On the agenda

Saurabh Sinha highlights the cross-cutting importance of sustainability in research, development and education. Kayleigh Lewis reports.

As far as Saurabh Sinha is concerned, “Sustainability cannot be ignored.” The executive dean for the faculty of engineering and the built environment at the University of Johannesburg, says, “It is something that needs to be ideally integrated into every research and development project that has anything to do with power and energy, which in today’s terms is just about everything that we do. As such, sustainability finds itself as a cross-cutting discipline.”

Sinha explained that sustainability targets are ever-more topping the global agenda, from the upcoming Unesco world congress with its focus on ‘Education for sustainable development’, to next year’s AfriCon conference, taking place under the theme ‘Green innovation for African renaissance’. Speaking to the EU he said, “From a European perspective I think that there is a very ambitious target and I think that the energy and climate objective set up by the European commission is not just to look at public, but also private investment, and to develop low carbon technologies.” The commission has set a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent (from 1990 levels), to raise the share of EU energy consumption produced from renewable resources to 20 per cent and to improve the EU’s energy efficiency by 20 per cent, all by 2020. By 2050 the commission hopes to further reduce EU greenhouse gas emissions with a target of 80 per cent (from 1990 levels). “Obviously, to get to those targets they have engaged with the wider public and that means that it is something for the greater good. It makes sustainable power a lot more important as it will be a primary enabler for achieving those targets.”

The South African academic says that education poses a critical challenge in meeting these sustainability targets. “Most designers of today would have been educated a number of years ago when the notion of socioeconomic and ecological factors would not have been as integrated into their education. Today, it actually means that from a long-term perspective we start in several places. Among the specifications that engineers or scientists would work with, one has to also include sustainability. Separate to that, one must look at sustainability from a principle of integrating it into the academic system so that prospective engineers and engineering technologists are a lot more aware of this notion, and it becomes much more natural to them, at least relative to those designers who may have graduated a number of years ago, many of whom are contributing today.”

“Similarly,” he says, “What one finds is that the convergence of disciplines is something that we have previously underengaged in. Most educational programmes today are beginning to realise that the convergence of fields is important.” Using mobile phones as an example, he explained, “If you think about communications and computation, we would have not imagined computing being in our hands the way mobile phones are today, and so we never actually thought about that convergence.”

With this in mind, he said, “I see the future, from a research and education point of view, as one in which people continue being specialists in the domains that each one of us may have a passion for, but at the same time are aware of the way that particular effort and discipline can become a strong enabler in a different area. They will also appreciate that the multidisciplinary component can enable the convergence that we today see in the mobile phones that we carry,” he concluded.


Written for Advancing Innovation: A Parliament Magazine special supplement on engineering and sustainable development in association with IEEE

Posted on June 9, 2014 in Interviews

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