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Leadership Required: Civil Engineers and Resilient Infrastructure


On December 11, 2019, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25), ASCE and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy announced a joint memorandum of understanding to develop and finance adaptations to infrastructure that will help the covenant's 10,000 member cities across the globe become more resilient to the effects of climate change.

The partnership was formulated during ASCE's International Conference on Sustainable Infrastructure (ICSI), held in Los Angeles in early November, and represents an acknowledgement that civil engineers must play a strong leadership role in helping communities adapt to the significant changes in the natural world that are affecting, and will continue to affect, the safety and operations of the world's infrastructure.

The announcement comes as the ASCE Committee on Sustainability seeks to finalize a standard on sustainable infrastructure sometime next year, as well as two technical reports—one on sustainable procurement and the other on climate-safe infrastructure.

During ICSI, Civil Engineering partnered with the committee, ASCE's Industry Leaders Council, and the ASCE Foundation to host an exclusive roundtable with industry experts to discuss a fundamental issue on the minds of many of the conference's 377 attendees: How can infrastructure be created, managed, and upgraded to withstand whatever challenges global climate change may bring, and what role should civil engineers play in that process?

Panelists, who are listed below, included experts in civil engineering, technology, and infrastructure. In these pages we present, in edited form, that roundtable discussion—its conclusions, recommendations, and calls to action to all civil engineers.


Amanda Eichel
Executive Director, Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, Brussels

Carol Ellinger Haddock, P.E., M.ASCE
Director, Houston Public Work;  Member,  ASCE Board of Directors and Committee on Sustainability, Houston

Raoul Karp, P.E., S.E., M.ASCE
Vice President, Design Engineering Analysis Bentley Systems Inc., Exton, Pennsylvania

Emmanuel "Cris" B. Liban, Ph.D., P.E., ENV SP, F.ASCE
Chief Sustainability Officer, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (L.A. Metro);  Chair,  ASCE Committee on Sustainability Los Angeles

Michaella Wittmann, ENV SP, LEED AP
Director of Sustainability and Resiliency, HDR, Omaha, Nebraska;  Chair,  Envision Review Board, which ensures the continued integrity and efficacy of Envision and its associated tools, resources, and documents for the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure Washington, D.C.

Civil Engineering: What is one significant goal that each of you has related to sustainability and resiliency for 2020?

Cris Liban: As the chair of the ASCE Committee on Sustainability, one big goal I have is to finish the standard! And start finishing off the manuals of practice, both for reinventing civil engineering as well as for procurement.

Professionally, [in Los Angeles] we're supporting about twenty billion dollars' worth of projects right now, so the big goal is to ensure that they remain climate safe.

Amanda Eichel: In the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, we have ten thousand cities [that] have all made commitments to climate [resiliency], and the reason I'm here is because we see a huge potential for a partnership with the engineering community and particularly the new coalition.

Carol Haddock: Our goals at the City of Houston over the next year will be adopting a resiliency plan before the end of this year. As the director of Houston Public Works, we are learning to balance day-today operations with the challenges of Hurricane Harvey recovery and implementing projects to make our city sustainably stronger. Whether they are large-scale, small-scale, or individual projects by homeowners or business owners, we want to ensure that every dollar that we bring into the region and invest in our community is one that is putting us on the path to resilience and not one that is an investment in keeping people at the risk profile that they are in today.

Michaella Wittmann: At HDR, we're looking internally at how to make our own offices resilient [because] we lease more than two hundred fifty offices across the globe. We also have a resiliency framework plan that we're trying to introduce to all our clients to make sure that we are asking them the right questions about resiliency and what it means to them and their organizations. Our goal is to make sure that the conversation happens [and then] to implement [the results of] the conversations.

Raoul Karp: I'm responsible for software and solutions around engineering outcomes, with a particular focus on resiliency.

Bentley has made a significant investment in our OpenCities digital platform, which enables the automated generation of engineering-level accuracy of city-built infrastructure and machine learning. It can automatically identify elements in a three-dimensional, virtual world. In 2020 we will add flooding and seismic-risk modeling services to this platform, to allow owners, … public officials, … and financial organizations to assess risk to life, property, and cost—and model mitigation alternatives to determine the impact on city-scale resiliency.

