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Coping with climate change as a civil engineer: Lessons from working across Asia for two decades [Update]

Written by Stephane Asselin Published on     4 mins read

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Environmental changes pose challenges to engineers, but data and digital technologies give us tools to create solutions.

Stephane Asselin is Aurecon’s chief executive for Asia. He is responsible for accelerating growth and fully leveraging value for Aurecon’s clients in this fast-growing region.

Civil engineers today must ensure that climate change is a big part of our thinking. This used to be left to environmental engineers or water resource engineers, but those days are gone. Today, all engineers need to design with climate change in mind, even if it is not required by government legislation. It’s about doing the right thing.

In the 1990s, I worked in various places in Asia as an engineer. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, that was really the beginning of the engineering industry’s response to the challenge of climate change. Back then, it was all about disaster response and recovery. And, at that point, it was not called “climate change.”

Awareness, East vs. West

Half of my career involved traveling around Asia for civil engineering projects.

Right out of graduate school, one of my first projects in 1994 was to design the flood canals for a new district in Ho Chi Minh City and make this area flood-resistant. This district of 2,400 hectares was to house more than 1 million people, and the project was a big success. Local residents were able to live their lives knowing that at least one threat that is prevalent in other parts of the city is far less likely to affect them.

Then, from 1997 to 1998, I was given the opportunity to lead a feasibility study into a satellite-based system that would forecast, detect, and monitor forest fires, drought, and floods in Indonesia. I moved to Jakarta to deliver this project.

I spent the other half of my career in San Francisco and in Silicon Valley. San Francisco had the right culture for environment advocates, and there was great business. There still is today. But when I started, some of the work just didn’t happen fast enough. That was frustrating.

In fact, some of the projects that I worked on in the 1990s are only now moving forward, like a high-speed rail network for California for which we served as environmental consultants.

Stephane Asselin (third from right) working on a project in Quebec, Canada. Photo courtesy of Stephane Asselin.
Stephane Asselin (third from right) working on a project in Quebec, Canada. Photo courtesy of Stephane Asselin.

Getting projects approved in the US back then was complicated. From what I see, it hasn’t gotten any easier since I left. That is one of the contrasts with Asia: infrastructure development in Western economies just doesn’t move as fast as it does in Asia.

For Asia, and particularly China, awareness of the environment and the desire to build better spaces for our communities started in around 2005. This all happened with the construction boom, and then populations moving into the middle class demanded a better environment.

I moved to Hong Kong in 2006, but the bulk of our work was in China.

In those early days, it was challenging to create a civil engineering project that would meet the needs of the owners and investors, while protecting the environment locally. Educating clients became a priority. It was challenging but fun, and the work was fulfilling as things were getting built quickly—unlike in California.

And a lot of the projects were really cutting edge. For example, as part of a design and construction of a large industrial area near Shanghai, we created a unique wetland area —the first of its kind in China— where we used the natural surroundings to treat wastewater while simultaneously preserving the refuge that it offered to local flora and fauna.

The wetland area at Shanghai Chemical Industry Park. Photo courtesy of Climate Design: Design and Planning for the Age of Climate Change, February 2010, ORO Editions.
The wetland area at Shanghai Chemical Industry Park. Photo courtesy of Climate Design: Design and Planning for the Age of Climate Change, February 2010, ORO Editions.

The present and future of climate engineering

Compared to before, the most important shift in climate engineering has been in people’s mindset. We recognize that we need to invest in the creation of better infrastructure to protect our communities from the impact of climate change, and also adapt to our changing environment. It hasn’t always been this way.

Since the start of the discussion around climate change, the focus has been on reducing emissions. This is 100% what we need. At the same time, we must also pay keen attention to climate resilience and adaptation in our cities.

But the change of mindset is happening, which is good news.

Another big boost in the field would be technological advancements, which allow engineers to do a task in minutes instead of days. Clients love today’s technology not only for the quality and the speed of delivery, but also because it provides a simple way to understand complex results.

For example, for my first project in Ho Chi Minh City, we had to use coding models to do simulations that took hours, and sometimes days, to perform. And then, we developed routines to convert the results. These results were presented in 2D to the client, with some limited color coding, like red for bad quality and green for good quality.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen discussions around climate change gain even more prominence as the world now understands that we must be prepared for the challenges and crises ahead. We cannot just react when they reach us; we must get ahead of them to minimize their impact.

The unpredictability and complexity of disasters present huge challenges for engineers, but data and digital technologies give us better tools to create solutions that can overcome those challenges. With digital engineering, we are uncovering new capabilities at an incredibly rapid pace, and that is only going to accelerate.

October 12: The story has been updated to clarify the writer’s role in the Shanghai wetland project.

WRITTEN BY

Stephane Asselin

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