The S-WORD: Defining Sustainability


Today, people argue, the power of the word ‘sustainability’ has been diluted due to overuse. What began as a noble ideal has been reduced to a mere buzzword. We sat down with some of our professors to understand how ‘sustainability’ is more than hype for them and their research.


Professor I. Daniel Posen
Research Focus: Providing system-scale environmental sustainability analysis for policy development

Large-scale systems are inherently complex. When holistically evaluating the ‘sustainability’ of a system a broad range of environmental, societal and economic metrics compound the matter. Naturally, a professor with such a research focus has a complicated relationship with the word ‘sustainability’. Riddled with over-hyped products, under-delivering theories and overall ‘greenwashing’, Professor Posen believes the discourse is weak.  He particularly notices the current lack of numerical definition.

Posen’s research exists at the intersection of engineering, environmental science, economics and public policy. His cross-discipline approach engenders a complete evaluation of all ‘sustainability’ efforts. It is with this integrated analysis that Professor Posen seeks to inform future system designs yielding greener outcomes.

Success in his quantitative analysis for policy development depends on capturing all factors, inputs and circumstances. The accuracy and availability of data, the consistency of modelling efforts across fields and the incorporation of nascent technologies are some challenges he must address. The variables are numerous, nuanced and involve advanced statistical analysis. Iterations are necessary to provide confidence ranges and uncertainty measurements to help craft policies.

Appropriately, Posen views ‘sustainability’ through a system-wide lens, considering the triple-bottom line inclusive of social, ecological and financial effects. He believes to operationalize ‘sustainability’ it must be reduced to measurable properties. Developing empirical tools to assess current levels, magnitude changes and confidence levels are all integral points in sustainability’s definition. Once these methodologies are in place, it is important to tell the data’s story accurately and without bias mobilizing policy makers driving real change.

With recent developments of the pan-Canadian climate framework addressing the country’s 2030 emissions reduction targets, Posen’s research plays an essential tool for government. Most recently, in conjunction with Professor Heather MacLean and a charitable environmental organization called Pollution Probe, Professor Posen is working on a white paper providing analysis to the Government of Ontario. The paper will provide guidance in provincial emissions from indirect land use change and carbon accounting for biofuels as part of both Ontario Renewable Fuel Standard and Canada’s Clean Fuel Standard.

“It is necessary to remember that though governments can shift and mandate new targets, magnitudes of change in one area will have consequences in another,” Posen says. These market-rebound and indirect effects are an important consideration in Professor Posen’s research.

“It is not as simple as implementing biofuels to reduce green house gases (GHG),” says Posen. According to the professor when addressing GHG mitigation strategies, policy makers need to consider the totality of costs and benefits associated with the proposed protocols. If a food production crop is replaced with a bio-fuel-bound crop, this change will have implications not only in the energy sector but also for world hunger and food scarcity problems. Once bio-fuel crops are harvested, refining the biomass consumes energy, processing will affect air quality and the infrastructure needed to support distribution efforts requires investment. These are only a sampling of considerations to address when evaluating and selecting among the competing uses for biomass and prioritizing GHG mitigation strategies.

Other examples of sustainability analysis issues include prioritizing certain sectors before others, market price fluctuations and accounting for technologies that currently do not exist. New developments create alternative scenarios. Policy makers forge new directions with each new regulation. Some directions will lead to fruitful and tangible results while others will lead to dead ends. Confounding the issue, attributing the origins of outcomes is difficult to disentangle empirically. Posen is working to identify new, precise measurement modelling to improve path forecasting.

Professor Posen’s previous work focused on large-scale systems at global and national levels. He is currently looking to address city-scale systems. As global leaders discuss and stipulate new green targets and frameworks, cities have an important role in implementing and driving their success.

“Often cities do not have an accurate picture of their current emission levels, for example. It proves difficult to identify necessary fundamental policy changes without data to inform the direction,” says Posen. “With increased capacity to collect, analyze and disseminate crucial data points, local officials can make substantial changes that benefit both the short and long run sustainability of cities.”