Civil Engineering: We have heard time and again at ICSI that civil engineers are very well respected around the world and that their help is needed in forwarding resiliency and sustainability plans. What is it that civil engineers can and should do to reach that end?

Liban: Number one is that there is a dichotomy between what engineers-civil engineers in particular-perceive of their stature versus what people actually believe is their leadership ability to make things happen. I've been involved in a lot of conversations—and Carol has as well—on ASCE's board and in committees [about] how we increase our influence. How do we actually assure ourselves that we're being heard, that people do the things that we are advocating?

In the circles I operate in—political, financial, and engineering circles—there is a big hunger for engineers to get involved because they know exactly what needs to get done.

So what is [the problem]? Is it us not doing it? Or is it that people are just not aware that folks on the engineering side want to do that? And at the same time, people are just not talking to one another.

Civil Engineering: One thing we hear from our members is they would like the larger community to recognize them-their stature. Do you feel that they are being recognized as important contributors?

Liban: I'll answer your question two ways. Number one is, people who go into this field—this might not be one hundred percent true— tend to be introverts. They tend to be people who want to do their own work and focus on one thing.

What I also see is that engineers who have been articulate on [particular] issues are the ones who are able to influence whatever they need to influence. But their numbers are just a small sliver of the engineering population.

The second part of that [is that] people don't necessarily want to hear them out, because they think, 'Well, I'll just tell the [engineer] what he needs to do, and he'll crank it out for me.' Versus [them saying], 'What do you think is the issue? How do you think I should approach this?'

Haddock: I'll push back on the 'introvert' label a little. People absolutely get flabbergasted when I say I'm quite an introverted person. But that is because being introverted or extroverted has nothing to do with my ability to communicate or interact socially. It's just where I draw my energy from. I don't draw my energy from a crowd; I draw it from crawling into a cave and recharging.

But we, as civil engineers, are risk averse. We are averse to walking into areas where things are not defined by an equation or are not black and white. And we use 'I'm introverted' as a crutch or an excuse.

We need to become risk tolerant in these conversations. We need to learn how to function in the areas of gray, to challenge the standards, and to be willing to be part of discussions where there isn't a defined answer. We need to be willing to challenge the way we as an industry have [always] done it.

We need to be willing to be brave enough to say, 'I don't have all the answers, but I have knowledge in these areas, and you have knowledge in these other areas. How do we take all these voices and all this knowledge and be willing to take bold steps forward, and [then] be critical of what happens when we do?'

[We need to] learn, adapt, and continue taking steps forward. That is the arena that we have got to become comfortable in if we are going to be successful in leading this discussion.


Civil Engineering: Engineers are responsible for so much—if a dam fails, if a building fails. How do you get out of that comfort zone and be okay with risk?

Haddock: Well, the consequences of failure that we are talking [about] are: What if we don't improve the environment [or] if we don't improve the air quality? It's not the same consequences as a dam failure, but the consequences are long term and are just as serious if we don't take action. They're just not immediate. And right now, we're not even evaluating the risk.

Wittmann: One point of view, from where we're standing as an organization, is addressing the standard of care for our clients. A number of years ago, the American Institute of Architects proclaimed that the standard of care is changing and if you're not addressing sustainability as an architect, that's an issue. So, we've actually been addressing this same idea as a company—with our lawyers, with our engineers, with our sustainability experts, with our stormwater and renewable energy experts. It's an ongoing dialogue about what the standard of care should be. If you can't rely on the codes or if you can't rely on the same standards that you have in the past, then what's our responsibility versus our clients' responsibility?

We have some cities coming to the table saying, 'If you're going to do work with us, here is the actual sea-level rise you should use when you are working on this port.' And we have other cities saying, 'You tell us.'

A big challenge for us as we talk internally is: How do we have a dialogue with our clients about what they want us to drive versus what they want to drive?

Haddock: And [we need to consider] how receptive clients are to that dialogue. I say that knowing that I work for a large city that for the last twenty-five years has told consultants, 'This is exactly what we want you to do.' We've handcuffed them into not being creative for us.

