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Reflections on the 10th Annual Sustainability Conference, Smart Cities: Transforming Cities for a New Era

04 Jun 2019 2:00 PM | ASCE Blog Editor (Administrator)

By Thomas Batroney

On March 6, 2019, ASCE Pittsburgh along with Sustainable Pittsburgh, the City of Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Mellon University's Metro21 held the 10th Annual Sustainability Conference, Smart Cities: Transforming Cities to a New Era. Over 120 registrants ranging from all disciplines from private practitioners and engineers, academia, public sector and non-profit employees were in attendance. To me, it’s a good sign when we attract such a diverse audience to a civil engineering conference. I don’t think I’m being presumptuous in stating that most of us engineers aren’t the coolest people to mingle with for an entire day.

It’s been a couple months since we held the conference but the subject matter discussed still reverberate in my mind. Before I share those rattling thoughts, if you are just first hearing about the conference, or you were unable to attend, feel free to read up on what you missed. Here’s a link to my pre-conference blog post explaining the importance of smart cities technologies and the greater role they are playing across the planet. Also, terrific post wrap-up articles detailing some of the conference highlights were also published by Sustainable Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Business Times (subscription required), and Fourth Economy

One the primary reasons I find Pittsburgh such a great city is the immense density of super talented, passionate and smart people. This was on fully display at the conference not only in our lineup of speakers but also in the highly engaged audience. I was really amazed by the collective brain power in the room. I’m pretty sure several people in the room could have powered the USS Requin Submarine that sits on the river by the Carnegie Science Center. 

Upon reflection, one common theme throughout the day from just about everyone is the critical importance of the human element as we continue to implement smart technologies as part of our infrastructure projects. Smart technologies, if not implemented in an equitable, transparent and fair manner for all people, no matter how great the technology, will run the risk of resulting in a failed outcome. We are seeing the warning signs of this now in Toronto as Don Carter described in his keynote address. 

So how do we ensure that the appropriate steps are taken in the implementation of fair and just smart technologies? 

Several of the conference speakers including Grant Ervin, City of Pittsburgh Chief Resilience Officer, and the panel discussion led by Karen Lightman, Executive Director at Carnegie Mellon Metro21, discussed the potential road map to get us there in the Pittsburgh's OnePGH plan and the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (UN SDGs). If you have not yet read up on OnePGH or the UN SDGs you should start today, as in right after you are done reading this blog post. Both are roadmaps and examples of how to look at the broader picture regarding building the future of our cities. We should be continually referring to and reminding ourselves of the 17 goals set forth in the UN SDGs and the goals within OnePGH. We should be considering how each of the goals are potentially being addressed – or not – by implementing this project or smart technology. We should be using them to better guide our decisions and engineering moral compass. This includes both public and private sectors. 

It should also be stressed that ASCE national headquarters have made sustainability a fundamental cornerstone of its engineering code of ethics. Directly from ASCE's website: "ASCE and its members are dedicated to ensuring a sustainable future in which human society has the capacity and opportunity to maintain and improve its quality of life indefinitely, without degrading the quantity, quality or the availability of natural, economic and social resources. Whether you are just beginning to explore the benefits that a focus on sustainability can bring to your community and your engineering practice, or you are looking for the tools to take it to the next level, we can help you build a better future."

As the ASCE Sustainability Committee moves into planning the 11th edition of the conference, we may explore the UN SDGs in greater detail. What are they and how do we begin to implement these on our projects? What kind of measurable impacts can they have on our cities? This is just a single idea amongst many in our collective minds; we’d love to hear your ideas for next year’s conference theme as well. If you have interest in participating in our conference organizing committee, please do join us! ASCE or Sustainable Pittsburgh membership is not required to participate but much encouraged. The ASCE Pittsburgh Sustainability Committee prides itself on generating innovative, creative, and thought-provoking topic ideas around the topic of sustainability. If this sounds like something that interests you, please join us! For more details, contact me at thomas.batroney@mottmac.com or on twitter @TomBatroney.

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