Professor Tamer El-Diraby
RESEARCH FOCUS: Construction management for societal and corporate changes

Professor El-Diraby agrees the conversation around ‘sustainability’ needs to be more than a passing fad. He notes, buzzword or not, ‘sustainability’ promotes positive results. “It is just a given nowadays,” he remarks. “Most governments, businesses and our society as a whole accept and are prioritizing its implications.”

El-Diraby notes his school-age children studying sciences are now learning through a lens of ‘sustainability’. The generational expectation for sustainable efforts is non-negotiable. Despite its hashtag status, he believes there is a general movement from generic thoughts to actionable policies and programs for energy conservation and climate change. “While we may be bored with its use, caring about these issues is the result of profound belief in ‘sustainability’,” says El-Diraby. The Professor warns that not all who use the term have noble intentions. Some companies are abusing the term and diluting its operational power.

In construction management, Professor El-Diraby focuses on more than just green technology and number crunching. He is interested in the business case, change management and the sociology of embracing ‘sustainability’. The professor is using social network analysis to help discover how communities – both citizens and professionals – view ‘sustainability’. Through crowdsourcing, the Professor is sifting through the noise uncovering interesting insights.

A large portion of his research examines how to manage and support implementation efforts for ‘sustainability’. Leveraging data analytics to help managers discover new knowledge or patterns of change, El-Diraby develops tools to help coordinate decision-making.

Across the global construction industry, many of the environmental and economic challenges with infrastructure systems are the same. However, the social aspects of ‘sustainability’ vary with the developmental phase of the city and country.

In Canada, with pre-existing infrastructure, governing bodies are seeking to change long-standing unsustainable construction practices. In a country like China, which is building new infrastructure, there is an opportunity to incorporate green construction and promote sustainable habits from the beginning. China is seeking to develop while Canada is seeking to optimize its developed systems. The methods are distinct but overall the goals remain the same.

Potential game changers are close, Professor El-Diraby believes for the construction management industry. He is confident the future is poised for many new impacts, which will improve the health and livability of our cities.

Automation | 3D printing and robotics are increasingly used. These technologies provide significant productivity improvements and elevate our capacity to examine complex problems.

Digitization | New technology called Building Information Modeling (BIM) is allowing sophisticated analysis and enhanced cross-border collaboration. The supply chain for construction design, finance and production is globalizing and yielding great benefits.

Net-generation | New construction customers are perceptive. They are acutely aware of sustainable energy options. These new players will force the industry to surpass green regulations and adapt to serve consumer demands.

Modern cities | There is a need for installing and re-configuring our infrastructure to accommodate new urban technologies such as driverless cars.

Professor Evan Bentz
RESEARCH FOCUS: Concrete and structures standing the test of time

“Sustainability is indeed a word that has become less powerful due to repeated use, but still represents an important concept,” says Professor Bentz. Speaking as a concrete expert, the term evokes similar feelings to “resilience” – which the Professor notes is also pervasive in the industry.  In both cases, Bentz believes these terms are important considerations and afford design engineers a point of reference when talking with building owners.

Bentz laughs when he recalls the reception the term artificial intelligence received during the 1980’s. Back then, engineers believed AI was probably impossible and discredited the term quickly. Fast forward to 2017 and AI is now a worthy pursuit many corporate giants are chasing. His bit of trivia elucidates; trending or not, engineers must address ‘sustainability’ today and ready themselves for the unexpected of tomorrow.

When studying concrete, Bentz uses ‘sustainability’ to imply longevity and practicality. “As engineers we need to build lasting structures and, given the constraints of the project, use materials as efficiently as possible,” says the Professor.  “In a sense, it is an attempt to provide an accounting of environmental issues previously neglected by our profession.” Improving building codes and creating increasingly efficient structures are just some of the ‘sustainability’ concepts involved in Bentz’s research.