Wittmann: The client drives it, right? But the concern, from my standpoint as the sustainability director, is where the conversation is not happening. I'm happy to have the City of Houston or the City of San Francisco say, 'This is what we're doing.' But I'm more concerned about areas where there's no conversation, where we have people designing something in what was a traditional fifty-year floodplain or a one-hundred-year or a five-hundred-year floodplain, and they're not having the conversation [about risks].

Eichel: This is why the standards are so important. Part of having a standard is that it gives a city like Houston or others something to lean on, so it's not just a bottom-line, dollars-and-cents situation. It is considering the different benefits of resilience in an RFP [request for proposal] that might not be possible in the current setting. I don't know about the Houston case in particular, but I know a lot of the cities that we work with, particularly those not in the global north, really rely on standards to help inform what they're asking for from the engineering community.

Our organization works with ten thousand cities globally, and I think only about two hundred are in the United States. There is a growing number, especially in Africa and Asia, where there is just not the same capacity at the local government level that you're lucky to have in Houston.


Haddock: So, Cris, for you and me, this is a similar challenge. Historically [in Houston] we've had very prescriptive standards—not performance-based standards—and they make it very hard for government entities to be adaptable, because the standard is, 'Thou shalt do X.' So, a lot of this is [about] modifying our standards to become performance based, so that it allows discussion and engineering judgment to inform the project.

How are you all doing it here [in Los Angeles]?

Liban: We've been trying to look at the delivery method. For us, a small project is five hundred million dollars or less. And traditionally if it is a small project, it's design-bid-build. We say, 'Okay, here's a one hundred percent design, do that for me.' But for the larger, major-capital projects, we say, 'We really would like to optimize not only the financial resources we have but also the time to build these things.' And therefore, we've explored design-build.

And now we're actually looking at the possibility of privatizing some of this infrastructure, passing on some of that risk, if you will, to the contractor.

To Amanda's point, absent a uniform standard that eventually becomes a code that is prescribed for a project, a design-build delivery method is allowing the contractor to know what our vision and policies are, and then helping them through a project-specific sustainability plan described and specified for us under that delivery method. How are they going to fulfill the vision that we want them to fulfill under our policies?

It's hit-and-miss because on one hand, you are able to know ahead of time what [you want them to try] to do, but at the same time, because it's design-build, the question is whether that is exactly what they are going to do.

Civil Engineering: Do you feel that the engineers have the tools they need at this point to be able to do that—to give you what you're asking for? And are clients willing to listen if they want to do more, to take it a little further?

Liban: That is an interesting question because on one hand, I look at Michaella, and I can say, 'I know HDR is very capable of building my project or my next building or whatever.' And I see all of these younger engineers coming out of the schools who actually know what I'm talking about [with respect to sustainability]. So, part of the conversation is where [are those engineers] on the totem pole of the decision-making process? Are [they] the profit-center manager? Or are [they] the six-month graduate who wants to pursue this sustainable strategy?

And if [they are] there as a profit-center manager, I don't know if I believe that [sustainability efforts will be made], because it will eat up my profit. You have people who know what we are talking about, but are they decision makers on the profit side or on the construction and design side?

Haddock: And then we'll layer on top of that that we have so much that ends up in the public realm, or that influences the public realm, that is truly a private investment or private development. So, a lot of the standards that we have are for that private investment, and that has a different motivation than we have on public projects. It's a lot easier for us to defend spending five percent extra or ten percent extra or doing a life-cycle cost [analysis for public projects]. But when you're dealing with private development and private funding, somebody is looking to maximize their profit and walk away from that investment. That's a very different decision-making process.

We want to be more open and risk tolerant in our standards, but we're also trying to protect people who aren't involved in the investment equation who are going to live and work there.

Karp: Coming from the technology side of things-besides my previous experience in the industry as an engineer-our benefit at Bentley is that we get to hear from a large number of organizations around the world and what's driving them. And we do see the progressive firms looking to go beyond what the codes and standards are asking for. They are asking to differentiate, for their own benefit, by providing more advanced capabilities. [For example, some want to be able to do] more advanced analyses so they do not have to just prescriptively strengthen a building but can actually understand exactly what the strength of the existing structure is. We get a lot of that coming from the progressive companies.


