What is Sustainable Technology? A materials perspective for teaching complexity in engineering

Winegard Visiting Lectureship 2013

Wednesday, October 23, 2013 | 10:00am to Noon | MB 128

Michael F. Ashby, CBE, PhD, FRS, FREng
Royal Society Research Professor
Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge

A “sustainable development” is one that contributes in an equitable way to human welfare and does so in a way that minimizes the drain on natural resources. Many academic, civil, commercial and legislative projects claim to do this, and many of them are materials-related – promoting biopolymers, carbon taxes, design for recycling are examples. We refer to them as “articulations” of sustainable development. But how are they to be assessed? There is no simple, “right” answer to questions of sustainable development – instead, there is a thoughtful, well-researched response that recognizes the concerns of stakeholders, the conflicting priorities and the economic, legal and social constraints of a technology as well as its environmental legacy.

Introducing this complexly into teaching is challenging. This talk will describe a framework for exploring sustainability from a materials perspective. The aim is not to define a single metric or index of sustainability; rather it is to improve the quality of discussion and debate on projects that claim to be sustainable developments. This suggests a methodology for the sustainability-analysis of products or projects, supported by a new CES Edu database, SUSTAIN, that provides some of the necessary inputs. The method and database will be illustrated by applying them to a contemporary development – the electric car.


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