Viewing ‘sustainability’ from a global perspective, there are only so many construction materials available on this planet. However, despite limited material types, their applications can be vastly different. The surrounding landscape of a building in Toronto is vastly different from a structure in Abu Dhabi. “This is why ‘sustainability’ issues are not taught as a single set of rules like design code regulations,” says Bentz.  “Instead they represent more of a way of thinking and that is partly why we teach ‘sustainability’ in all four years of our program.”

What important changes does the Professor foresee in the future?

Firstly, the availability of timber for large structural projects. “The stuff grows on trees,” he quips.  Another is the potential for large carbon taxes – much larger than current proposals, which could change our concrete mixes. Rather than designing with a small amount of high performance (and high strength) concrete, we might move back towards the older methods of having larger structural elements with a lower carbon footprint per cubic metre.

The most precipitous change for the professor will relate to cement production. Today, cement requires the burning of coal, which is a long-term problem. A cheap and greener method to create concrete would be a game changer for the Professor and industry at large.

Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou
RESEARCH FOCUS: Air quality, transportation and green house gases in cities

Disconcerting but repairable – describes Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou’s position on the word ‘sustainability’. She believes the term is too widely used and more often than not conveys naught. “I don’t think we should stop using it, I actually think we should straighten how it is used,” remarks the Professor.

Like Professor Posen, Hatzopoulou thinks of ‘sustainability’ as the triple bottom line. She does not appreciate the expansions and reimagining efforts people make corrupting triple bottom line’s simplicity. To the Professor, it is a straightforward concept: “We must evaluate the consequences of our decisions on the natural environment, on people and on the economy. Because without a growing economy, I don’t believe that we can be creative or sustainable,” says Hatzopoulou.

‘Sustainability’ drives her research where she specifically looks at air pollution, green house gases and transportation. She admits that her work cannot improve an entire system but, when combined with other research, there can be great change. “I don’t think any researcher can claim that their work on its own will improve the ‘sustainability’ of our cities and society but coalescing knowledge is what really matters.”

In an increasingly complex world, Hatzopoulou’s work on air pollution involves understanding the problem before outlining solutions. Transportation sources create the most air pollution in cities but there is more to the equation. Because air moves, travels, mixes and disperses, assigning responsibility is difficult. The Professor notes the motivation, not just the source of pollutants, is complicated. Those who drive may choose to do so because they do not have access to more “sustainable” forms of transportation. Policy-makers can only affect change within the constraints of their budgets. The automotive industry first and foremost must respond to customer demands. There are many factors to consider and her work looks to account for all.

Though Hatzopoulou may be dismayed by the use of ‘sustainability’ overall she believes Canadians are particularly well versed on green options. “The problem is not a lack of education, the problem exists at a governmental level where long-term and strategic planning is needed to address our uncertain sustainability in the future,” she says.

Road transport emissions and urban air quality have obvious implications to the overall health of our planet. The Professor believes one major change in the future will be autonomous vehicles and all other forms of automated transportation systems. Their ramifications on energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution will shape our cities and the lifestyles for all our residents.

Professor Lesley Warren
RESEARCH FOCUS: Cleaning dirty water from mineral extraction activity

Sustainability through a southern Ontario lens – is what Professor Lesley Warren calls it. In her research, when discussing the importance of ‘sustainability’, most people view the issue with an urban bias.  This is not a problem exclusive to Ontario – throughout the world, residents of urban areas often have a louder voice as over 60% of the world’s population lives in cities.

When thinking of ‘sustainability’ Prof. Warren explains people often overlook the integral role rural and underdeveloped areas of the country play in the ‘sustainability’ of our cities. “From the screens you read your emails on, to the fuel used to power commuter traffic, land far from urban centres has a direct impact on city green efforts,” Warren says.

The Professor is cautious when discussing ‘sustainability’ noting it is an ambiguous and at times pejorative term, which many exploit to oversell products, ideas or initiatives. “It is important to understand the deliverables for green efforts. Without full agreement on desired results, the word is more about marketing than driving tangible solutions,” states Warren.