Karp (continues): To your question of how engineers can inform and influence cities, probably the most important thing that I see is engineers being able to set the standards in a language that speaks to, and can be understood by, all the stakeholders. A lot of times we write standards for engineers, and we need to write standards that can be understood by the consumers-by the policy makers [and] the financial industry—so that they can make their own decisions.

One of the big, interesting initiatives that Bentley has been a founding member of, and is participating in, is the U.S. Resiliency Council [USRC], which has established ratings for buildings-not just on strength, which is what we traditionally design our structures for, but also the timeframe at which that building might be operational after a major seismic event or flooding event and the cost that might involve. If we can come up with a single, easy-to-understand standard that developers can use to get higher rents, that owners can use to get lower insurance rates, that consumers can understand and use to make decisions about whether they want to move into that building or work or live in that building, that is going to be critical. We know more about the safety of the restaurant that we ate lunch in than we do about the [hotel] that we are sitting in.

Haddock: Or the bridge that we're driving over.

Karp: Or the bridge that we're driving over! Right! That information needs to be put into plain English and made available and accessible to everybody. And then decisions will be made that will benefit everybody.

Civil Engineering: This is a theme we have been hearing here at ICSI-that not only the technical aspects but also the multiple benefits that come from resiliency projects need to be communicated in much clearer language. Are civil engineers the best ones to do that?

Eichel: I don't know if [civil engineers] have the choice about whether or not they are the best to communicate about that. I think that everyone who is working in this space needs to be communicating about the different types of benefits. And it's certainly a place where something like a coalition can come together and come up with a common language and a common way of speaking to this. But I don't think there is a choice at this point about bringing in the [sustainability] aspects that are important.

Liban: It's a very important skill set. I always tell people that one of my favorite subjects in college was a course called Engineering Communications; [it] has nothing to do with technical requirements, and you didn't have to solve any equations. It was divided into three parts: The first one was how to write in plain English. The next one was how to speak. And the third one was how to get in front of a camera and distill all these pieces of information.

I didn't realize … until many years later [how] that really changed [and] differentiated me as an individual from many folks who are definitely more intelligent than I am. Seriously!

One time my former CEO was very frustrated with me after I'd explained a concept to him. He said, 'Stop. Do you know why I earn three hundred thousand dollars [a year] and you don't?' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because everything you were just telling me, I could distill that into one sentence.' And that's the value of [communications]! Time is money.

Nobody should speak for me. It should be my responsibility, and I should be accountable to make sure, for lack of a better word, that [these concepts are] 'dumbed down' to the level that the most challenged individual can understand what I'm saying.

Haddock: I'm going to push back on the 'dumbed down' phrase. Because if I go to the doctor, and I've got something going on, and the doctor and I talk about it, they will describe to me that you need your appendix out—or whatever it is—and they explain to me that they're going to do surgery, they're going to cut me open, they're going to take my appendix out, they're going to put me on antibiotics to make sure I don't get sick, they're going to sew me up, and they're going to send me home. That's not 'dumbed down.' That's the level of detail I need. They didn't pull out the book and go through a forty-five-minute explanation of exactly what type of scalpel they're going to use.

But engineers think that it's so important that everybody understands exactly every single little bitty …

Liban: … every single part of that equation, right?

Haddock: … every single part of it! Instead, we need to understand that we need to communicate in a way that people understand. It's not talking down to, it's not belittling, it's not dumbing down. The public can understand the concepts of what we do. It really is a matter of us being engaged in the conversation, using all that knowledge, [and] like you said earlier … putting all that in one sentence.

It's actually giving the public respect, and it gives them time to talk so that we can listen.

Karp: I would add a couple of things to this from the engineering side. Part of the challenge is [that] if engineers are the only ones doing the talking, then they are going to be talking to a single audience. It's very important to have all of the various stakeholders together to define the language. And events like [ICSI] are fantastic because you don't just get engineers. You get policy makers, you get financial advocates, and that's really important because you need to understand how they need to be informed. And then together, you need to come up with a single standard [language].

I'll give the USRC as an example again. There was a lot of debate about: Should there be stars that are used? Should there be numbers that are used? Should there be colors? Do you have platinum, gold, or whatever it is? Behind each of those levels, there is a lot of science, and the engineers can really dig in and say, 'Hey, if you want to give a three-star rating, these are the technical details and also the expected outcomes that everyone can understand.' An example would be the expected downtime of a structure after a major earthquake.

