The Sustainability Hub: Why? What? Who? & How?

Article by Trish Melton CEng FIChemE

Trish Melton looks at IChemE’s new Sustainability Hub for members

LAST March, former IChemE president Ian Shott made a £200,000 (US$270,217) donation to IChemE. Its purpose was to promote the role of chemical engineers in addressing societal challenges pertaining to sustainability.

I was later invited to lead a programme to use this donation to define, design and launch a Sustainability Hub. Some preliminary ideas about resourcing and training were already in place but, like all good projects, we had to start by defining a clear Vision of Success. This helped us achieve a clear scope definition and benefits picture.

We started by asking “why?”, a question that should always be the first a programme director will ask. I wanted to know why IChemE needed a Sustainability Hub, what did the phrase even mean, and are all the stakeholders in agreement on a vision of what success looked like.

Trish Melton, Programme Director

The Vision of Success methodology is a tool I developed and use extensively across the field of global project management. It allows steering and project team members, as well as other senior stakeholders, to think deeply and broadly about what the programme aims to achieve.

I wanted to understand what would a Sustainability Hub look like and how would it inspire and support chemical engineers to make a difference? Our ambition was both exciting and daunting. But by treating this work as a project, by developing a clear and agreed Vision of Success, associated Critical Success Factors and a benefits map to fully articulate how to measure success, we could proceed with confidence.

We agreed to measure success using a combination of benefit metrics and leading indicators including: visits to the Sustainability Hub; members taking Sustainability Hub training courses; and user feedback.

Next, we considered the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) and identified the four SDGs that chemical engineers are most likely to play a key role in:

  • SDG 3: Good health and wellbeing.
  • SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation.
  • SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy.
  • SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production.

Very quickly we focused on scope that allowed the hub to build a repository containing many different types of knowledge.

We quickly realised that subject matter expertise was needed and, following a successful volunteer recruitment programme, established the Sustainability Hub Technical Advisory Group (TAG). The TAG ensures everything that’s published in the Sustainability Hub first undergoes peer review, ensuring accuracy and relevance. My fellow TAG members are Neil Blundell, Mohammed Asmaljee, Richard Brice, Keith Freegard, Denny KS Ng, Gabriel Oreggioni, and Ming Xie.

The TAG was also responsible for identifying chemical engineers in their own networks who are already making a difference within the scope of the four SDGs. Part of the Sustainability Hub’s remit is to find role models who can share their chemical engineering knowledge and experience to help solve sustainability issues.

“Part of the Sustainability Hub’s remit is to find role models who can share their chemical engineering knowledge”

Knowledge can be both passive and active. Peer-reviewed articles and reports are helpful but rely on the user choosing to read them. We also wanted the Sustainability Hub to have active content and be a place where chemical engineers could interact with knowledge. Our suite of new on-demand training courses, free to members via IChemE’s new Virtual Learning Zone achieves this. The first two training courses, An Introduction to Sustainability, and Ethical Decision Making will be followed by further courses throughout the year.

Using good project management practices, a robust supportive steering group and an excellent team made up of IChemE staff and our TAG, we have launched the Sustainability Hub on time and in full (OTIF). We’ve also benefitted from the support of IChemE’s Sustainability Special Interest Group and Learned Society team.

The programme took nine months to deliver and is already being well received by IChemE members. Since its launch in early February, there have been thousands of Sustainability Hub page visits and hundreds have signed up to the free courses. Preliminary feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

The project now transitions to IChemE business as usual and I will step back from my role as Programme Director. I’ve enjoyed the experience so much that I’ve volunteered to serve as the inaugural Chair of the Sustainability Hub TAG.

Do take the time to visit the Sustainability Hub and send us your feedback via 

Q&A: Jane Cutler

We spoke to Jane Cutler, IChemE President, who had a very clear vision of what we needed to deliver. She, along with Ian Shott, IChemE Past President Stephen Richardson, and IChemE CEO Jon Prichard formed the programme Steering Committee. They played a critical role in guiding, directing, challenging and supporting the programme team.

