Future World Vision: How civil engineers can meet the challenges of tomorrow

 “Never before has the future looked so exciting.” That’s how the ASCE introduces “Future World Vision,” an ambitious, hopeful and deep examination of future trends and how civil engineers can be better equipped to meet the unprecedented challenges of tomorrow, including climate change and rapid population growth.

Photo credit: ASCE

Future World Vision “reimagines” infrastructure,  looking at plausible future scenarios for our world, at a much larger scale than the typical focus of engineers. The project identifies common implications among these scenarios with the goal of achieving a “safer, healthier and more sustainable world” to  help civil engineers and the larger industry “make decisions today that will lead to better outcomes tomorrow.” Scenario timeframes look out 10, 25 and 50 years from today to better understand the implications over time.

From an original list of 25-30 important sociopolitical, economic, environmental, and technological macrotrends (among them cybersecurity, aging infrastructure, rising populism, internet breakdown,human augmentation and more), these  six macrotrends were identified as key drivers of change for the built environment and the role of civil engineers:

  • Alternative Energy (more widespread deployment)
  • Autonomous Vehicles (requiring less space, freeing up parcels for development)
  • Climate Change (the effects of global warming, rising seas and extreme weather)
  • Smart Cities (reshaping where we live through smart city integrated systems and single vertical use)
  • High-Tech Construction / Advanced Materials (innovations that dramatically alter the construction process and building timeline)
  • Policy & Funding (the importance of clear, equitable policy goals and private-sector collaboration in reaching high quality of life standards)

Over the next few months, we’ll be taking a closer look at each macrotrend, focusing more in-depth on each.

The report identified some high-level key themes emerging regarding what civil engineers do now and what they’ll be doing in the future:

Understanding how these macrotrends could impact the world led to the development of four divergent, plausible outcomes, becoming the “Future Scenarios.” The scenarios are meant to be hypothetical, but reasonable, models of how society will interact with cities and infrastructure in the future. We’ll be taking a look at these scenarios in later blogs as well:

  • Resilient Cities (governments eventually take action to combat climate change)
  • Progressive Megacities (mass urbanization drives government direct action)
  • Dispersed Settlements (degradation in quality of urban life leads to immigration to new, isolated settlements)
  • Unequal Enclaves (deteriorating urban conditions drive an exodus from traditional cities, which then struggle to deliver services to remaining residents
Photo credit: ASCE

This project facilitates crucial dialog between civil engineers and gives us an opportunity to channel our energies creatively and practically into a bright future.

In the next blog, we’ll be taking a deeper look at one of the six trends identified in the report as a key driver of change for civil engineers and the environment.

How civil engineers can play a key role in a Green New Deal

Photo credit: Orlando Sentinel

With recent discussion of a “Green New Deal” in congress, our country’s infrastructure becomes open to a revolutionary shift. Our infrastructure, having been engineered from the bottom up, now must be redesigned with consciousness to nurture and sustain life in the 21st Century. In realizing this shift, the Civil and Structural Engineering profession has the opportunity to be on the cutting-edge of industry.

This proposed legislation crafted by progressive thinkers in Congress, was recently put up for a vote in the Senate by Republicans​, highlighting how partisan an issue global warming has become. Even President Trump called for more infrastructure spending​during his State of the Union speech, saying it was not an option but a “necessity.”

According to the United Nations’ climate science body​, we are running out of time to make necessary huge changes to limit the effect of global warming. Climate change is not only an environmental issue but an economic one as well, as its effects will have a significant impact on the U.S.’s trade and overseas operations​. The prosperity of our country depends on our ability to evolve.

Crucial to the Green New Deal is a call for greater investment in revolutionary planning and design of infrastructure that is focused on renewable and clean energy. From CNN​: “(The Green New Deal) declares the government should take a stronger position on everything from cutting carbon emissions to giving every American a job to working with family farmers to ​retrofitting every building in the country​.”

To meet the demands of the future, Civil engineers and planners must create a new, intelligent infrastructure. As much as the current design standards have been developed with sustainability in mind, engineers would need to retool their thinking and take more of a leadership role in enhancing the current standards for the next generation design, such as the overhauling and upgrading of the current infrastructure to be more geared to smart renewable energy, water conservation and reuse, as well as integrating it with all industrial and residential buildings to maximize energy efficiency and create a national smart grid​.