And the financial people, the engineers, the consumers—everybody—understands a three-star [rating]. Everybody understands a four-star. If you want to effect change in policy and in long-term decision making and thinking, you need to get everybody to come together to come up with a single language that everybody can understand.

Civil Engineering: Raoul, are companies like yours, that make technologies that allow the consequences of actions and inactions to be visualized very clearly, part of that language? Not everybody understands numbers. Some people are visual.

Karp: Absolutely. Simulations and scenarios are the big thing for us-being able to simulate real-world events in realistic fashion with true engineering behind it, but then also quickly [adapting those] scenarios. That's certainly another key driver for our industry. Digital twins, which provide a digital representation for visualization and 'intelligent' design, also offer a way to extend the engineers' role to more of an operational phase. We need to get engineers thinking not just about design but [about construction and operations]. If we can get more engineering firms involved in those long-term partnerships, that would also further this story.


Wittmann: One thing that we do differently now is that when there is a resiliency, sustainability, climate, or health and wellness goal, we bring those [experts] to the table as part of the design. We just designed and built our new global headquarters in Omaha [Nebraska]. We had our developer at the table, we had our facility manager at the table, we had our building's day-to-day operations manager at the table. They all had a stake and contributed to the success in achieving our sustainability goals, such as a very energy-efficient building, a successful composting and recycling program, and the ability to eliminate disposable food containers and cutlery completely.

Liban: I sit in a very unique position at L.A. Metro: We deal with planners, with constructors, with operations, and with procurement—these are the four big business units within my organization. And the environmental lessons I can draw from the operational and procurement standpoints need to be brought back to the planning, design, and construction phases. There is just no way I can create a better, more efficient, cost-effective transportation system without that. We essentially capture all of those under an environmental management system, with different stakeholders on the team under a formal governance structure that looks at not only lessons learned but opportunities for improvement.

Haddock: There are changes and improvements that we need to make, not just because of environmental regulations but because they are good business practices. But there [can be] resistance on the operator side to making those changes and adaptations, and it's not just what the operator says that is the answer. It's a discussion and a decision that [needs to be made] jointly across the entire organization that moves those things forward.

In public works in Houston, I have water and wastewater in addition to streets and stormwater and permitting, and my water and wastewater infrastructure [accounts for] fifty-eight percent of the city's entire electric bill. So, the decisions that we make about the utility will have far-reaching effects. If we can make little decisions that over the years change that energy profile, then we can actually impact a very large portion of the city, as far as our electric bill, our greenhouse gases, and all the things that go with the energy consumption that we have.


Civil Engineering: Who needs to be in the room with the engineers to ensure that the projects are as resilient to climate change as possible?

Wittmann: I manage a small group called the Office of Sustainability within HDR, and even outside that group, we have six sustainability directors. In my opinion, you have to have someone who is the voice on the client's end for that conversation at the table. I'm hoping that ten years from now—maybe five but probably ten—we've [always] got the right people in the room. Maybe it's the project manager, maybe it's the client. But you have to have a voice.

Eichel: What's interesting to me, listening to this conversation, is that most of the cities that we work with don't have a public works department necessarily. They may have control over waste management but not water and transportation. And the vast majority may not have the type of engineering expertise within their departments [to think] about sustainability.

There are plenty of sustainability advocates. We have one in every one of these ten thousand cities. But we don't have the engineering capacity in every one of those ten thousand cities. So, we're coming at this almost from the reverse perspective, in that we have the champion in the room; what we don't have yet is the engineer in the room with the sustainability champion.

That's where the standards can be helpful, that's where the partnership can be helpful [to] find a way for the engineering community to be involved [earlier in the process] with those cities that are setting targets and creating plans, so they are not getting to the point where they have now launched their new resiliency plan or their new sustainability plan but [with] no idea how they are going to actually put it into practice.

Haddock: The standards are a path to really change the discussion because the beautiful thing about engineers is that we're really good at working within the confines we're given. So if we're given the confines that [say], 'You will address sea-level rise, you will address this, you will address that,' [then] those are all just things that are put into the way you're approaching it. It's another thing that's in your solution.