Why do we need the Sustainability Hub?

“Chemical engineers need the Sustainability Hub because community expectations of chemical engineers and the organisations that we work in are changing and evolving. One of the key expectations is that companies, and the people who work in them, undertake their activities sustainably.”

How do you think chemical engineers will use the hub? What will they find of value?

“I feel chemical engineers will use the hub to look for up-to-date knowledge, contemporary thinking, and leading practice on sustainability from a chemical engineering perspective. Secondly, I hope that it will be the go-to place for training.

What do you hope the Sustainability Hub will achieve? How does it support our Institution?

“I hope that it will lead to qualified, and skilled and knowledgeable chemical engineers who are better equipped to contribute to sustainable thinking within the organisations they work for, but also more broadly in their communities.”

How can chemical engineers make a difference?

“Chemical engineers can make a difference to how quickly and how well our society achieves a sustainable future. They have the ability to think broadly and systematically about the implications of what organisations and individuals do. They can draw together the consequences, both intended and unintended, of a course of action, and then provide insight and information to decision makers on the relative merits of alternatives. I think chemical engineers have a particularly important contribution to make because they have the skills, knowledge and experience to separate data from analysis and develop insights to drive a better course of action.”

Why is training at the heart of our Sustainability Hub?

“We should never rest on our laurels and think we’ve done enough training. There is always an opportunity to learn more and upgrade our skills, particularly with fast-moving fields of endeavour like sustainability. There’s a fundamental level of sustainability knowledge that all chemical engineers need to enable conversations within the profession, with governments, communities, academics and within the industry about sustainability and how chemical engineers can contribute. There’s a range of areas which I think chemical engineers could focus on such as health and wellbeing, clean energy and responsible consumption and production. But many other of the UN Sustainable Development Goals impact on different aspects of the work that chemical engineers do. To have proper conversations, we need a common language and understanding of key concepts.”

How valuable is ethical decision-making training?

“I believe that ethical decision making is at the heart of being a professional chemical engineer. So this new training course will be extremely valuable to all involved in the profession. Sustainable outcomes require compromises and tradeoffs. It’s important that chemical engineers use ethical decision-
making principles when providing advice and recommendations to decision makers.”

Why are chemical engineers a part of the solution to the world’s sustainability challenges?

“Because they can use their system thinking skills, their life cycle analysis skills, applying ethical approaches to decisions and actions. I believe that chemical engineers can influence better decision making in a whole range of industries and organisations.”

Q&A: Ian Shott

Ian Shott is a former President of IChemE, Executive Chairman of Shott Trinova, and Senior Adviser to the board of Quotient Sciences. He was awarded a CBE in 2009 for services to chemical engineering. As our donor, Shott had a clear vision for the hub – to inspire chemical engineers to make a difference. We caught up with him during filming for the hub launch.

What was your motivation behind donating to set up this Sustainability Hub?

“I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a great career. I’ve operated around the whole globe while being a practising chemical engineer and an executive in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. And I’m in a position now where I can give back to some of the institutions that have provided me with the fundamentals to build that career. In addition to that, I’ve become increasingly aware of the issues of sustainability. The Sustainability Hub is a perfect platform for me to support in recognition of everything I have benefited from together with the challenges that the world is facing.”

What will chemical engineers find of value in the Sustainability Hub?

“I think the purpose of the hub should be part of a self-learning and self-teaching process. There is no way that this hub can provide precise solutions for different problems, but it can provide guidance on the approaches that need to be taken and give some insight on how those tools and approaches might be used in practice. I hope that chemical engineers approach the hub with an open mind and think about how to tackle many of the issues they’ve dealt with in the past in a different way. They should recognise sustainability issues and the drivers that are leading to today’s problems such as global warming, and think how to design and develop processes and products differently, sustainably, for the long-term survival of the planet.”

What does SDG 3 mean to you as a chemical engineer?

