Transition Engineering is an emerging field of change management. As with previously new engineering fields, there are a number of people practicing different aspects who come together and formalize the methods and standards.
Dr. Susan Krumdieck, is a Mechanical Engineering Professor from Colorado who emigrated to New Zealand in 2000. She was selected as the IET Prestige Lecturer for 2010. She got the opportunity to give a lecture around the country. In preparing the lecture, she examined all of her research into sustainability, and she was struck with the idea that no extent of R&D or awareness raising about energy and environment issues would change the business as usual path. She had a moment of clarity when she realized that working on changing existing systems to manage un-sustainability was the way to transition through the massive changes in existing systems with a prosperous outcome. The engineers with expertise in current unsustainable systems are the only ones who can deliver the required changes.
Daniel Kenning, a Mechanical Engineering professional and Chair of the Sustainability and Environment Group, IMechE, UK, is trying to make a living as a sustainable energy engineer. Daniel became interested in the Transition Town movement and joined in his local group. He met interesting people and followed the activities of groups around the UK, but he began to realise that education and action by local people, while positive, would not affect the required changes from the business as usual path of the country as a whole.
Daniel and Susan were lucky enough to meet in 2011, and together with others at a workshop at East Anglia University and a meeting at IMechE began a discussion about engineering the future.
New Discipline for all Engineering
The idea for Transition Engineering was launched 27 November 2012 through an international virtual discussion open to any engineer, researcher, teacher or thinking person. The discussion involves how the whole of the engineering profession has a responsibility to society now and in the future to dramatically reduce the extraction and use of fossil fuels. There are two reasons why engineers must take responsibility for changing the systems they have made that are so dependent on profligate use of oil, coal and gas. Firstly, all of that fossil carbon does not belong in this biosphere, and the safety margin for changing the atmospheric energy balance has been exceeded. Secondly, the future of oil supply security is the biggest threat to peace and prosperity in this century. The only way to mitigate the risks of the inevitable oil supply decline is to use less oil faster than the supply declines. The founding members are currently working on developing this website, developing the first standard, and the founding principles of an international organisation.
You are welcome to become part of the Transition Engineering discussion on Linkedin.
Our non-profit organisation was established in March 2016 and we are now working on setting up membership, training, workshops, sharing ideas and developing the standards and requirements of professional Transition Engineering work. We launched the Global Association for Transition Engineering to the public arena on 21 June 2014. We submitted the formal incorporation documents to the UK Charities Commission in May 2015, and the charter was granted March 2016.
The proposition for Transition Engineering was presented at the COP26 in Glasgow.
In 2022 a new Masters Programme in Transition Engineering and InTIME Design was launched at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland.
Engineering Tools for Transition Projects
The First Rule of Engineering is "Define the Problem"
Every generation faces problems that challenge their technology, creativity and humanity. Facing and finding solutions to problems is how we adapt, develop and improve. Nature has always been a challenge. But since the industrial revolution, our own technological successes have also created some of our most challenging problems. The risks posed by our successful development and use of fossil fuels and other minerals are complex. The one thing that is certain is that the future is not going to be a continuation of the past trends - there is no business-as-usual scenario. All societies now have a choice: Change or Collapse. Simple technical solutions like solar panels or electric cars always have an appeal. But adding green layers to an unsustainable system is not a fundamental change in the unsustainable use of fossil fuels. Engineers have the responsibility to apply science to meet needs and provide opportunities. Society trusts engineers to be honest about science and technology. This honestly is challenging in the field of energy. Most of the known fossil fuel resources must remain undeveloped. Yet research funding and good engineering jobs are found in extreme oil exploration. Many of the green technologies attracting investment and circulating on the internet are not feasible and would not reduce fossil fuel consumption. A huge challenge for Transition Engineers is to cut through the misinformation and get to work on the critical path.
A Podcast on the challenge of defining the problem is available at the Resilience on Radio Program.
Scientists around the world are observing the impacts of our economic success on the environments that sustain our well-being. There have been several new engineering fields that have emerged to deal with managing the impacts of air and water pollution and solid waste disposal. Global climate change and the peak and decline of world oil supply are what is called a wicked problem. Managing the risks and impacts will require a new field of engineering. The transport, building and industrial systems that use fossil fuels were designed and built according to designs which now require adaptation. Politicians and economists will not be able to re-design the built environment, infrastructure, technology and supply chain systems. Consumers will not be able to save the planet through consumption, even of "green" or "eco" branded merchandise. Engineers will have to change literally everything that uses energy.
The Problem is: Change all existing systems to phase out fossil fuels over the next two decades
Define the System
All engineering methods require the engineer to define the system boundaries. For thermodynamics, mechanics or fluids this is straight-forward. Peak Oil and Climate Change have dimensions that are more challenging than most engineering projects. The particular system must be defined for a specific place, over a specific time-frame, and for a specific group of stake-holders. For example, a particular organization like a university and a particular system at the university, like the HVAC services might be defined as the system. Transition projects for specific local and organizational systems will bring about the changes needed. Transition Projects are "upstream" not "end of tailpipe". Transition Projects are transformative for all the stakeholders, in that they must all explore and learn new things, they are not just additive e.g. "we need more solar and wind power".
The first tool to use is a "spectrum analyzer" for the particular system. Make a matrix for the different scales of the system. Fill in the issues that pose risks to the system for the different dimensions. These become your focus for the Transition change projects.
The Second Rule of Engineering is "Borrow from the Best"
Transition Engineering will use all of the lessons learned by Safety Engineering. In 1911 safety was abysmal in the workplace, factories, buildings, trains, dockyards, mines... But, in 1911, something changed. A group of 62 people decided that tragedy could be prevented. Please read about the history of Safety Engineering and see if you can understand the amazing parallels between the lack of safety in the nation's industrial economy and our lack of sustainability and security. A journal paper available HERE describes the parallels between Safety and Transition Engineering.
All new engineering fields evolve from technology developments in existing fields. The same is true for Transition Engineering. Protecting people and property from hazards, and cleaning up environmental pollution were once new ideas in the past. All of the engineering fields shown below emerged in response to serious failures which caused fatalities, injuries and loss of property and environmental quality. In all of these fields, the emergence of the field happened when professional engineers who were already knowledgeable about the particular area decided that something had to be done to prevent failure, mitigate risks, reduce damage... in other words, to change existing engineering and management practices to make the activities and built environment safe, secure and more sustainable.
The Third Rule of Engineering is "Draw a Picture"
All engineering fields have ways to represent the real world problem in an abstract way. Transition Engineering is the work of change for a strategic purpose with a long-term perspective. There are several processes that help the engineer deal with complexity and temporal dynamics. The figure below represents the embedded processes in the Transition Engineering project as described in the paper available HERE.
The Fourth Rule of Engineering is "Keep it Simple"
The solution to the problem of climate change is to leave the carbon from the age of dinosaurs safely sequestered in the ground. The solution to the problem of the depletion of conventional oil supply is to use less oil. Keep it simple. Think about the solution not the problem. Don't think about how impossible it seems to use less oil, instead think about how it is inevitable that the amount of oil used forty years from now will be less than half of what is used today, even for the most important end-uses we can think of. There hasn't been a lot of serious engineering work done on adaptation to this reduction. One thought piece on planned oil reduction can be read (HERE).