An effective ‘sustainability’ definition begins with experts uniting and coalescing knowledge from across disciplines and contexts. She reiterates the complex nature of the term, noting that the many stakeholders and perspectives influence the term’s meaning.

City policies have great impacts on rural communities with close ties to the mineral extraction industry; mining wastewaters produced hundreds of kilometers away from urban environments have lasting impacts on cities’ health. Considering the interdependence, our population must come together and consolidate its efforts.

Warren recalls a poignant comment said to her years ago. After mining activity had contaminated the only water supply in a farmer’s African town, he remarked, “You can’t drink money.”  This statement has stuck with the Professor driving her efforts to measure ‘sustainability’ in more than dollar and cents. She regards stewardship, life quality and economic impacts as critical considerations to elicit the best results for the planet.

Collaborating with many mining industry leaders in her research, Warren points to the environmental champions. These advocates not only are reacting to problems, they are adopting proactive tactics. They are minimizing impacts and mining’s environmental legacy for future generations. Mineral extraction is important for the medical equipment discovering new treatments, for the microprocessor in our phones connecting loved ones across the world and for fertilizers responsible for our global food supply. And as we continue to meet our resource demands we can do so mitigating our environmental impacts.

An issue Professor Warren looks to address in the importance of sustainability is in water. It is a precious and finite resource and something the mining industry needs in vast quantities. In areas prone to water scarcity there are competing needs to address. Once minerals are extracted, the wastewater produced must be dealt with safely and securely. Upstream R&D is a focus for Warren. Engaging with industry partners, the Professor and the Lassonde Institute of Mining (LIM) and the new Lassonde Mining Hub (LMH) are pioneering new technologies that will dramatically transform the industry and create proactive solutions.


It is clear that the S-word has been reduced to a hashtag moniker for a trending movement. However, the nobility of effort is something to be celebrated. Mobilizing effects are palatable if the repetition does not alienate people first. Regardless of the trend, the word must amount to more than limited improvements and prioritize significant impacts. Clearly, to do so, definition is important.

The way public discourse uses the word ‘sustainable’ is undoubtedly unsustainable. Green. Eco. Globally-conscious responsibility. The list can go on. Whatever the word choice, the motivation is there and is important to all engineers.

Evolving eco-conscious terminology aside, our professors move past the hype and define ‘sustainability’ for impact and solutions. Here is a recap:

  • Professor Posen wants more numbers.
  • Professor El-Diraby wants to move past generic ideas to thoughtful examination.
  • Professor Bentz wants to ignore the over-use and see the term for that which it inspires.
  • Professor Hatzopoulou wants the term straightened-out.
  • Professor Warren wants a dual-lens from both urban and rural perspectives.

U of T Mining and Mineral Engineering ranks top 10 in the world

Psychology research at the University of Toronto is ranked second in the world – just after Harvard University – in a new ranking of subjects by the independent Shanghai Ranking Consultancy.

In addition to psychology, U of T also ranked third in medical technology, fifth in public health, sixth in human biological sciences and ninth in biotechnology, finance, and mining & mineral engineering in the report.

The 2017 Shanghai Subject Ranking, released earlier this week, surveyed more than 500 top global universities in 52 subject areas.

Overall, U of T ranked in the top 25 for 25 different subject areas – only four universities were ranked in more subjects (Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley and MIT).

Among Canadian universities, U of T was ranked first (or tied) in 28 of the 46 subjects it was ranked in.

“It’s wonderful to see the continued recognition that the University of Toronto is one of the few institutions in the world with strength across the full breadth of areas of scholarship,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation.

The 2017 Shanghai Subject Ranking looks at natural sciences, engineering, life sciences, medical sciences and social sciences, with the majority of its subjects falling under engineering. It uses bibliometric data as the source for the majority of its indicators, complemented by data on faculty honours and awards in selected subjects.