What we've been driven to through the years—I will say as a society, and then also as a subset, as an engineering field—is the success of just enough project for the cheapest cost. And that was the measure of success.

Liban: Done in the fastest way possible.

Haddock: Yes! We need to redefine success. If it's not resilient, then it shouldn't be an option that you can come to out of the design process. That's what we've got to get to.

That's where the standards come in, that's where the public policy comes in. A lot of this stuff [related to resiliency], politicians say they want it right after a disaster, but three years down the road, they want four ribbon cuttings, not two. And so how do we keep that discussion moving forward? It's via the standards.

Eichel: Too often, sustainability and resiliency are not part of the [typical] process. It's a parallel or a separate track. Finding a way to ensure that that does become part of the standard process for every city [is critical]. But right now, there is a separate sustainability plan from the capital investment plan in most cities.

Haddock: I've been challenged at the city a lot of times by people asking, 'Have you stood up an environmental group?' And my response is always, 'I don't want it to be seen as an extra burden that's added to the process. I'd rather change the job duties of everybody in the organization.'

Safety is part of everyone's job description. People are responsible for going out and training [others], but everyone is responsible for their own safety. We've got to get resilience into that same [place].

Eichel: I do agree, but until that is ingrained in the same way that safety is, there is a need for someone to be that champion. Even in places where there is a Carol or a Cris.

Civil Engineering: How do you make sure that those projects are funded at the level they need to be, when resilient projects are going to cost more for a greater benefit down the line?

Haddock: Oh, but they only cost more temporarily! That's the thing. We've got to sell the long run.

Karp: I want to extend what you said, Carol, about standards. Because standards get you [only] so far. Like you pointed out, [with] the five-hundred-year event happening three years in a row, what's going to happen? Are [engineers] going to change the standards? And, if so, you'll be designing to higher standards, but you still haven't changed the conversation around making decisions that can be informed by everybody for a long-term resilient design.

I believe that the biggest incentive—and you have to provide incentives—aligned with long-term resiliency [comes from] creating a language and transparency. If you have a performance-based design code that can be represented by a language that everybody understands, then everybody can look at the decisions that are being made and see that [for example] this was a design that was made just for life safety, or this was a design for a structure that is going to have above-code-standard performance.

And because it's transparent, because everyone understands, the incentive will come financially. People will talk with their pocketbook; they will pay more for the office space that they know is going to be operational, that they know is going to be beyond 'life safe' in the event of a major hurricane or major earthquake.

[Our current] standards are great for engineering, and they can help us raise the level on how we want to engineer the asset for strength and life safety. But for resiliency and sustainability and long-term impact, there has to be something above those standards.

Civil Engineering: A speaker here at ICSI from Los Angeles County [said] that bringing the Olympics to Los Angeles was a real opportunity to get a lot of resilient infrastructure put into place. But it shouldn't take bringing the Olympics to a city to get that done. How do we get every city to think of themselves as a place that can make that level of investment and that level of commitment to sustainable infrastructure?

Liban: [Sometimes] a disaster has to happen to drive something like this. But you know, I often get teased that, 'You don't have Katrina, you don't have [hurricanes], what are you worried about? Sea-level rise is not going to happen until a hundred years from now, so why are you increasing the freeboard [on a seaside project]?'

People should start looking at this not necessarily as whether or not it's acute or chronic, but more as: How is this infrastructure going to be used over the life of that project? And should [the possible] disruption of the highest and best use of that infrastructure be part of the decision-making process?

One example we have here locally is that I have a bridge that floods every time it rains. So, I'm just going to raise it up by two feet now. It's cheaper to do that now. The mind-set of [some people] is: 'What is the immediate need? When can we do the ribbon cutting on this thing?' Versus thinking about the life span of the infrastructure for the highest and best use.

Haddock: One of the questions that I've been asking myself recently, that's been bothering me a lot, is that when we talk about infrastructure, we talk about decades of life span. We talk about a fifty-year life, a one-hundred-year life.

