Social sustainability from an engineer’s perspective

Guest post by Cris Surbeck, U Mississippi Department of Civil Engineering

During the first conference of the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability, we thought defining social sustainability would be a quick exercise.  We quickly realized that many of our notions of sustainability were very different.

Still, social sustainability needs to be defined for my role in the network and in engineering. The Network grew out of engineers’ concern about how our projects affected people: the group needs a common definition of social sustainability understood by both non-engineers and engineers alike. That definition should also fit in the more general concept of the three pillars of sustainability (environment, society, economy).  This blog is a first attempt to define social sustainability, and I will give some straightforward, hypothetical examples to demonstrate my definition.  I welcome comments from those of you reading this blog.

Social sustainability is the enduring, harmonious quality of life of people affected and affecting a project, program, product, or process.

Here is an example of a public transportation program. A town government (affecting the program) receives a finite grant to start a public bus system. The bus route system is well planned by the transportation engineers (also affecting), and many residents of the town (affected by the program) use the bus system for a nominal cost. After a few years, the initial grant runs out, and the cost to residents for riding the bus increases five-fold. As a result of the higher fare, fewer people ride the buses, and the whole system shuts down after a few months. Residents are unhappy. The mayor, who was popular except for the failing bus system, loses the next election. The transportation engineers, who had a history of good relationships and projects with the town government, are never contracted by the town again. This program is clearly not economically sustainable. It is also not socially sustainable because the human relationships that endured are no longer harmonious. Quality of life decreases as a result.

Another example. A cosmetics company develops a new product: an organic line of nail polish that also saves water and energy. The company (affecting) uses suppliers (affecting and affected) who in turn are able to provide jobs in a needy community (affecting and affected). The community thrives, and crime rates fall. Customers (affected) are satisfied with the variety of colors of nail polish and even experience stronger nails, with less chipping. This product becomes an environmental, economic, and social success.

My last example, this one of an engineering process. Engineers and managers (affecting) at a plastics manufacturing facility learn that they can reduce water and energy usage in their plant by using a common process practiced in other plants. Plant operators (affected) resist the new procedures, believing they are complicated and unsafe. After several meetings of open dialogue between engineers, managers, and operators, a pilot program is implemented, and software is installed to help all parties involved make suggestions and decisions. Managers put a bonus program in place to encourage operators and engineers to come up with other cost saving solutions. Everybody is happy. This process is environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable.

The examples above range from large- to small-scale and from common to innovative. They demonstrate that long-term success can be achieved by carefully considering social sustainability.  They also show that social sustainability is tied up in welfare, justice, environment, economics, as well as engineering technology.

Image By Gleconsam (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons