"We must take the opportunity provided by sustainability to focus on best outcomes over time for business, government and society in addition to best solutions to their immediate problems."
By Gary Lawrence, Chief Sustainability Officer, AECOM
The world’s infrastructure and economic systems are in a precarious state and a lack of investment in established markets, dramatic population growth in developing countries and unanticipated natural disasters around the world are increasing the urgency of addressing global infrastructure and sustainability challenges in the near future.
Last month, AECOM -- a global provider of professional technical and management support services with a broad range of markets, including transportation, facilities, environmental, energy, water and government -- released its annual global sustainability report, demonstrating how the company manages the complex relationships of financial, natural, human and social capital.
With approximately 45,000 employees in more than 140 countries, AECOM delivers solutions aligned with a common purpose — to create, enhance and sustain the world's built, natural and social environments. Besides reporting on past goals, the report also outlines major global challenges that shape AECOM’s work and its clients’ operating context. These include:
1. Urban Farming
The United Nations estimates that by 2050 the global population will reach nine billion. If we continue to produce food the way we do today, this growth will require an additional 270 million acres of farmland – equivalent to 2.5 times the area of California.
However, the current trend in many areas is going in the opposite direction with three million acres of agricultural land going out of production in the U.S. each year. This unprecedented urban growth requires an equally novel approach to alleviate food scarcity, and a shift in our preconceptions about what the urban fabric can offer. The mere conversion of forests and grasslands into agricultural zones is inefficient and unsustainable—any economic gain comes at too great an environmental cost.
AECOM’s design and planning experts are helping address this with the Urban Food Jungle, a conceptual design that responds to the threat of diminishing food security by connecting sustainable food production, entertainment, education, and culinary delight. A sustainable food production system circulates nutrient-rich water from a series of fishponds to the top of dramatic sculptural pillars, nourishing a variety of plants as they filter and clean the water and creating a lush edible canopy.
Ground-level pedestrian circulation enables easy visitor access; meanwhile, a floating pod-shaped snack shack serves fare prepared with fruit and vegetables cultivated on site. To complete this holistic system, food harvested from the Urban Food Jungle can be used to supply local restaurants.
2. Availability of Water
Globally, there are more than one billion people without access to safe drinking water and over 2.5 billion people lacking access to basic sanitation services. Over half of these people live in Asia. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) implements activities that support the Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005 by improving basic access to water and sanitation worldwide. In Asia, USAID implements the Paul Simon Act through the Environmental Cooperation-Asia (ECO-Asia) Program.
As the implementer of ECO-Asia since 2005, AECOM carries out activities to improve water and sanitation services for the urban poor. ECO-Asia improved access to water and sanitation for over 95,000 persons; contributed to the adoption of 29 improved laws, policies and plans for water and sanitation service delivery; and increased capacity of nearly 800 water sector practitioners.
3. Funding Public Private Partnerships (P3)
As infrastructure funding gaps escalate worldwide, Public Private Partnerships (PPP, or P3) offer an increasingly valuable solution to the financial and administrative constraints of the public sector. However, P3 benefits are project-specific and can only be fully realized if all risks, requirements and opportunities are clearly understood by participants and stakeholders.
Through AECOM’s P3 practice, we have worked with clients to help realize projects like the North Tarrant Express in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, the Long Beach Court building in California, and upgrading Northern Ireland’s water supplies for Northern Ireland Water.
4. Maintaining Resilient Transportation Systems
Due to the failure of aging infrastructures in recent years including bridge collapses, the need to maintain, rehabilitate and expand transportation networks, energy, water and other critical systems is growing. The Chicago Interchange, for example, carries more than 300,000 vehicles per day. In 2010, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and the American Transportation Research Institute identified the interchange as the No. 1 bottleneck among highways crucial to the nation’s freight transportation system.
Moreover, as part of a two-year contract with the Illinois Department of Transportation, AECOM’s transportation experts will identify the scope of improvements, potential cost and construction schedule for the reconstruction of the city’s Circle Interchange. In turn this will raise the bar and highlight the need to conserve and build resilient transportation systems across the globe.
The Path to Sustainability Begins By Looking Inwards…
Like any other enterprise, we first focus on efficiency and waste reduction in our own operations and in the solutions with which we provide our clients. We do that because the problems and paybacks are better understood and the tools are available to us. There remain many opportunities to improve our supply chains, the real estate we occupy, our travel activities and the energy consumed by our software tools and throughout the enterprise we have very talented and committed people working on these issues.
Further, we are engaged in regular employee surveys to ensure that our internal practices and the ways in which we approach problem-solving for our clients are conducive to recruiting and retaining the talent we will need to address sustainability as the deeper attributes are unveiled.
…And Setting Science-Based Goals
Taking the longer view, we are constantly scanning the edges of understanding regarding science and complexity so that AECOM is prepared for the future, not a return to the past. We think of sustainability not as an end but as a means. It is a framework through which we can master the complexities at the intersection of financial, natural, social and human capital to create the best returns for our clients and shareholders.
Of course we struggle because there is no “right” answer to many of the questions we need to address because we do not yet fully understand the problems or risks.
We can, however, create “best” answers that are economically viable, technically feasible and socially acceptable. It is our challenge, internally and externally to achieve these best outcomes while remaining humble and nimble.
If AECOM is to become the best company in the world at conducting business and dominate the high margin aspects of urbanization – systems integration that reduces costs, increases resilience and provides for better human environments – we must take the opportunity provided by sustainability to focus on best outcomes over time for business, government and society in addition to best solutions to their immediate problems.
That's our challenge. And our opportunity.
About the Author
Gary Lawrence is VP and Chief Sustainability Officer for AECOM Technology Corporation. In this role, Lawrence leads AECOM’s sustainability efforts by managing AECOM’s extensive resources and skills in sustainability for projects across the enterprise. He is also an AECOM spokesperson and thought leader on sustainability issues. During his 30-year-plus career in public and private policy and management, his leadership skills have contributed to various global initiatives engaging in research and practice to mitigate climate change and adaptation strategies.