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ROUND TABLE // How can we reconcile our business with a sustainable future for the planet?

Based on the principles of resilience, ecology and circular economy, low tech reinvents the classic innovation model, which is more focused on complex, energy-consuming technological solutions. A reflection on this approach was a highlight of our #setec60 challenge. Our engineers imagined the first results of the European Low- Tech Cities 2050 program five years after its launch.

This fictitious frugal innovation program would be launched in 2025. This round table provides an opportunity to reflect on our habits, our ways of approaching projects and our role as engineers and citizens in a fast-changing
world. Here are some of the ideas that emerged from a discussion with our  guest Philippe Bihouix, a consulting engineer, director, low-tech specialist and author of numerous books, including L’âge des low-tech.

Our guest : Phillipe Bihouix, Consulting engineer

The following experts also took part in this round table:

Karim Aït-Ali, director of the urban projects department, setec organisation
Julien Tanant, structural engineer, setec tpi
Pascal Blachier, director of setec organisation
Charles-Eric Duperray, engineer at setec ferroviaire
Loreline Hubert, design engineer at setec énergie environnement
Isabelle Moulin, regional director at le lerm
Elodie Aranda-Happe, project manager, Praxice department, setec bâtiment
Mailys Cuchenec, assistant design engineer, setec international
Jean-Yves Crocombette, director of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes team, planitec btp

Karim Aït-Ali: Low tech is all about implementing simple, resource-efficient and affordable technologies using everyday, locally available means. How should we approach the issue of resource savings as an engineering  company? Can we recommend restraint and put our words into action? How can we initiate this kind of approach? By analyzing the life cycle?

Philippe Bihouix: I’ve noticed that the construction sector is particularly sensitive to these issues. Architecture firms are starting to design low-tech projects. Recently, there was a call for contributions to Urbanités journal on low-tech cities. Certain manufacturers are starting to show an interest as well, but in a less focused way. To me, life cycle analysis seems a tricky approach.
It’s extremely complex given the multiple criteria that need to be taken into account and the subcontracting supply chains involved in manufacturing objects. It seems to me that a better way of approaching the issue would be to first ask who the influencer is. In general, it’s the project owner. Every time we manage to convince a client to save on resources and do more with less, we know we’re going in the right direction. We can take a different approach to the program, needs, habits and technical packages, seeking every possible opportunity for improvement.

Mailys Cuchenec: In your experience, which arguments are the most likely to convince clients?

PB: Some criteria are growing in importance and may become decisive, in particular project resilience and the creation of local jobs, both during the construction phase and after commissioning. Project owners are increasingly sensitive to the resilience of a structure, its ability to adapt and evolve, and its ease of maintenance. But these aspects are not being given much weight at the moment. We’ve focused our efforts on carbon emissions and  environmental footprints to the detriment of long-term resource management, which is very complex.

Elodie Aranda-Happe: There’s a move toward improved environmental performance in the construction sector. How do you see this evolution?

PB: There’s been progress in building design, with efforts to reuse and repurpose materials, despite regulatory challenges. What worries me, though, is that the pace at which areas of land are becoming artificial and being covered in concrete is not slowing. It’s urgent for us to reflect on how we can protect our farmland. As the number of developed m2 per person continues to rise, we must ask a fundamental question: what do we really need?

Julien Tanant: If we have to challenge needs, how can we make the right decisions? What are the quantitative and qualitative means for assessing what’s truly useful and comfortable?

PB: The notion of comfort is very relative, since humans are very adaptable one way or another. We’ve seen a historic movement toward more material comfort that also generates some discomfort: in general, we’re living further from our workplaces, transport is more crowded, public areas are noisier and more dangerous, and so on. We must take some perspective on what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost. Then if we need to make an effort, everyone should contribute. For example, we could restore a sense of community to public spaces and reduce the size of housing. Our children could play outside in car-free areas.

Karim Aït-Ali: As urban planners, we’re sometimes torn between two  concepts: sustainable cities and smart cities that involve energy savings but at the price of more digital technology. How can we find the right balance?

PB: Digital technology is a sort of layer cake with energy bills spread all over the place, so it’s difficult to assess the real cost of a smart city. Digital services represent an estimated 14-15% of global electricity consumption, which means they produce more CO2 than the aviation sector. Approaches like Green by IT or data center optimization can reduce the carbon footprint
of digital technology, but it will be increasingly difficult to find new sources of optimization. There are solutions for pooling energy, for example using the waste heat from servers to heat buildings. Digital technology seems to offer real progress, like connecting travelers to optimize vehicle occupancy. However, we should be wary of the rebound effect that follows every form of optimization: when we offer low-cost services and make traffic more fluid, demand increases and the real gains fall. What’s more, car manufacturers don’t want their production to drop with the sharing economy. Instead, they’re designing self-driving vehicles as mobile offices. People will live further away and use their cars more. In practical terms, what do we mean by smart cities? The concept remains rather vague. Smart cities with sensors on  infrastructures enabling savings on resources such as water (leak detectors) and energy are undoubtedly a good idea (often already implemented). The number of sensors used professionally seem quite limited and the  environmental gains seem to easily offset the inherent consumption of  resources (rare-earth metals and grey energy).

