What Sustainability Means to Us

"The mission of Engineers for a Sustainable World is to mobilize students and professionals to address the challenges of sustainability in the modern world.  Through education, outreach, and technical projects, ESW builds collaborative partnerships to take practical action and create lasting examples of sustainability both locally and globally."
The term "sustainability" is used often in today's society, yet is rarely well-defined.  Many people associate sustainability solely with actions which are not harmful to the environment and therefore contribute to "sustaining" the natural world.  While this provides one aspect of sustainability, ESW takes a more holistic approach to the concept.  For our chapters, initiatives and projects, we break sustainability down into the following categories:
  • The Three Pillars: Sustainability provides environmental, economic, and social benefits
  • The Plan: A sustainable solution is one which works in both the short and long term
  • Resilience: A sustainable plan must be able to conquer bumps in the road ahead
  • Scope: Sustainability must address each of these issues in the local and global context

The Three Pillars

Sustainability cannot encompass solely environmental factors.  In our world, human factors influence every aspect of the world around us; to ignore them would be wrong.  Therefore, ESW advocates an approach to engineering problems which assesses and responds to both environmental challenges as well as economic and cultural factors.  Without including these latter two factors, it is much more difficult to encourage stakeholder buy-in.  To be truly sustainable, stakeholder participation is crucial and thus an understanding of the economic and social climate of a project is key.
Enacting a project which encompasses all three of these aspects of sustainability can be difficult.  It involves a careful analysis in the planning stage of a project of both the economic and social factors of the project site.  For example, when dealing with developing nations, it is important to identify not just what the appropriate technology level is (a cultural factor) but also how the community tends to respond to ideas brought in from the West.  In many cases, it is necessary to find or appoint a champion of the project within the local community--it is not sufficient merely to provide a technology.  Furthermore, the economic context must be considered to understand whether the project will be maintained in the future.  If the project adds a cost not previously incurred by the local people, then the either its design should be rethought, or an advertising campaign may be necessary to win support for the project.  Finally, understanding the full environmental cost of a project is important for measuring the success of a project.  Often this involves considering tradeoffs between various options which must be weighed in light of the project goal.  For instance, generating power to purify water may use less land than distillation but may cause more emissions.  Tradeoffs such as this must be considered in the context of each individual project.

The Plan

Sustainability must plan for both the short and long term.  Projects inevitably face trials both prior to and throughout implementation as well as much later, once the project team has left the site.  The project plan must anticipate and account for all of these.  It must be able to secure funding for the initial project deployment as well as future maintenance.  It must be able to garner support for the initial enthusiasm to get a project implemented as well as to ensure that it is well cared for in the future years.  Finally, the community should see benefits from the project throughout its lifetime, not just initially, and not just at some undetermined time in the future.
When planning a project timeline, it is key to look beyond just the implementation of a project by your chapter or group to consider economic, environmental, and cultural factors.  For example, project funding at the outset could be from an initial fundraising effort by the community, by a grant, or by a donation, among other sources.  However in the future, it is unlikely that such funds will be available regularly--in fact you can rarely count on it.  Thus an important part of project planning is considering how funds for project maintenance will be raised.  It could be that local people must contribute to an annual fund or that profits from the sale of water, electricity, food, or some other commodity will fund the project maintenance.  However, this crosses the line into understanding the short and long term cultural factors of a project.  It is important to research the customs and culture of the local community before project implementation to understand how it will be received.  In the planning phase, measures should be taken to ensure that the project will be well received and championed by a prominent member of the community. Furthermore, if maintenance or financial support is needed in the future, it is important to consider how this will change the way the local community currently operates.  If the project deals with a community resource, say water, then it may be difficult to find a single person to take responsibility of the maintenance or it may be tough to encourage locals to pay for a previously free resource, even if it is cleaner than before.  Finally, the environmental impact of a project must be considered on both the short and long term.  If a project will cause disproportionate impact during construction, this must be accounted for and mitigated.  At the same time, long term effects must be estimated and measured to ensure project success.


Sustainability defines a project which is able to overcome and endure many different obstacles.  A sustainable project is one which will not fail at the first glitch or bump in the road both during initial implementation and further down the road.  A project planner must brainstorm all possible ways that a project could fail and then mitigate as many as possible.  The team must try and incorporate as many fail-safes as possible to ensure project success.  This is known as resiliency, and is a crucial part of any project.
To ensure resilience, the project team should imagine all possible ways a project could be put in danger, be they political, economic, technological, or social.  Perhaps a change in local government could bring in a regime which does not care about the environment.  Or perhaps the new solar panels have a 50% likelihood of failing within 10 years.  These and other obstacles must be foreseen and planned for.  The best way to do this is to create a network of support for the project within each of the cultural, economic, technological, and environmental categories.  For cultural support, this may involve gaining project support from the local government, a local NGO, a community champion, and a local institution such as a school.  Economically, it could entail securing local support from an NGO, payments for shared resources by community members, and a portion of local profits from crops.  Technologically, it could be training a local mechanic as well as providing duplicates of parts which are likely to break to ensure that the system will not easily be rendered totally unusable.  Finally, environmentally it may involve securing a commitment to regional protection from local homeowners, NGOs, and govnerment simultaneously.  These are just some examples of the ways to build a network of support.  Ideally, such a network should bridge levels of government and community, even across countries if necessary and possible, to guard against any instability or changes of heart on the parts of stakeholders.  Only by creating such a network can a project be ensured to be resilient.


Sustainability takes into account both the local and global context of a project.  In the ever-increasingly global society in which we live, it is not sufficient to consider only the microcosm of a project site.  Environmental problems such as emissions are global in nature and in solution, while economics of regions and nations are increasingly interdependent.  Even cultural exchange is increasing at a rapid rate.  Thus, it is important to consider both the local and global implications of a project.  Even better is to consider the applications of a project in a broader world context.  For example, could a system of rainwater catchment and purification built locally in Latin America be easily redesigned for application in Africa?  What about Southeast Asia?  These questions all should be considered by the project team to help find solutions t problems locally and globally.
One way to get large-scale international projects started is by trying them first in your local context with a mind toward their potential application to global settings.  For example, if the goal is to purify water in regions far from the grid, pilot the project at your own campus, restricting yourself from using any power.  Try to use only locally available materials.  Then after completing the project, think about how your materials and processes could be substituted or altered for those readily available in the target country.  With a working knowledge of the system in your head, the project team is now better prepared to reapply this knowledge elsewhere in the world, and perhaps make a stronger case when applying for funding for the project.
By considering all of these factors simultaneously, ESW members can truly gain an understanding of what it means for a project to be sustainable.  Furthermore, stopping and thinking about each of these components of sustainability will open your mind to new possibilities, solutions, and ways of approaching a problem than you had imagined before.