a series of themes emerge.  These include:  education, leadership, collaboration, competencey, sustainability, resiliency and globalization ( plus there are others not listed here.)  These themes are intertwined throughout the Roadmap.

I would like to talk a little more about one of these themes.

Earlier, I mentioned the lessons we have learned, and are still learning, about environmental impacts.  The concept of sustainability has become commonplace, and we have sharpened our focus on it lately.  For many of us who are involved in infrastructure development, we were unsure of what “sustainability” means, and how it should apply to our work.  We needed a clear definition of “sustainability” as it applies to infrastructure.  Recently, the organization I represent, the American Society of Civil Engineers, set out to define “sustainable civil infrastructure.”  We arrived at this definition – it focuses on the environmental, the social and the economic well-being, now and for the future.  All three of those aspects must be considered if our work is going to be truly sustainable.

The next step is to provide a practical tool that we can use to measure the sustainability of infrastructure work.  The American Society of Civil Engineers, along with several other organizations, is now developing a web-based “sustainability rating tool” for civil infrastructure.  In the U.S., we have a tool for assessing the sustainability of buildings.  Established by the U.S. Green Building Council, the tool provides a rating system for new and existing buildings.  A building which is “LEED certified” means that it has been recognized for its exceptional Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. 

The designation “LEED certified” is well-used and well known in the U.S.  But this tool does not apply to infrastructure – airports, transportation, water and sewer systems, etc.  Our goal is to fill that gap with a tool that will guide us as we develop, restore, and replace our infrastructure.  We plan to have this tool ready by the end of the year.

Along with the sustainability rating tool, we have recognized the need to provide a strong educational foundation for our engineers.  This fall, ASCE will be offering a one-day course covering the fundamentals of sustainable development.  The course will survey the principles of sustainable development as they relate to infrastructure and will also cover the economic, environmental and social impact of sustainable development.   This one-day course will also become the first requirement in a six-class program for professional certification in sustainable engineering.  Successful completion will certify a professional engineer as competent to perform, manage or seal a design for an infrastructure project that conforms to the principles of sustainable development as they relate to economics, the environment and society.

We also have other efforts under way to recognize sustainable achievements, develop new innovations to meet these challenges, and to train engineers to practice in this area.

As we move toward the future, in sustainability and in many other areas, we invite China and all countries to join us.  As we transform the profession, and move toward the Vision of 2025, our goal for the future is a collaboration that creates a sustainable world and enhances the global quality of life.

I am very proud to announce that on May 25th, your country signified its willingness to collaborate toward this goal. I am honored to be a part of this historic beginning.

We’ve talked about a lot of issues today – growing populations, growing economies, the effect of industrialization on the environment, and what can be done to mitigate the damage. 

We’ve talked about sustainability and about how both of our countries are committed to improving the air, water, and land that supports our very existence.

We’ve shared with you our Vision for Civil Engineering and the Roadmap to achieve that vision.

And I believe, that working together as two of the largest economies in the world, we can work together to bring about change and progress.

There are a number of next steps we could pursue together – academic activities, partnerships between government and non-government entities - even a joint commission to analyze common infrastructure problems.

The challenges we have before us today and for the future will not be easy.  They will be daunting, they will be hard, and they will measure the best of our abilities.  They will challenge us, they will make us better, and they will stretch us.  They will provide work and an exciting opportunity to enhance the capability of independent innovation and accelerate the transformation of development that this High-tech Expo is all about. 

As we look to the future, I’d like to end today with a quote by a famous American who lived at the turn of the 19th century.  William Jennings Bryan was a well-known politician, a wonderful orator, and was involved in a number of major events in our history.

He had this to say – our “Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice.”  We choose our future, we choose our destiny, and we choose the direction we are going.  I would encourage you to think about our shared destiny, to choose your role in the future, and to join us.  We look forward to working with you to create a global sustainable future.

Thank you.