What Does Sustainability Have to Do With Civil Engineering and Autodesk?

by: Karen Weiss | 12/09/2016
Estimated Reading time: 6 - 9 minutes

Multimodal Transit

The way infrastructure is planned for, designed, built and managed needs to change. This has become more apparent over the last ten years. However, the extent and focus of the perceived necessary change has evolved over those same ten years.

The Secret Sauce is Integrated Design and Analysis

At one point, the answer seemed to be simply ‘dynamic, model-based design’. However, technological means and methods for designing new transportation networks has been rapidly changing with:

  • the advent of cloud computing
  • the advancements in reality capture techniques (think drones)
  • the way in which things can be made (consider 3D printing and new fabrication methods)

Drone to DesignWith the rising innovations in technologies, ‘dynamic, model-based design’ alone won’t cut it.

As we enter what is being called the Era of Connection, we see a shift from focusing on designing and building a single project to focusing on the interconnection of data. We have the opportunity to better understand infrastructure as systems. Digitalization, the power of the cloud, and big data are enabling new ways to help connect people, processes, and ideas like never before. Improvements are being made to design technology and software. We won’t see real change, though, until we integrate analysis with automated design tools. This will result in identifying opportunities to:

  • reduce cost
  • improve design functionality
  • improve constructability
  • identifying other value improvements, such as reduced environmental impacts and congestion

It isn’t just about the civil design software itself; it’s about what you are able to extend its use for.

‘Best Possible’ versus ‘Best Practical’

Planning Sustainable CitiesOn November 4th, the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure hosted the Planning Sustainable Cities Conference. I presented on a panel moderated by Autodesk’s  Terry Bennett, Planning Sustainable Cities. An Infrastructure-based Approach contributor. The Conference focused on the services and performance of infrastructure systems in the context of cities. Each session corresponded to key infrastructure systems outlined in Planning Sustainable Cities.

As I listened to the panelists, I was struck by the fact that civil engineers need to start thinking and acting differently because the world is different. Civil engineers are charged with solving the problems of society. Standards from a different time, when stricter, more conservative standards made sense, need to be challenged for current and future infrastructure projects. We need to start thinking about the ‘best possible’ answer as opposed to the ‘best practical’ answer.

We can approach this by using the Envision® rating system as a guide to support more sustainable choices in infrastructure development. Envision is a set of guidelines that aids in project development during the planning and design phases. Envision helps to determine the ‘best possible’ solution, taking sustainability and resiliency into account. Think of Envision as the LEED for infrastructure. There are already five-thousand Envision certified professionals who already are striving towards a sustainable future.

Envision as it Relates to Transportation

Dedicated Lanes for Automated Vehicles

As a highway engineer by training, I am particularly intrigued by the Quality of Life category of the Envision rating system. The Quality of Life category provides credits in the subcategories of Purpose, Wellbeing, and Community. The Wellbeing subcategory encourages alternative modes of transportation and incorporating the project into the larger, community mobility network. This is important for the following reasons:

  1. Changing demographics—Americans are getting older and can’t, or won’t, drive their own car. In addition, young people in the United States want to live in cities and don’t necessarily want to own a car. This shift from the norm of being a two car family is impacting travel patterns.
  2. More travel options are becoming available—Consider the rise in ride-sharing companies, like Lyft and Uber, or car share companies, like Zipcar and Getaround. Additionally, increasing urbanization is resulting in more people walking, biking, and taking mass transit.
  3. Autonomous vehicles are more widely deployed—We’ll begin to see the need to accommodate both traditional and autonomous vehicles on transportation networks in the future.

Integrated design and analysis using innovative software such as Mobility Simulator for InfraWorks 360 can be used to justify design options leading to Envision credits. Mobility Simulator evaluates different modes of transportation and the impacts of a mixed-mobility environment leading to the ‘best possible’ design option. Another way to validate Envision credits, as well as project costs, is through making the business case for design features by measuring financial, social, and environmental impacts. Autocase extracts information from AutoCAD Civil 3D and InfraWorks 360 models and outputs the value of each cost and benefit as it corresponds to Envision credit categories. These are examples of arriving at optimal solutions through the use of advances in technology. Achieving these credits meets the needs of our changing world in a sustainable way.

I encourage you all to explore the Envision rating system and to consider becoming an Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV SP). Many of the presenters at the Planning Sustainable Cities Conference are ENV SP, which means you’ll be in excellent company. Plus, you will likely be able to use it as a competitive differentiator when going after project pursuits.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In this day and age, when it seems trendy to include the word ‘connect’ in the name of engineering software or release editions, we should dig deeper to understand what ‘connected’ means to the company selling the software. Autodesk is committed to imagining, designing, and creating a better world. We embody this by collaborating with people who are instrumental in providing guidelines for a more connected and sustainable world (Envision) and are influential in driving the infrastructure industry forward, by being part of the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure. Autodesk is more than just a software company; it is a partner and collaborator in global infrastructure initiatives that will change the world.

In order for us to successfully transition to designing the infrastructure of the future, we need to continue to aim for where the ball is going, versus heading to where it is currently. All civil engineers should be striving for this goal in our practice.

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