Pascal Blachier: What are the challenges of digital technology?

PB: In addition to the environmental costs, the main issue raised by digital technology seems to be resilience. Simply put, what should we make of smart cities that use sensors manufactured in Asia out of resources from 15 or 20 often unstable countries, with data centers in Iceland controlled by Californian multinationals? Is it really resilient to put all your data into this kind of system? There’s a contradiction, a fragility in smart cities. Everything could grind to a halt with an IT incident. It’s difficult to fight complexity inflation, and smart cities are one form of it. What we need is to find a system of smart simplicity with real environmental gains. We haven’t found the right recipe yet. To me, a city built on digital technology makes no sense.

Loreline Hubert: How do you see our role as engineers? How can we prepare for the future?

PB: We could adopt a multidisciplinary sociotechnical approach that is more focused on lifestyles than technology. For example, we could ask what “smart” means for a city and turn the question around with a new paradigm: could smart cities mean cities that restore autonomy and give ownership back to inhabitants? You have an important role to play in offering decision-makers alternatives and being the best bidders with a less standardized approach.

Elodie Aranda-Happe: Yes, I’ve noticed that our clients are more and more sensitive to this approach. We can make proposals and estimate costs for alternatives and these initiatives are always well received.

Charles-Eric Duperray: Doesn’t this approach, which is more focused on lifestyles than technology, involve a revolution in engineering training? Has there been any progress in training to change the purely technical foundations?

PB: What I’ve noticed is that there’s little progress, except a veneer of sustainable development that’s often monopolized by major corporations’ communications. However, there’s still real demand from students and initiatives are emerging. The purpose of schools is to make their students employable, so the entire system needs to evolve at the same time. But there’s growing awareness. More and more people agree that we need to save resources.

Jean-Yves Crocombette: Lean construction methods allow us to save time and resources through common-sense efficiency. What do you think?

PB: Absolutely, but we should be careful when thinking in terms of productivity and efficiency gains. There’s generally a rebound effect: you make savings but in the end you consume more. Productivity must be the outcome of a reflection on lifestyles and needs. The approach must be sociological.

Isabelle Moulin: All the indications are that we can’t continue on our current path. In the end, isn’t it a question of individual responsibility? What stance should engineers adopt in this context?

PB: Gradually, the idea that the current system is a dead-end is becoming audible. This is real progress. I go to meetings where people speak about it freely. There’s clear awareness of the state our planet is in and the need for change. The more people talk about things, the more they will change. Perhaps among your clients you have people who are committed but set in their ways. Talking about it helps move things forward and change the rules.

Loreline Hubert: We’re all here around the table because we’re sensitive to these ideas, but we’re not alone and we can implement them in our everyday work. What role should politics play, in your view?

PB: I always think it’s civil society that drives politics, never the other way round. We can work on many levels: personal, regional, national and through associations. With institutional support, the launch of a zerowaste program would make much more impact at a regional, rather than a neighborhood, level. The role of engineering companies could be to help take these programs
to the next level. Meanwhile, national efforts are crucial for regulatory and fiscal aspects, for example to limit the size of cars and achieve a better balance between resources and human labor. These days, companies and governments are always trying to replace jobs with machines, because there’s a financial incentive to do so: labor is taxed higher than CO2 or resources. Social charges are 100 times more expensive than carbon tax. But it’s a fiscal choice we can definitely change.

Charles-Eric Duperray: One of the current difficulties is that we expect engineers to have an exclusively technological approach. Perhaps we need to stand up and propose reasonable, ambitious alternatives. As citizens, our clients and partners can be sensitive to these alternatives and see them as the future of engineering…

Isabelle Moulin: What I also take away from this discussion is that there’s collective intelligence on these topics in our group. We’re more effective when we work together.

Charles-Eric Duperray: How can we influence these changes?
PB: There’s another area we could work on: mimetic rivalry. This is the basic driver of human nature: we only want what others want. Find a few great pilot projects, make them a success and soon every project owner will want to imitate these examples. We must find the right ways to motivate people but also enjoy what we do day after day and want to shake things up together.
We shouldn’t forget that decision makers are faced with the same dilemmas as us: they’re stuck in our system too. We need to help them. These are the kind of reflexes we need when analyzing a situation: to always think of alternatives and how we could save on resources. We must be bold and dare to truly innovate, which means doing things differently to everyone else!