“SDG 3 is all about health and wellbeing of the population at large. For chemical engineers this SDG is about the impact downstream on human beings throughout the world. As we think about SDG 3, chemical engineers will have many substantial roles where they can make a major impact and I can mention a couple of particular examples. On the one hand, the development cycle for new drugs to support health and wellbeing is extremely long at 7–14 years. The chemical engineer can look at how to accelerate that process and get new effective drugs into patients for clinical trials much faster and then accelerate the scaling up into the mass market even quicker by adopting different technological approaches that greatly reduce the process times between the different stages.

“Secondly, the majority of new drugs that are going into patients are small molecules of greater complexity, involving many stages of chemical synthesis. Chemical engineers working with biologists, bio-scientists, discovery chemists and development chemists can think of new biochemical synthesis pathways to reduce the number of stages, the energy consumption, the solvent usage, the water usage, and deliver products more effectively with intrinsically cleaner and safer processes that are more cost effective in a shorter time.”

Why is it essential that chemical engineers understand life cycle analysis?

“To make real progress on sustainability it is crucial that engineers understand the destination of the products they make and the longer-term cycle that might be through a recovery or disposal process. Lifecycle analysis is a crucial part of getting this understanding. I think that chemical engineers need to be aware of the general principles of lifecycle analysis, be aware of different methodologies and algorithms, and be in a position to select the right approach for the right need.”

What is the most significant impact a chemical engineer can make to support these global sustainability challenges?

“Chemical engineers are used to making a difference in processes, and the profession is built on ensuring safe operation, containing and avoiding hazards whilst protecting and preserving the environment and hence protecting the public at large. We require a deeper and more thoughtful process. It is not sufficient to just make an existing process safe by adding on components and safety measures. What we’re looking for now is how to make processes intrinsically sustainable with less energy use, less raw material consumption, less water consumption and providing better quality products with better performance and better economics. So chemical engineers will be crucial. They are equipped to deal with the basic and fundamental life sciences from where new solutions will emerge. This includes breath-taking technology that can be engineered to provide safe, sustainable and highly-performing products for mankind.”

Explore: The Sustainability Hub

The Sustainability Hub is a web-based resource. It is a collection of knowledge resources, signposts to further knowledge, and training courses. The core purpose of the hub is to focus on what chemical engineers need to support their role in facing today’s sustainability challenges.

There are seven distinct areas in the hub: an introduction to the hub; access to the IChemE Virtual Learning Zone; an introduction to the UN SDGs and sustainabilty knowledge; and the four SDGs.

The core of the hub knowledge is structured around the four selected SDGs, and each contains knowledge in various formats:

  • Overview: a brief explanation of each SDG and the role of chemical engineers.
  • In focus: a selection of peer-reviewed knowledge sourced from journals and other resources. The SDG-specific knowledge will equip you with up-to-date sustainability-related information and tools.
  • Training: access to highly-interactive sustainability courses for chemical engineers to support each SDG. The training is online and on demand and hosted on the new IChemE Virtual Learning Zone. There are currently two courses available free to members: A 2-hour course that provides An Introduction to Sustainability and a 3.5-hour course on Ethical Decision-Making for Chemical Engineers. More courses will be released throughout the year.
  • Sustainability success stories: This series looks at the positive impact chemical engineers, and their work, have on creating a more sustainable world. Chemical engineers explain how they have made a difference.
  • Knowledge Hub: IChemE’s Knowledge Hub contains a wealth of information and provides a central portal for accessing peer-reviewed knowledge published by IChemE. Its links provide a quick way of accessing pre-defined searches. Additionally, once you are in the Knowledge Hub you can continue to browse conference proceedings, training courses, and input your own searches.
  • Other areas of interest: IChemE groups and initiatives are highlighted. These are likely of interest for ongoing CPD and knowledge awareness on topics that relate to each specific SDG.

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Article by Trish Melton CEng FIChemE

Programme Director of the IChemE Sustainability Hub

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