But when I look at some of the things that influence the most people, day in and day out, besides basic water and sanitation, it's my traffic signal network. I've got traffic signals that were put on the ground in the 1980s and I'm expecting them to operate in 2020, but the technology is changing so fast. People in my neighborhood ask, 'Why can't you get the lights downtown synchronized. Why is this so hard? Aren't you smart enough to do this?' And I'm like, 'We're absolutely smart enough to do this. But I'm dealing with technology from 1982. There is not an app for that!'

And so, I've been talking to transportation software [experts] about our traffic signal cabinets. I [ask], 'When are you all going to have one where I can literally bring a new iPhone in every year and just plug it in?' And they look at me kind of funny. They say, 'That's not how [we] design traffic signal cabinets.'

So, at what point do we actually begin to challenge that 'decades' is the right answer for the life cycle of infrastructure and begin to ask ourselves, for each piece of it, what is the right life cycle? I mean, how long do I have one of these phones? How long do I have a watch?

Should resilience be part of what is driving the right life span for this piece of infrastructure today so that it is adaptable? So that I can take a four-lane roadway to a three-lane or two-lane roadway that increases the pedestrian realm, that addresses other modes [of transportation] that are coming in?

We're having big discussions right now that if we're going from a four-lane to a six-lane roadway anywhere in Houston moving forward, the only way we're going to add those extra two lanes is if they are HOV [high-occupancy vehicle] and bus-only. We're not going to add extra lanes for single-occupancy cars. This is like the car capital of the world that is having these discussions!

We've not ever challenged the life span of infrastructure in these discussions. It's been a fixed variable: we're going to build it, and it's going to be there for a long time. How do we bring that variable into the discussion?


Liban: Technology investments are a significant commitment. I'll give you an example. Our board said, 'Let's go to zero-emissions buses by 2030.' [L.A. Metro is] the biggest bus organization in the whole country-second only to China in the world. For someone to actually make that conversion in the technology in a short period of time is very costly. It's an up-front cost of like a million dollars per bus.

Haddock: Oh, so I can have eighty [nonelectric] buses on the street, or I can have two [electric ones]?

Liban: Absolutely! And guess when our first [electric] bus got delivered? We ordered it in March.

Haddock: Have you gotten it yet?

Liban: In July.

Haddock: Oh! You actually got it in July? Because [electric] trash trucks take nine months for us to get.

Liban: Yeah, but in the same report to my board, we had to tell them that the next bus is probably not going to come until December or January. Because this is the prototype.

The other thing about the technology is: Is that bus going to have the charge we need it to have? Not necessarily all the time, because the infrastructure is not going to be built according to the timeline that we want to build it. So, the answer to the [life-cycle] question is very contextual.

Karp: From the technology perspective, hardware technology [such as that in buses] is not stuff that we can inform. But software technology and understanding the operating conditions is certainly something [we can]. The science is there. With digital-city technology, and even some machine-learning technology, we can identify seismically vulnerable buildings just by creating three-dimensional models out of images or drive-by Google photos. We can train these systems to identify, at a city level, areas of vulnerability.

I give credit to some progressive cities that are proactive on mitigating such risks. Santa Monica [California] introduced a very progressive program where they went throughout the entire city [and identified] the seismically vulnerable soft-story structures. They informed the owners of this, they gave them some time to react and incentives to do retrofitting and strengthening—all with a goal and understanding that, should the big event happen, they want to make sure that their city is resilient. It's there not just to save lives but also to keep the city viable and operating.

And there are spot instances where cities are taking advantage of the technology. There is good technology out there to understand, at a larger scale, what your risks are and what your opportunities are. We just need some bold, brave, policy makers to go out there and stand up and make a difference. And unfortunately, as Cris said, ultimately it will probably take a big seismic event to shine a light on Santa Monica [to show] that they did it right.

You also see this after the hurricanes and after the floods. They show the buildings that stayed standing. Engineers love that because they can point at that as an example of how good policy could have been made to apply to a larger number of structures and saved a lot more lives. Technology is an enabler. It's not the only answer to all of this, but it certainly can help.

