Sustainability key to regenerative change

As the impact of climate change continues to bite, new ways of thinking about sustainability in infrastructure are vital.  Atkins’ technical director carbon, Mark Hewlett, explains the importance of embedding sustainability across the whole project lifecycle.

Mark Hewlett

Our world is changing, fast. With escalation of extreme weather events, a tangible rise in global temperatures and sea levels, as well as pervasive pollution and a cataclysmic decline in biodiversity, the realities of climate change and environmental degradation are hitting home. 

What we do in the next decade will shape life on Earth for generations to come. 

It’s time to move from a reactive impact mitigation mindset to a regenerative survive and thrive agenda, creating net positive change spanning critical issues from climate change, planetary life support and resource efficiency to economic wellbeing and social equity. 

As the clock ticks and an environmental, social and economic polycrisis unfolds, successfully delivering sustainable outcomes across planning, design and construction is now, quite simply, make or break.

It is our belief that to address this challenge, it’s essential to draw together the many complex aspects of sustainability performance to reveal the big picture, highlighting where more needs to be done, and focusing teams on interventions that will achieve the best results all round. 

As a leading global consultancy, we know that project delivery is where we can make the biggest difference in terms of sustainable outcomes and we are committed to leading that change, encouraging clients to follow suit and setting the standard for good practice across industry. 

Innovative thinking

At Atkins we have developed an approach to embedding sustainability across the whole project lifecycle which we call SEED (sustainability embedded in engineering and design). 

It is a holistic, multidisciplinary and collaborative approach that takes apart all the elements of sustainability, and considers each one separately, taking context, dependencies and interactions into account, to provide clarity, consistency and coherence. 

Using standardised and scalable metrics to define success, it facilitates achievable target-setting, optioneering and performance tracking to drive practical, actionable project inputs and optimise the delivery of sustainable outcomes. 

This innovative approach has been successfully applied on a wide range of projects including Highways England’s Regional Investment Programme schemes, which was recognised with the Highways Awards’ Environmental Sustainability in the Highways Sector Award, 2018. 

Unpacking complexity

‘Sustainability’ has always been a bewilderingly fluid term, capturing a range of issues that often vary depending on context. 

That has made it difficult to define, and to understand. As such, we believe what is required is a top-level understanding of sustainability performance by going beyond the client brief to unpack individual, actionable challenges and creating a clear line of sight from project requirements to delivery. 

The engine room of this approach is the optioneering stage. This is where we have the opportunity to explore various approaches to achieving sustainability targets, can understand and consider the multiple social, economic and environmental implications, and look holistically at the challenge to precisely balance its various strands for the greatest sustainability benefit. 

Setting up for success 

For sustainability to be truly embedded in project development, buy-in from all parties is paramount, and individuals need to be empowered to take ownership for setting and meeting targets. 

It is key to encourage dialogue among colleagues from sustainability, planning, design, engineering – and everywhere in between – as well as clients and other stakeholders, to proactively engage with and discuss the issues and interventions. 

Team members can’t take ownership without strong, well-defined targets, linked to actionable project inputs.

Collaborative target-setting is central to this new approach, using data and benchmarking alongside contextual policy and client objectives to collectively agree a common conception of success, and develop a strategy to get there.

Normalising sustainability 

The idea of setting targets for sustainability can seem daunting. But by referencing well-established metrics for biodiversity net gain, social value and carbon emissions, for example, and, crucially, rooting these in local and wider context, we are able to implement a standardised way of defining and scaling performance. 

This enables ready comparison across objectives and between potentially competing outcomes (e.g. biodiversity net gain, waste generation and reuse, carbon emissions, water consumption) and facilitates the crucial balancing act that points us towards the most sustainable solutions.

A key part of this approach is flexibility and continuous review – we all know things can change. Intermittent reviews are scheduled into each project to take changes to project parameters, regulations, policy or funding into account, and adjust targets as necessary. This feedback loop creates agile targets that are always appropriate, understood and achievable. 

Applying standardised metrics to something previously considered abstract or vague, has the power to transform our concept of sustainability, bring it into focus, and normalise it.

By giving sustainability tangible dimensions and facilitating an understanding of its granularity, it’s possible to plug into project requirements, generate actionable project inputs, and ultimately identify and deliver the best sustainable outcomes.

If you would like to contact Karen McLauchlan about this, or any other story, please email kmclauchlan@infrastructure-intelligence.com.