The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineering With Nature program started about a decade ago, which coincides with the origins of EcoShape’s Building with Nature program. How have these programs helped and inspired each other?
It’s been a wonderful opportunity to have these two efforts ongoing in parallel, while operating in different social as well as geographic and physical contexts. I’m not sure we have fully taken advantage of the power in combining our efforts, but we have always been connected, and we derived value from sharing ideas and findings. Our relationship also has rhetorical value. It is a powerful argument, being able to point to two separate activities coming to similar conclusions based on an independent set of projects and examples. In the future, Engineering With Nature and Building with Nature will be able to make even better use of this lever in our collaboration as we seek more practical implementation.
What are the origins of Engineering With Nature?
The Army Corps of Engineers was founded in 1775, and while it has evolved over time, we have retained our responsibilities for water infrastructure. There have been many cases over the decades where the Corps and its engineers utilized natural systems as part of an infrastructure project.
Over time, our science and engineering have collectively advanced to the point where we saw a cross-sectoral opportunity: a program aimed at collecting practice, organizing our understanding of these opportunities, and formalizing this practice in a more deliberate fashion so that we can make more progress.
How did your background incentivize you to work on this program?
I am technically educated as an ecologist, with a PhD in biological oceanography. Scientists and engineers have a lot in common, but they also have different approaches that are highly complementary to each other. When brought together, they make a powerful combination: scientific problem-definition and understanding with an engineering focus on solutions. I was intrigued by the puzzle of developing and implementing projects that integrate environmental systems with engineering results.
We have learned from ecologists that it is critical to understand and engage the social system within which you engineer and build.
Many have noted that the whole concept of sustainability can be represented as a three-legged stool, consisting of people, profit (or the economy), and the planet (or the environment).
If you can’t address the human dimension of a complex problem, you are not going to make progress towards solving it. To scientists and engineers without any formal training in social science or communication science, that can pose a real challenge. I think we can only make progress when we can supplement our project teams and activities with that expertise.
When did Engineering With Nature gain traction as a program?
When you start something new, your measures of success are small at first. An early milestone of success was gaining internal support within the Army Corps of Engineers. Since then, we have had such strong support from leadership. Research projects and review papers are important, but they have to be combined with developing advocacy and proponents for your ideas and trajectory.
Another set of important milestones relate to implementation. We look for projects where nature derives benefit from engineering, but also projects where engineering derives benefits from nature. Finding true triple-wins where environment, engineering, economics, and social systems all benefit from the combination is very important. Documenting the success of individual projects has a lot of persuasive value.
For a project to satisfy the goals and requirements of a particular audience or community of practitioners, they should be involved from the very beginning. They must be part of the process, not some disconnected audience that may see the final fruit of a project. The other dimension worth mentioning is the challenge that comes with innovation. Fundamentally, change is challenging, whether on an individual level or for a group of practitioners like engineers or scientists.
Change is required, not just for engineers, but on the part of many different communities of practitioners, including environmental regulators, conservation-oriented scientists, private sector actors, and many others. The shift in perspective is not easy. There are existing flexibilities within regulatory programs and policies that should be pursued. Still, I believe policies and regulations need to adapt to allow more fully what we’re trying to achieve with Engineering and with Building with Nature.
You describe a comprehensive and organic model, which is powerful because it builds on real experiences and shares successes. Given the challenges of adapting to climate change, or addressing biodiversity, is this a model that scales and replicates quickly enough?
To move forward, it is necessary to combine a sense of urgency with a willingness to be patient. If you are driven only by a sense of urgency, it can become frustrating that your successes lag behind, and you might give up. Collaboration with others is the best way to overcome this. When groups with similar goals can join forces, they can have a greater impact together and bring about more accelerated change.
For much of the last two centuries, engineering was based on the idea of doing all you could to hold the system static. I believe there are other ways to engineer, in which variation within the system can actually support some of the value and the benefits one derives from that system. If you are incorporating natural systems into an engineering design, there has to be a tolerance, or a range within which change is acceptable and productive. It is not possible to derive the benefits from the natural system if we try to constrain and prevent change. The benefits only accrue when the system is a natural, varying, and dynamic component of the environment.
Nature is very persistent; nature will almost always win eventually. We can see a lot of change now in weather and climate. We now experience a higher frequency of disturbingly large disasters, whether floods, hurricanes, or other events. I believe there is a growing recognition of working with constraints. We do not control ultimately what we might like to control. How much flexibility can we incorporate into future engineering practices? We must accommodate the dynamics within the natural system, and from that derive engineering and infrastructure value.