The Green New Deal reaches beyond infrastructure -- it calls for jobs (and could create 15 million in five years), universal basic income and health care programs are among its guarantees. Additionally, thinkers, scientists and engineers, would need to develop new revolutionary systems and methods that would meet these goals as well as advance comfort, public health and economy.

The Green New Deal would accelerate a trend that’s already taking place, the transition to a green economy as states around the country are already implementing similar legislation​. Civil engineers have a higher standard to strive for as their role becomes of increased importance in such an economy​.

Future World Vision: Climate Change

Future World Vision is an ASCE project that takes a look at trends and the future of our transitioning world, shedding light on how engineers can anticipate, reimagine and prepare for future changes. In this blog we present an overview of the project, the macrotrends and hypothetical “future scenarios” of how society and cities could function. The ASCE report presents six macrotrends: Alternative Energy; Autonomous Vehicles; Climate Change; Smart Cities; High-Tech Construction / Advanced Materials and Policy & Funding. These trends are poised to direct a major shift in infrastructure and the future of civil engineering.

In this blog we’ll take a deeper look into the role civil engineers will play in the Climate Change crisis.

Transportation and electricity production currently represent approximately 58 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the ASCE report. Global temperatures are expected to rise up to 10 percent in the next century. Sea levels are rising and more extreme weather like frequent hurricanes and coastal flooding is the result of global warming. Additionally, we are seeing a higher frequency of large-scale, destructive fires.

This shifting global climate engages engineers to have a powerful impact on the future of the world. Smarter systems and more resilient infrastructures will be required to temper the effects of climate change, calling for heavy investment from the public sector. 

In Future World Vision, Climate Change is one of the macrotrends that leads to four future scenarios: resilient cities, progressive megacities, dispersed settlements and unequal enclaves. These scenarios model how the world could look; many aspects of them are already underway. 

The scenario of Resilient Cities focuses on Climate Change. In this scenario, climate change  greatly upsets the balance of life in both coastal and inland cities. The devastating effects are ignored  by cities for some time until the government finally takes action. 

What can we anticipate in a scenario of resilience?  Looking out 25 years, the report envisions “Widespread droughts and agricultural collapse cause major strains on food and water supplies. Sea level rise threatens coastal cities. Rural populations migrate to urban environments with more secure jobs, food, and water, causing cities strain under the burden. Support builds for energy-efficient, carbon-neutral solutions.” 

Then, looking out  50 years: public and private sectors finally unite in dealing with the challenging new environment, though the previous inaction has caused extensive damage and increased costs. 

So what can engineers do to help transform society and mitigate the effects of climate change? Future World Vision lays out a few ideas:

  • Combat rising seas: account for encroaching sea water, extreme storms, droughts, and growing populations; improve and integrate digital water systems; elevate and redesign roads, bridges and ports, while building more seawalls, levees, and barriers.
  • Move away from construction costs toward life-cycle costs: the report says the construction and engineering industries are too focused on something  short-sighted. Doing so makes the “costs of climate response quickly become overwhelming, as infrastructure is replaced after one disaster only to be brought down again by the next.” This requires policy change and more buy-in from lawmakers. 
  • Material science advances will mitigate effects: This will spark more innovative building practices to combat natural disasters.

Though the effects of climate change will be drastic, there is much that civil engineers can do to help our world adapt. The future will need energy-efficient, carbon-neutral solutions, and civil engineers will be poised to deliver. 

In our next blog, we will take a look at how engineers will need to design infrastructure that can withstand the effects of climate change. According to the UN, “By 2030, approximately 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities that are exposed to grave economic, social, and environmental pressures. Further, approximately 90 percent of the largest global cities are vulnerable to rising sea levels. Out of the world’s 22 megacities with a population of more than 10 million, 15 are located along the ocean’s coasts.” These are the Resilient Cities, the focus of our next blog. 

