Dr Susan P Krumdieck is Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Advanced Energy and Material Systems Lab, University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
Can technology solve the climate problem? Dr Krumdieck outlines her work on a new interdisciplinary practice called transition engineering: changing course one innovative project at a time.
Business leaders recognise that the biggest risk to their business is energy transition. The most popular concept of this transition involves a substitution of renewables for fossil fuels and development of elusive tail-pipe technologies like carbon-capture and storage. This concept is comforting and simple. But it is also profoundly wrong. There is no way to achieve an energy transition without completely reworking every aspect of our infrastructure, industry and economy to vastly reduce energy demand. Changing the global economy to nearly eliminate the use of fossil fuels is a “wicked problem” – a problem with no known solution. This is why the new field of energy transition engineering is emerging.
Can engineers change the world?
More than a century ago, safety engineering was started by a few people in New York. Safety engineering has two fundamental principles: honestly evaluating hazards, and preventing what is preventable. The revolutionary idea was to work on changing unsafe practices, one project at a time. The idea has since been extended to environmental and waste management engineering and can legitimately be said to have changed the world. No one today would give up our safety protections. Now, we engineers are taking on the biggest hazard of all time – our own successful exploitation of fossil fuels.
Make no mistake – this is the biggest challenge the engineering professions have faced. Leaving two-thirds of economically producible fossil fuel in the ground is a wicked problem. Transition engineering is revolutionising the sustainability field by tackling global wicked problems on an individual basis - one project, in one place, for one organization at a time. Transition engineers develop intimate knowledge of an organisation’s current operations and technology and, through a radical brainstorm process, create path-breaking solutions that move the organisation to a new, post-fossil-fuel carbon trajectory. The approach has been tested successfully on wicked problems like conference travel, oil company 150-year plans, and urban re-development beyond motoring.
Masters programmes and classes in Transition Engineering are in development at major engineering universities in the UK, France, Germany and New Zealand. Two engineering textbooks are available that teach the transition engineering methodology. The Global Association for Transition Engineering (GATE) was founded last month. Professional training and postgraduate research projects are currently available. Companies, government organizations, community leaders and engineering consultancies are welcome to contact the GATE to hire a Transition Engineer, arrange workshops or sponsor innovation brainstorm research projects. Examples of past projects are available to GATE members.
The GATE can now accept memberships and work to promote the transition engineering discipline, provide educational and collegial services, and develop best practice and standards for delivery of its objectives. Please check out the website and join us: www.transitionengineering.org.