Planning for a sustainable future

Associate Professor Tommy Wiedmann of Civil and Environmental Engineering is the leader of the Sustainability Assessment Program

What is sustainable systems engineering?

Associate Professor Tommy Wiedmann

Sustainability means living well within the limits of a finite planet. These limits become more apparent as the growth in population and consumption increases the pressure on the environment, climate and resources. More than ever, engineers need to find holistic and effective solutions to currently unsustainable practices of production and consumption. This will protect our vital life-support systems and meet the social and economic needs of a growing human population at the same time.

Sustainable systems engineering and industrial ecology are concepts that take environmental engineering to the next level by considering interactions between technical, ecological, social and economic systems and by avoiding shifting problems from one area to the other. Concepts such as life-cycle thinking, resource efficiency and triple-bottom-line assessment are important elements in the education and work practice of a modern engineer.

The Sustainable Systems specialisation under the Master of Engineering Science brings together the latest knowledge in sustainability theory, concepts and practice from different disciplines pertinent to achieving sustainability, including engineering and technical sciences, natural and environmental sciences as well as social sciences.

What area of sustainable systems engineering are you involved with?

My main research question is how to achieve human wellbeing without increasing the environmental impact. My expertise is in integrated sustainability assessment and environmental footprint analysis. I develop and apply environmental input-output analysis as part of a holistic concept to life-cycle assessment, industrial ecology and sustainable engineering research.

How did you get into your field of study?

As an environmental chemist I had early exposure to life-cycle assessment (LCA) when I closely followed the development of "Ökobilanzierung" in Germany in the 1980s. It was mostly in my academic career over the last 10 years though that I got strongly involved with the environmental footprint and input-output analysis. It soon became clear that the consumption-based view offered by footprint indicators was a powerful instrument to inform new environmental policies and strategies.

I led studies on the first national carbon footprint time series of the UK (which was adopted by the Government as an official sustainability indicator) and on the material footprint of nations which influenced the definition of resource productivity indicators in the EU and the OECD.

What kind of real-world applications does sustainable systems engineering lead to?

My main research question is how to achieve human wellbeing without increasing the environmental impact

Civil and Environmental Engineering's Tommy Wiedmann

Engineering graduates are prepared for the challenges faced by companies, consultancies, governments and other organisations concerned about environmental, social and economic sustainability. This enables them to develop solutions to environmental and sustainability problems. Graduates may be involved in:

  • applying expert knowledge in sustainability assessment methods and tools to undertake life-cycle assessments, material flow analyses or environmental footprint studies of projects, processes or products
  • working in teams to develop environmental policies or management plans for a company or government authority
  • finding solutions for large-scale problems such as climate change, water availability, energy futures, water management or low-carbon living
  • advising on and contributing to environmental and sustainability frameworks for corporate and regional sustainable development

What’s your biggest challenge as an academic?

Find out about Master of Engineering Science (Sustainable Systems) degree at UNSW Australia.Sustainable development is often not at the forefront of a decision-making process. Often cost and design considerations are more imminent and important which can only mean that there is not sufficient awareness of how important a clean and healthy environment is for both our personal health and for the prosperity of our nation and the world as a whole. I try to relate abstract sustainability principles to practical examples and to case studies people can relate to. My goal is to communicate environmental and sustainability issues with students and stakeholders in a way they can learn how to tackle these problems, enjoy the experience and remember it for the rest of their lives.

Are many other researchers working within the sustainable systems engineering field in Australia?

The Sustainable Engineering and Industrial Ecology communities are comparatively small, but very active and growing. There are about 200 researchers and practitioners in these fields in Australia, working on basic and applied research, industrial projects or education. My team and I are operating the Industrial Ecology Virtual Laboratory (IELab), an electronic research platform that provides data and analytical tools for sustainable systems engineering. We organised the first national conference on the IELab in 2015 which was attended by 60 people over two days.

What’s next in your research?

In my research I develop and apply methods and tools to address practical questions such as:

  • how can cities be most effectively decarbonised?
  • how to achieve carbon neutrality at state or national level?
  • how sustainable are different technologies to supply clean drinking water, including water recycling?
  • which construction materials have the lowest overall environmental impact and to what extent can they be used to build our buildings and infrastructure?
  • what are the opportunities for recycling and achieving a circular economy?

What are the employment opportunities for students with a postgraduate coursework degree in Sustainable Systems Engineering?

Graduates can be employed by companies from sectors such as energy, resources, manufacturing, built environment or technology. Positions include environmental strategy analyst, project leader, sustainability consultant or officer in environmental divisions, research and technology development.

Environmental consultancies and NGOs hire graduates for life-cycle assessments, environmental frameworks or systems analyses of resources and waste.

Government agencies are seeking to employ engineers with sustainability assessment skills, such as environmental or energy agencies or technical councils. 

About Tommy Wiedmann

Tommy Wiedmann has been named among the world’s most influential researchers in a new analysis of thousands of academic papers by Thomson Reuters. The "Highly Cited Researcher" list and the "World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds 2015" report are based on the number of cited research papers an academic published from 2003 to 2013. They identify the best and most influential scholars from among the world’s estimated nine million researchers who publish upwards of two million papers each year. Tommy Wiedmann is one of four researchers who is listed from UNSW. 

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