Roads & Infrastructure sits down with Rachel Fowler, Beca’s General Manager of Transport and Infrastructure, to talk about the state of circularity in the industry and the role engineers, businesses and governments need to play to accelerate change. 

With just under eight years left to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for humanity, time is running out for governments and industries to join forces and take action. 

As a chartered civil engineer with 30 years of industry experience, Rachel Fowler, General Manager of Beca’s Transport and Infrastructure business, is conscious of her duty to drive and facilitate change – firstly within her own team of over 100 people, and more broadly, within the transport and infrastructure industry. 

“The duty of engineers,” she says, “is to secure not only a quality way of life for our existing communities, but also to make sure that we are not overburdening or challenging the existence of future communities. That’s a fundamental professional value that I live by, and which is also embedded in Engineers Australia’s commitment to sustainability.”

Having spent most of her engineering career managing projects and offering consultancy around the preservation of coastal environments and protecting communities from the risk of flooding and coastal erosion, she sees similarities between her current role at Beca and what she has learned through that experience.

“There’s a lot of precious natural habitat on our coastlines, and if we chose to build coastal protection infrastructure everywhere, we would most likely be damaging the natural environment that we should protect and foster for the sake of future communities,” she says. “A lot of the work that I’ve done has been on establishing a balance between helping to protect people and communities while still being mindful of our environment.”

Fowler sees a similar “balancing act” within the transport and infrastructure arena.

“Within the world of transport, the balancing act is between building more roads for more vehicles versus developing mass public transport systems, which may be more expensive initially but are overall more sustainable,” she says. 

“Mass public transport systems, when planned properly, can do less damage to the environment. They can also be better in terms of energy usage, as we can use renewable energy sources for mass public transport more easily than we currently do for private car transport,” she adds.

Role of engineers and designers

According to Fowler, engineers have a key role to play in the design of future infrastructure projects.

"If we design pleasant places for people to walk and cycle, they are far more likely to choose those options than getting into a private car."

“One of the things that we love to do in Beca’s transport and infrastructure business is to get involved in active transport projects. When working with our clients on developing urban landscapes, if we design pleasant places for people to walk and cycle, they are far more likely to choose those options than getting into a private car. So as engineers, we’ve got a fantastic opportunity to influence the landscape of our future cities,” she observes.

She’s also an advocate for involving engineers in early planning for infrastructure projects, to help drive innovations.

“I think it’s very important that practicing engineers step into that space of feasibility planning and optioneering,” she says. “Engineers have a lot to offer in the early stages of project conception. They can bring in ideas that can influence long-term sustainability of the projects. At present this seems to be the domain of professional business case writers, with too few engineers participating in the concept or feasibility stages of projects.”

Increasing engineers’ involvement, she admits, requires efforts from two groups. The first one is from educators and early-career employers to embed the “big picture thinking” in the young engineers’ minds. 

“As young engineers work through their academic education and early employment years, the question we should be asking is ‘Are we making sure that the professional engineers of the future are developing broad awareness of what it means to be engineers and not just a narrow and deep focus in the technical arena?’ Because if that’s not achieved, it’s to the detriment of the overall success of future projects.”

The next step, she says, is for project owners to seek the opinions of engineers early in the project planning stage, to consider alternative options before costing the project.

“Once a decision has been made to pursue a project and we’re looking at a tender document to price the design and subsequently the construction, it can be very difficult to propose alternative materials or concepts that would be more sustainable. Very often we [engineers] may be aware of newly available recycled materials or best practices in design and construction that are non-traditional. The challenge comes from persuading clients to accept something that doesn’t necessary meet historical standards or practices,” she says.

It is here that she sees opportunities for changing the status-quo and moving more rapidly to ensure the sector is not left behind.

Challenges for transition

Fowler describes the industry’s current state of affairs as a classic “chicken and egg” situation. 

“We cannot be innovative without the right technical specifications, but we cannot establish the technical specifications without the right datasets to support that.”

She recalls an example when her team suggested using a new road surfacing material with high recycled content for an intersection upgrade project. They were faced with resistance from the relevant road authority. The authority had cited lack of established procedures and standards as the reason for rejection, along with the administrative burden of trying something new.

“It was so frustrating,” she says, “because as professional engineers we know it’s our responsibility to be pushing the boundaries, to push best practice, and when you try to introduce that into a project and you come up against administrative red tape that stops the progress of technology, that’s incredibly disappointing.”

To get past this hurdle, she says, a new approach to risk management and project planning is necessary.

“In the current scenario, a lot of the risk involved in trialling deployment of recycled materials is pushed to the designer and the constructor, while project owners are looking for absolute certainty of outcomes. The result is that when it comes to tender pricing, we engineers often have to forgo the ideas we could put forward and resort to using the same standard materials and methods.”

When it comes to developing new standards of practice, time is of the essence, Fowler says.

"We only have eight years to bend the curve... We need a faster approvals process."

“The technical standards and codes of practice that we need generally take two or three years to come to fruition. But we only have eight years to bend the curve, so we can’t wait that long for the codes of practice to be updated. We need a faster approvals process. The bureaucratic system is too slow,” she says.

So, what’s the next step to raise the game for circular economy in the transport and infrastructure sector?

“We need cross-party support from all levels of government – at Federal, state and council levels – to be committed to moving forward with their own asset procurement and management, to improve their sustainability practices. We want to see government agencies in every state sharing the risks of innovation and supporting the construction industry in making a quicker transition to using recycled materials,” Fowler says.

“We need infrastructure clients, as well as constructors and designers, to all be asking themselves if what they’re doing is ‘broadly’ sustainable, not just in a narrow sense. Is the asset that’s being designed and built incorporating the best practice reuse of materials, with awareness of the impact on the local community and the ecological environment? We need everybody who’s involved in roads and infrastructure to be committed to raising their game in terms of sustainability.” 

This article was originally published in the June edition of Roads & Infrastructure Australia magazine. 

About the Author
Rachel Fowler

General Manager - Transport & Infrastructure Australia

View on LinkedIn
Email Rachel Fowler