Why more and more engineering firms are using drones


Drones are everywhere. Look up when you’re walking in a park, or sitting on a beach, and you might catch one buzzing about. Commercially-available drones can fly up to 100 miles per hour. And ready or not, they’re going to be delivering packages to your doorstep very soon. They already can deliver pizza. This technology can be traced back to 1907 when the first quadcopter was created by inventor brothers Jacques and Louis Bréguet. However, it couldn’t be steered, only lifted two feet off the ground and needed to be steadied by four people. We’ve come a long way. Commercial drones hit the market in 2006 but at first very few permits were requested. One likely reason is that drone rules from the FAA were ambiguous and drone operation was expensive: companies were required to hire a licensed pilot to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle. New guidelines for small commercial drones went into effect in 2016, and there are now more than one million drones registered with the FAA, including 122,000 for commercial use. Some newer commercial drones are no longer limited to following a GPS signal and can also now track the movement of people, animals, objects while avoiding obstacles. In the last five years, more and more engineering companies are using drone technology to be more efficient and accurate, collect better data faster, and save money. https://youtu.be/SVWxQyNFmUU Some say construction is slow to adapt to technology. In fact, most construction and engineering firms wait for competitors to adopt new technology before they do. But the rate of new technologies being developed is increasing rapidly and is changing everything. Construction companies are using drones for tasks including 3D mapping and job site rendering, monitoring job site progress and tracking materials, and streamlining inspections and keeping sites safe. For civil and structural engineering, in addition to 3D mapping, drones are a useful tool for documenting a project site before, during and after construction. Structural engineers can use drones to inspect structures such as building faces that are not accessible. Drones have been embraced by companies ranging from startups to the giants, and some would say they are now essential to construction. The use of drones isn’t limited to just construction sites -- they’re also used for scanning pipelines to improve operations and reduce safety risks; making surveying safer and more accurate; or even to take aerial photos of a prospective job site before a bid.    While learning to use a drone is simple, the technology isn’t for every company. Along with the associated cost and training, drone mapping can also be technically difficult. In the coming year, drone use for the construction industry is expected to grow. At the same time, privacy concerns about drones are growing. The future of drones is very much up in the air, as countries around the world come together to figure out how this technology should be regulated. Has your company started using drone technology? Let us know what you are using drones for and any benefits and/or challenges.  

Bioretention for Post-Construction Stormwater Managment

Bioretention areas, also sometimes called rain gardens, are the post-construction stormwater treatment measure of choice for commercial developments in the Bay Area. Civil engineering design often utilizes this Low Impact Development (LID) practice that combines aesthetic landscaping with engineered stormwater management systems designed to remove pollutants through natural processes. According to the San Francisco Bay Water Quality Control Board, “In the San Francisco Bay watershed, urbanization and agricultural runoff is generally considered to be the largest source of pollutants to aquatic systems.” Stormwater in cities picks up debris, oil, chemicals, etc. from impervious streets and sidewalks and washes it down the storm drain and into surrounding bodies of water rather than sinking into the ground like rainfall does in an undeveloped area. According to the C.3 Technical Guidance Handbook, a bioretention area is: "…designed to have a surface ponding area that allows for evapotranspiration and to filter water through 18 inches of engineered biotreatment soil. After the water filters through the engineered soil, it encounters a 12-inch layer of rock in which an underdrain is typically installed. Bioretention areas may be lined or unlined depending on the hydraulic conductivity rate of the underlying soils."

cbls bioretention area

  Bioretention areas are filled with plants that flourish while being partially submerged. The combination of these plants and underlying layers of soil and rock filter out much of the pollutants that would normally go through the storm drain system and into the Bay, as well as allowing some moisture to evaporate back into the atmosphere like it would from an open field or similar undeveloped land. In some bioretention areas, the water can slowly filter back into the ground without the use of an underdrain, further mimicking the way rain would soak into the ground on undeveloped land. bioretentionareasandraingardens3   In 1977, the Clean Water Act was passed, in part to address the negative effects of stormwater runoff in urban and agricultural areas. Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA established the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which regulates allowable levels of certain chemical pollutants and requires polluters to obtain permits for chemicals discharged into surface waters. As a result of increased regulation on pollutants entering waterways, many states have adopted sustainable practices like Low Impact Development to encourage more effective stormwater management. Since 2009, bioretention has been the Bay Area’s stormwater management method of choice, replacing bioswales. Bioretention works well on most sites but can be constrained by steep slopes, a high ground water table or soil impermeability. A civil engineer can determine the best stormwater methods for each project. In some situations, flow-through planters have become an acceptable method for treating stormwater when bioretention is not feasible like when in close proximity to a building, or where soil moisture is a possible concern. In sites with size constraints, steep slopes or poorly-draining soils, the smaller size and impervious bottom of a flow-through planter allows for the treatment of stormwater runoff and discharge to a storm drain, much like some bioretention areas. However, flow-through planters are limited in respect to re-use of stormwater and must account for the possibility of overflow. WClibrary   In addition to “cleaning” the water that passes through it, a bioretention area or flow-through planter adds pleasant and aesthetically landscaped greenery to a site. The greenery can also provide a habitat for birds, amphibians and insects. In warmer cities, additional vegetation helps to mitigate some of the “heat island” effect that occurs because of dark city surfaces like asphalt and the minimal evapotranspiration that can occur on these impervious surfaces.  

