By Dennis D. Truax, Ph.D., P.E., DEE, D.WRE, F.NSPE, F.ASCE

man in suit smiling
Dennis D. Truax

We live in a new world — one of finite resources, limited investment, and a climate that is rapidly changing. This “perfect storm” means that doing what always worked in the past is likely to fail in the future.

In this new world, we will need to innovate, reimagine, and empirically improvise solutions to a new century of problems. We’ll need to use new design and construction approaches that incorporate high-tech materials and emerging technologies. And we must ensure that the next generation of infrastructure systems not only meets nominal expectations but has the resilience to perform during catastrophic events, and then recover quickly afterward.

Hence, modern infrastructure must have an optimized life-cycle cost and increased longevity, often referred to as the triple bottom line of sustainability. (For more details, read "Exploring the Relationships between the Triple Bottom Line of Sustainability in the Construction Industry," International Conference on Construction and Real Estate Management 2019, ASCE). These systems must be able to be repaired and returned to service without causing a cascade of subsequent problems for the community or the other infrastructure systems on which they rely. They need to conserve resources and adapt to meet the demands placed on them by escalating populations and increasingly intense disasters. And they must respect the culture and values of the people and communities they serve.

Recognizing this reality, the Society introduced the ASCE Grand Challenge to emphasize the critical need for sustainable and resilient infrastructure. To support this initiative, we established several policy statements related to infrastructure development and disaster mitigation. ASCE Policy Statement 500 supports initiatives to increase infrastructure resilience to hazards through education, research, planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance. It requires us to develop performance criteria and national standards that address interdependencies and establish minimum performance goals.

Knowing the infrastructure we build can have positive and negative impacts on the public, we must also acknowledge the socioeconomic impact of potentially dividing communities. If we are not careful, those living on the leeward side of these infrastructure systems can face a change in living environment that adversely impacts their quality of life.

We built the federal interstate highway system to connect cities across the United States. And while the system impacted various communities, they were largely constructed where land was cheap and there was little political opposition — in poor neighborhoods that were predominantly home to people of color. This charge for urban renewal ended up uprooting many of these communities altogether, displacing their residents. This project is one of many scenarios in which an infrastructure system that should have been beneficial to all becomes one that divides and benefits some more than others.

Therefore, in our efforts to design sustainable and resilient systems, we must also be mindful of the communities we are ethically obligated to protect. ASCE’s PS 418 outlines the role of engineers in sustainable development in a way that enhances the safety, welfare, and quality of life for all. Herein, the triple bottom line defines sustainability as a set of economic, environmental, and social conditions in which all society can maintain and improve its quality of life indefinitely without degrading the quantity, quality, or availability of economic, environmental, and social resources. Embracing this practice ensures communities are not only sustained but can thrive.

To conclude, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species does not assert that it is the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent, that survives. Rather, it contends that the species that survives is the one that is most adaptable to its changing environment. For us, this has never been truer than today. The infrastructure systems on which we rely to keep us safe, support our economy, and establish the quality of life we desire must be sustainable and resilient in the face of a changing planet. 

This article first appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Civil Engineering as “Sustainably Embracing Our Changing World.”