The breakthrough is “Transition Engineering”. The first international conference of the Global Association for Transition Engineering took place on 8 September 2017, simultaneously in Bristol, UK, in Christchurch, New Zealand and online.
Engineering and sustainability
Engineers have been working on “sustainability” since the 1960s. All IMechE members have already signed up to a Code of Conduct that commits them to “maintain a sustainable environment” and to “ensure the use of natural resources is fair, equitable and sustainable”.
A vast body of work has been done in response to growing awareness over 50-60 years of “un-sustainability” problems caused by human activities; “wicked problems” that are huge, with complex interactions and no clear solutions but that inherently involve engineered systems. The problem now is that many “technological solutions” have been implemented but not much “change” has taken place in underlying business and engineering assumptions; the global trends in climate change, dependence on finite resources, pollution, global injustice and inequality all continue to grow. Einstein said, “you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that caused the problem” and engineering is still essentially based on the same thinking that was established in the industrial revolution when IMechE was founded by George Stephenson in 1847.
Transition engineering is the new way of thinking that enables engineers to tackle these “wicked problems” effectively.
The origins of transition engineering
Two mechanical engineers at opposite ends of the globe – Daniel Kenning in the UK and Professor Susan Krumdieck in New Zealand – were both contemplating these complex challenges, and their roles as engineers, in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Daniel Kenning had observed that the generations of mechanical engineers since George Stephenson founded IMechE in 1847, all enjoyed the opportunity to deliver more and better outcomes knowing that they had access to more and better energy and resource supplies than their predecessors. Daniel observed that our generation of engineers is the first who must contemplate working with less resources of lower quality, and still deliver enough to meet the needs of society.
The challenge is, because of inherited assumptions we don’t have the tools to quantify how much is “enough” for society and how much is “less resources”. Two key resource constraints involve fossil energy. Climate change demands a response in the order of an 80-90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions between 1990-2050, illustrated by the mathematical analysis of Aubrey Mayer and the “contraction and convergence” model, and reinforced by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the UK Climate Change Act 2008.
Energy depletion, in the form of “peak oil” and the concurrent decline in energy quality defined by energy return on energy invested (EROI), also demands a response in the order of an 80-90% reduction in dependence on fossil energy. Daniel Kenning saw that both these changes need a change in how we think about engineering so that engineers can adapt engineered systems that will continue to function to 2050 and beyond. He used the term “transition engineering” to describe all the engineering that would take society from the current unsustainable trajectory to a sustainable one.
Susan Krumdieck was responding to a question from her son about what she was doing as an engineer to deal with climate change. In her role as a professor of mechanical engineering, Susan had developed her proposal for a transition engineering methodology from an academic perspective. It included a model and a simple 7-step process that delivers the change in direction from an unsustainable to a sustainable trajectory. She understood that “wicked” problems require creative engineering but based on robust data. She highlighted the importance of gaining an understanding of the system dynamics, how the engineered system has responded in the past to external changes and how it could respond in future, and an understanding of the “forward operating environment” based on data instead of assumptions. She had started to share her vision of transition engineering in lectures and had the opportunity to give her IET Prestige Lecture on Transition Engineering on a lecture tour of New Zealand in 2010.
In 2009, Daniel was wondering if anyone else was working on transition engineering. He did a Google search and found that Susan Krumdieck was the only other person using the term in the same sense. There’s a branch of electronic engineering with the same name but it’s unrelated to sustainability. Daniel sent an email saying, “I think we seem to be the two transition engineers”. They started to share ideas and work out how to collaborate and in 2011 Susan was able to travel to the UK where Daniel arranged two seminars on Transition Engineering: at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford and at the Institution in Birdcage Walk, both in September 2011. In the pub after the IMechE seminar the idea emerged to set up a professional organisation to develop the learning around transition engineering; this became GATE.
So, what is transition engineering?
Transition engineering is an engineering and innovation discipline that enables the definition of system change to deliver defined outcomes, and then defines the technological changes required.
The key difference with many other engineering disciplines is that with transition engineering the “change” is defined first and leads the “technology”. Many engineering specialisms, including mechanical engineering, tend to focus on applying their technology and their machinery to deliver a “solution”, that is the technology is defined first and the change follows the technology. As we can observe, this approach can lead to the perpetuation of “business as usual” and the failure to challenge un-stated assumptions; such as “we must do something, ‘selling more technology’ is something, therefore we must sell more technology”. While existing engineering disciplines have contributed enormously to the sustainability endeavour globally, society needs a “something else” to deliver the change in trajectory that’s needed to secure long-term sustainability, stability, and viability of society.
