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One of the early definitions of sustainable development was “Development that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987). The understanding of sustainability has evolved significantly, which is reflected in refined definitions that integrate environmental, economic, social, and even organizational considerations. The integration of these aspects allows the application of sustainability principles in the daily operation of civil infrastructure systems. In summary, Sustainability refers to the ability of a given system to perform indefinitely, in a dynamic equilibrium with its context.

Traditionally, engineering was focused only on the technical dimension of civil infrastructure. The belief was that any problem could be solved by analyzing the system in pieces and understanding how the pieces work and fit together, like a clock. However, systems are more than the sum of their parts, and by taking apart those systems we lose information and ignore essential relationships and feedbacks. Sustainable engineering requires a more holistic system approach, where changes in one part may have unintended effects on other parts of the system, and therefore the system needs to be addressed as a whole.

(Image courtesy of U.S. National Science Foundation)

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