Roland Clift awarded Highest Honour

Article by Neil Clark

IChemE’s George E Davis Medal presented to sustainability thinker

SUSTAINABILITY is nothing new to chemical engineers. The author of A Handbook of Chemical Engineering once wrote: “The aim of all chemical procedures should be the utilisation of everything and the avoidance of waste.” That man, George E Davis, is widely regarded as the founding father of the profession.

When these words were recounted to Roland Clift during the presentation of the 12th George E Davis Medal, he was delighted. The award, IChemE’s highest honour, was conferred to celebrate his work as a world-leading thinker in industrial ecology and sustainability. During this career, he told us, he had been told many times that what he was doing “was not chemical engineering”.

His response, also delivered at the 12th George E Davis lecture, was to assert that a set of ethical principles must be recognised in order to call yourself a chemical engineer. He also used the lecture to outline his vision for chemical engineers to help guide sustainable development and displace the dominance of economic thinking: “The laws of thermodynamics are hard-wired into the universe, whereas the ‘laws’ of economics are written on paper.”


Clift (Right): Honoured that his work is valued

“This was great, because nobody knew what clean technology was, so I could start by defining it. But I became increasingly frustrated because it was perfectly clear to anybody that the problem with the interaction between human technologies and the environment was not due to lack of technology, it was due to a lack of intelligence in using it.”

In 1992, at the age of 50, he took a new direction establishing a research centre at Surrey where engineers and social scientists could work together – the Centre for Environmental Strategy (CES). He was director until 2005, retired in 2008, and remained at CES as an emeritus professor.

Throughout his career he has contributed beyond the academic world, including governmental advisory roles, including ten years as a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, and as author and review editor for the IPCC.

“The 21st century engineer,” he said at the start of his Davis lecture, “needs to be more than just a technical expert – she or he needs to play a broader societal role.”

Honest broker

Citing Jerome Ravetz’ concept of ‘post-normal science’, Clift pointed out that as scientific issues become more uncertain and the importance of decisions becomes larger, the process to reach decisions has to adapt. One such issue, he said, was climate change.

“You need a new way of addressing problems, because the actions that arise from your decisions must be accepted and supported by society at large. We need to recognise that a lot of what we do is within this range, and that needs a new kind of deliberative approach – that’s where the new role of the chemical engineer comes in.”

He said the role of a specialist is to provide technical advice to society, but not make the decisions themselves. He called this role the “honest broker”: “The honest broker is there to ensure that scientific and technical information is presented clearly and without bias. This is what I see as the key role of engineers in general, chemical engineers in particular, in the strange world of sustainability.

“Sustainable development is about fulfilling your potential and having a decent life: it’s not about economic activity. That’s an idea that conventional economists find difficult to grasp – that there is something called ‘quality of life’ that doesn’t correlate with spending power.

“As engineers, we’re pretty good at doing things which are economically efficient, but the way we are operating at the moment obviously isn’t compatible with environmental constraints and it is not providing equitable access to quality of life.

“Ethics is essential as the guide that tells you whether you’re heading in the right direction. One of my key criteria in life is – can I look my grandson in the face and say: ‘The world’s a mess, but I did try’?”

Ethical chemical engineering

 This led to Clift discussing the question: “Why is so much of engineering devoted to finding more efficient ways to do things that should not be done?”

He began by presenting a slide depicting Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, expressing the idea that man is the measure of all things. The famous artwork was depicted on a backdrop of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Clift said that the image brought tears to his eyes, as it has such a specific message for engineers: “The extermination camp was a processing operation. Engineers designed it and built it. In purely engineering terms, it was a big success. It performed above specification and in particular, the logistics and transport system worked.

“Roland has demonstrated real dedication to the principles and practice of sustainably in chemical engineering. He has inspired successive generations with his provocative descriptions of a systems-based approach to environmental problems.”

“Engineers were probably paid to do it, they probably maintained their families on the money they were paid to do this – but does that justify it? No, of course not. Engineers cannot act solely as a technical automata, you actually have to think what your work will be used for. And I really think you can’t duck that.”

He related this to a systems view of the earth, where food, water and energy are interconnected. Clift used the example of the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to urge the audience to always think where resources may come from, and where they go to. Twenty years ago, he helped to design a transport system within the complex, referring to his involvement as “admitting to a crime” due to its environmental impact.

A way forward

Clift’s talk then progressed to the topic of industrial ecology, highlighting tools such as life-cycle approaches, stock and flow analysis and MacKay modelling. He presented his vision for the ethical future of a low-carbon energy sector before saying that the concept of the circular economy should be adapted to create a “performance economy”.

This would focus not on the flows of resources through the economy but on the stock, defined as the resources and material goods we live with day-to-day, and thus the source of quality of life. He proposed increasing the lifetime and quality of said stock, and to then reuse, remanufacture and recycle it. Doing so could allow increased utilisation of labour, a renewable resource, which could be made exempt from taxation.

“Remanufacturing is a local activity and it generates employment. People say “this is reversing the trend of the industrial revolution” – that’s what we need to do! Shift from energy to labour. An economy with high labour productivity is a low employment economy; do you really want that?”

Analysing the dynamics and drivers of such a system, as presented in a flowchart, was, he argued, “chemical engineering – just not as you know it; this is the challenge for chemical engineering”.

Signing off

Before receiving his award, Clift paid tribute to his students, his “legacy”, as he finally retires to Canada in October.

Upon receiving the medal, Clift said: “I was genuinely surprised to be awarded the George E Davis Medal, and honoured that the Institution values my work. This has been a superb celebration with friends, colleagues and, most importantly, with many former students who will build on my thinking in the future.”

The medal is presented no more frequently than every three years, and previous winners include John Coulson and Andrew Liveris.

Jon Prichard, IChemE’s chief executive officer, said: “Roland has demonstrated real dedication to the principles and practice of sustainably in chemical engineering. He has inspired successive generations with his provocative descriptions of a systems-based approach to environmental problems. He has challenged engineers, organisations, and governments, with his thought-provoking ideas for future-proofing our planet.” 

Clift’s lecture was streamed live, and is available to watch on IChemE’s Facebook page:

Article by Neil Clark

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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