The transition engineering process is more than a technological discipline; it gives equal importance to people and technology in achieving desirable change. In any organisation it is people who must understand, envision and implement change. It is people who have to develop their own engineering and thinking capacities, and adapt their own thinking, in order for the organisation to realise a successful technological change. Transition engineering process therefore includes work with people to benefit the change process, but also to benefit the people themselves. Everyone who works on transition engineering projects will experience the excitement of “thinking differently” as well as the satisfaction of creating a positive and proactive forward narrative for their organisation.
Opening the GATE
The Global Association for Transition Engineering, or GATE, has been founded to provide a professional home for practitioners of transition engineering, and to act as a learned society to develop and share good practice in transition engineering.
- We launched a free LinkedIn group in 2012 to enable interested people to keep in touch; this group now has 2327 members
- A small group of engineers launched GATE on 21 June 2014 at the London South Bank University, London
- We have an online presencecurrently hosted by the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and a new dedicated website with the same URL will be launched very soon giving opportunities to engage and participate in GATE and in transition engineering wherever you are in the world.
- GATE was formally registered with the UK Charity Commission on 14 March 2016, when we became a “Charitable Incorporated Organisation” number 1166048.
GATE is enrolling members now. Enrol in GATE by sending an email to email@example.com; we will send you an application form and instruction. You can join as:
- Associate: if you’re studying or working or you have graduated in a related engineering field. Post-nominals AGATE - £25 per year.
- Member: if you have a qualification and experience in a related engineering field, and you pass the peer-review process.Post-nominals MGATE - £50 per year.
- Peer-professionals: GATE has a distinctive approach to professional inclusiveness welcoming peer-professionals from related fields as Associates - £25 a year. All these other professionals bring value to GATE because they all have different perspectives and different understandings that can combine to make better solutions. They will all benefit from recognition of their input and an intellectual home in which to develop their own work and personal capacity to deliver change.
GATE already has a portfolio of member benefits, which will expand as the organisation membership and the learning around transition engineering grow. We have a range of training available from one-day CPD courses to whole modules at Masters level delivered in universities.
Research will be a core part of the work of GATE. The vision is to commit a part of the members subscription revenue to fund member-led research especially into areas that are of importance to transition engineering, including better understanding of the forward operating environment and potential constraints that could be common across industry sectors.
Sustainable development and collaboration
GATE will possibly be the first engineering body to implement a mechanism that directly responds to the Brundtland challenge that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Interestingly the current UK legal system does not allow “future generations” to be named as “charity beneficiaries”. GATE will therefore seek to establish groups of members who will represent the interests of those future generations and provide a voice in current engineering, strategy and policy decisions.
Peer-professional dialogue is the work of GATE that will overcome barriers to collaboration and ensure consistency across professions and disciplines in our approach to the “wicked problems” that face society. This work has already started and a programme of engagement workshops initiated that will include ecologists, social scientists and economists ensuring that the “three corners of sustainability” are covered. It will also include natural scientists who deal directly with understanding the immutable laws of nature, and artists who deal with interpreting and communicating ideas to different audiences.
First international conference
The first conference and AGM was hosted by the Trustees of GATE in September 2017, with the generous support and facilities of the University of Bristol in the UK and the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Thanks are due to the magnificent IT staff at both universities who provided a live high definition video link between Bristol and Christchurch, to the New Zealand delegates who stayed up really late and to the other delegates who joined via the live webcast from the USA, France, Spain and Portugal. The 67 participants joined from six countries, spread across all time zones, making this a truly international conference and making GATE a truly global association. The fact that nobody had to fly anywhere shows that GATE is leading the way sharing learning internationally while minimising dependence on fossil energy.
Participants heard the joint keynote address by co-founders Susan Krumdieck and Daniel Kenning. There were three very enlightening presentation by professional engineers who are using transition engineering in their work - Julie Winnard, Michael Reid and Cameron Steel, who are all also Trustees of GATE. Mat Colmer ran a workshop on peer-professional dialogue, and Daniel Kenning ran a short workshop on the application of transition engineering to the redesign of familiar products. The two teams in the room selected “a wrist watch” and “beer” as their subjects.
The outputs from the conference will be shared with delegates very soon, including notes from the main presentations and workshops. Videos will be made available when the raw material has been edited. All materials will be made available online.
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For any other enquiries about GATE contact firstname.lastname@example.org.