Stormwater Management and Rainwater Harvesting – An Important Piece of the Bay Area’s Sustainability Puzzle

Green Roof at Facebook Campus The Bay Area is known for its environmentally conscious mindset – that of its citizens, environmental policies and the kind of development the region attracts. Initiatives have developed at municipal levels, such as San Francisco’s ban on plastic checkout bags in 2013 and San Jose’s sustainable city plan. Private companies have also taken similar initiatives, think Facebook’s campus with its 9-acre green roof and Salesforce East’s Platinum LEED status remind us that sustainability is here to stay. Along with environmentally-intelligent development and the regulations that govern it, the need for equitable water management practices at both public and private levels is a growing issue. Currently, the Bay Area’s approach to water management is steadily improving with the help of the region’s development standards and the increase in our collective environmental awareness. Read more

East Bay Development vs. Community Interests

By Kamal S. Obeid, SE, P.E. Santos Farm, Fremont, CA. I first started as a civil engineer during the 1980s. At that time, Fremont, California, located in the East Bay of California’s San Francisco Bay Area, was a sleepy suburban community in the backdrop of the larger region. The not-too-distant Silicon Valley was in the throes of a recession. The historical farming community was evolving with acres of land being developed into subdivisions and ancillary commercial strip center development. Large areas of pristine open space were under threat from encroaching suburbia. The City of Fremont government, actively dealing with development pressure and market forces, was also beginning to steer the City away from unplanned, market-driven development. Read more

Beyond Bay Area Green Building: Developing “Healthy” Workplaces

1225 Connecticut Ave.JPG Peter Akinosho, a civil engineering student at the University of Georgia, spoke about why he chose the profession: “[Civil engineers] do what we do so people don’t have to worry about their basic needs.” Paramount among these needs is health. We are building structures for tomorrow’s generations, who are more conscious about the benefits of maintaining an active lifestyle, even at work. Especially in the realm of Bay Area green building, tech giants are building headquarters with green roofs equipped for walking meetings, and offer daylighting, yoga, and healthy food. To remain competitive for clients, we developers, architects, and engineers must work together to design and build developments that are not only sustainable but also promote the health of the people who use them. Read more

A Civil Engineering Perspective on Bay Area Growth

Plan for Google expansion. Credit: Big & Heatherwork Studio By Sonia Easaw with Kamal Obeid, S.E., PE Can the San Francisco Bay Area handle the growth? The Bay Area region is one of the most in-demand places in the country to live, especially for professionals in the technology industry. After all, it's the place where tech companies come to grow, and subsequently, the region attracts great talent. However, the increased demand has contributed to a housing shortage, making it unaffordable for many, and it's caused other problems such as traffic congestion and long commute times. Also, environmental conditions are much harder to predict with a warming climate. From a civil engineering perspective, the growth can last if development is well-planned and sustainable. Read more

Silicon Valley Construction: What’s tech got to do with It?

Silicon Valley Construction: Google's Plan The technology sector and Silicon Valley construction have always had a symbiotic relationship. The agreement between companies such as Google and Bay Area development has usually been good, for the most part. Since the time of Steve Jobs in his garage working to develop the Apple computer, to the hardware revolution that gave the Valley its name, technology has attracted the best, and the brightest to this part of California, and construction usually followed. Read more