What is sustainable technology?

Sustainable development is the greatest challenge of our time. It brings together a number of global problems—pollution and intoxication of the space in which we live; poverty and starvation; climate change; depletion of mineral and organic resources; ecological devastation; and global inequity. Different descriptions of sustainability sometimes compete, and sometimes create dilemmas for people trying to contribute to sustainable development. Technologies have played an important role in creating the problems that we face, but will also play an important role in solving them. The reason is not that sustainable development is a technological mission. Rather, sustainable devel- opment is the mission for the whole of society. However, technology is deeply entrenched in our society; without it, society would immediately collapse.

The effects of a technology depend on: The way a technology is perceived and used in a social context, The way in which it affects or even transforms this context, The way it interacts with technological systems and its physical context, The time frame of analysis and The quantity of use.

The term ‘sustainable development’, as coined by the Brundtland commission, has emphasised the interconnection between various collective problems. This was a crucial contribution in shaping a basis for consensus on the need for global action.

In general, sustainable product claims are often based on a single feature of the product, disregarding other possible articulations—being energy-efficient or recyclable, for instance. With that simplification, global tourism becomes sustainable if the tourist pays for CO2 compensation.

The narrower such an articulation of sustainable development is defined, the more it fits into (sub-)disciplinary organised scientific research and technology development processes.

 In order not to aggravate other problems while trying to fix one, it remains important to keep a clear vision of all aspects of sustainable development when addressing specific problems. But this list of all aspects does not exist. Sustain- able development is essentially an open concept that deals with all issues that can threaten ‘our common future’. As such, sustainable development has the charac- teristics of a design project: there are several conditions for a design which cannot all be fulfilled completely. There is not one ‘good’ design but there are several ways of searching for more effective compromises of these demands. And new demands might always be added. But there is also an important difference: a failed product design will be unsuccessful in the market. In sustainable development we cannot afford that—it is our common responsibility to make it successful.

The well-known and still widely used method of LCA (life-cycle analysis) will, we think, not be suffi- cient. The method intends to trace and calculate the various environmental effects of a technology. While measurement of direct environmental impacts today is not unproblematic,1 LCA cannot address all aspects of sustainable development as there is no finite list of aspects: Sustainable development is an open design challenge!

t is insufficient to flag a design as sustainable by referring to a single articulation of sustainable develop- ment. The engineering student that claims that their design is sustainable because it will be manufactured from 100% steel 37, which is fully recyclable, still has a lot to learn. Reality is not that simple. Awareness of the multitude of sustainable devel- opment challenges that play a role in production, use, recycling and end-of-life disposal of designs is a first step.

There are several remarkable phenomena in relation to sustainable technology:

 That more efficient technologies might boost consumption and thereby con-• tribute to resource depletion instead of saving resources

 That prescribing technologies with less harmful side effects might lead to a • transfer of production or illegal use, thereby aggravating problems In our view, these are paradoxes for the design engineer and for society at large. The point is that the engineer cannot and should not be the actor that determines the complete setting in which his or her products are used. For increased resource efficiency, the engineer carries a great responsibility, but describing its use, taxing its use, or even forbidding its use are public matters.

 Technology designs can be analysed using these questions:

 What articulations of sustainable development informed the design process?

 What sustainability effects were caused by this technology?

 Who or what was affected, where and when?

 Could the designer have foreseen these consequences?

 How did the designer judge and anticipate them?

 How was societal interaction dealt with during the design process

As a rule, the challenges of sustainable development will be different in different settings. In this book we deal with three encompassing challenges that have received a lot of attention from engineers and others: energy, water and waste.



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