Haddock: And I will say, this morning we had a conversation about the digital divide, and one of the things that is an advantage in some of the developing countries is that you don't have the telecommunications infrastructure that we have. There are a lot of advantages to being able to jump a generation [over what] we have … I'll say 'suffered' through … in parts of the U.S., because we had invested so much in the infrastructure that we had in place that nobody wanted to take us to that next step. I remember through the years going to different places in Europe where, if you were in a small town, they just didn't even have [landline] phones. Where in the U.S., every house in a small town had a phone, so then having somebody invest to take them to cellular was [problematic].

Still, we need to be mindful that as we're looking at these things and developing these standards that we're not omitting [less developed] areas, and not even just in other parts of the world; some are in other parts of my state. They're in other parts of my country. I sat on a panel recently where I was reminded that there is a portion of Missouri that doesn't have 911 service. Blew me away. I didn't know there was anywhere in the United States that didn't have 911 service. So, as we continue to push forward, we need to be mindful of the entire context of everybody that is still out there.


Eichel: And just to come back to your initial question: I do not think that there is a lack of commitment at the local level, at the political level [in other countries]. We've seen a thousand or more cities in the last month and a half make a commitment or declare a climate emergency. So, they are aware that this is incredibly urgent and are committed. The challenge is that they don't always have the resources or the capacity to take that action immediately. In some cases, it's because they don't have the control over all of the assets in the city, whether it's roads or water treatment and waste management. They have to work with the state level or the national level, and they need support from technology companies.

Modeling the data, like you have [in the United States], would be incredibly helpful if [it was] made available [to] other private-sector partners. It requires coming together, and we're thrilled there is now leadership from the engineering community to meet that.


Civil Engineering: As we wrap up our session, what primary message would you like ASCE's members to take away from this discussion?

Karp: I would say that there is some fantastic technology available for you [to use] to shine a light on what we call dark data. That is one of the biggest challenges in the industry. There are a lot of vendors and solutions used on a project, and we can bring that information together and learn from it.

And ultimately we need to establish a clear language that is understood by all stakeholders, not just engineers, that can help inform decisions and provide natural incentives that are going to come out of the fact that everybody understands the safety, reliability, and resiliency of the structures and infrastructure that they're living in, working in, and riding on. And that will naturally affect the drive for cities and individual owners to build more resilient structures.

Wittmann: The only option we have as engineers is to understand that the standards that we designed to in the past need to be challenged and rewritten to address the changing climate and demands of today's infrastructure needs. ASCE can lead the way in that challenge.

Liban: People are hungry for engineers to lead, for engineers to be there at the table, for them to actually make things happen.

We need to seize that moment! Not only for ourselves, not only for the profession, but as part of Canon One of ASCE's Code of Ethics, for the good of society. The call to action has always been obvious, but no one seems to realize that it's right in front of them, staring them in the face. There has to be an element of just 'seize the moment.'


Eichel: That's right. We saw how powerful it was when the scientific community came together and said, 'It's obvious, there's no more question, [climate change is real], the science is clear.' There is the same opportunity for the engineering community to say, 'It's obvious.' We need to say it as a community, to lead on this. There is no time to wait; the time is now.

And from the perspective of the cities that I work with, there is such a willingness to partner and to work together and a need and a desire to be met in that leadership on this issue. There is a huge space that this community can step into as the implementers, as the stakeholders that are going to identify, build, and develop the designs and the solutions. We need that leadership.

Haddock: We have to be leaders in changing our approach so that any outcome that is not resilient is not acceptable as an engineering outcome. We have spent decades taming nature, controlling nature, modifying nature, and showing our dominance over nature. It is time for us to change our relationship with our natural environment, back to one that is of respect for resources and respect for what's naturally there and how we impact it.

And no, I don't want people to go away; I don't want cities to go away. If anything, my neighbors are mad at me on a daily basis because I tell them the luxury of living five miles from the downtown of the fourth-largest city in the United States on an eight-thousand-square-foot lot in a twenty-two-hundred-square-foot home with a yard is a luxury that should not exist today—and it won't exist in fifty years. It's just not a good use of resources. And they don't want to see the change.

So, we have to be leaders in changing that mind-set of how we interact with the world that we're in.

We, as civil engineers, have to be bold in saying that an outcome that is not resilient is not an outcome that we should engineer.


Civil Engineering, February 2020, © American Society Of Civil Engineers. All Rights Reserved


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