Each of the subjects have a differing mix of indicator weightings, thresholds for inclusion and depth to the rankings depending on the characteristics of the data.

The Shanghai Ranking Consultancy is also the publisher of the influential Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), commonly known as the Shanghai Ranking. This year, the ARWU ranked U of T 27th in the world.

In March, a similar report on global subject rankings by software company QS Quacquarelli Symonds placed U of T in the top 10 globally in nursing (6th), sports-related subjects (6th), anatomy & physiology (8th), geography (9th), computer science (10th) and education (10th). Medicine, anthropology and religious studies just missed the top 10 list, landing in 11th place.

Among Canadian universities, U of T was first in all five of the broad subject areas and first in 32 of the 43 subjects in which the university was ranked by the QS World University Rankings by Subject.

Globally, the results place the University of Toronto among the world’s elite institutions in all five subject areas and in 43 of the 46 subjects surveyed. The university scored even higher when public higher education institutions alone were counted in the subject areas ranked.

Overall, the University of Toronto continues to be the highest ranked Canadian university and one of the top ranked public universities in the four most prestigious international rankings: Times High Education, QS World Rankings, Shanghai Ranking Consultancy and National Taiwan University.

This article originally appeared on U of T News.

Leslieville Grade 4 Class visits Lassonde Institute

As the students of Leslieville P.S. eagerly look forward to summer, they took some time on their last week before the summer break to visit the Lassonde Institute of Mining.

As a culmination to their rock and minerals unit, the grade four class came to learn about how mining affects everyone’s everyday lives, about how new technologies are being used in mining and about what kinds of minerals are mined in Canada.

Highlights of their visit included seeing how drones are used in mining and using a point load tester to determine the strength of various rock samples. With a selection of minerals on hand, the class could already identify pyrite, quartz, amethyst and graphite!

Thank you to the Leslieville Grade 4 class for your visit!

Thank you to graduate students Greg Gambino, Thomas Bamford and Johnson Ha sharing your knowledge with the Leslieville class.

Convocation | June 2017

Graduating Civil and Mineral Engineering students and their guests are invited to a convocation reception, which will take place immediately following the convocation ceremony.

Please note that this is a private event for graduates, guests and faculty of the Department.

Ontario Professional Engineers Foundation for Education honours top undergraduate students

Alumna Marisa Sterling (far right), faculty and members of the Ontario Professional Engineers Foundation for Education pose with undergraduate scholarship recipients in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. (Photo: Jamie Hunter)
Alumna Marisa Sterling (far right), faculty and members of the Ontario Professional Engineers Foundation for Education pose with undergraduate scholarship recipients in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. (Photo: Jamie Hunter)

Alumna Marisa Sterling (far right), faculty and members of the Ontario Professional Engineers Foundation for Education pose with undergraduate scholarship recipients in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. (Photo: Jamie Hunter)

Ten of U of T Engineering’s top undergraduate students were recognized by the Ontario Professional Engineers Foundation for Education (OPEFE) for high academic achievement and co-curricular contributions.

Two entrance scholarships and eight in-course scholarships totalling $15,000 were presented to students at a reception held in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology on March 23.

“It’s an honour for me to present these scholarships to such a remarkable group of students,” said Marisa Sterling, P.Eng. (ChemE 9T1), president of the OPEFE. “It’s important that we give back to the next generation so we can keep evolving the profession — we’re only as strong as those whom we surround ourselves with.”

Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO) established OPEFE in 1959 and it remains one of U of T Engineering’s longest-running partnerships. OPEFE’s scholarships are funded by contributions from professional engineers across the province from organizations such as PEO and the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers.

OPEFE 2017 scholarship recipients

Marina Reny portraitMarina Reny (Year 4 MinE + PEY)

This past year, Marina Reny captained the University of Toronto Mining Games team, leading the team to a second-place overall finish at the 27th Annual Canadian Mining Games. She is also currently serving as the president of the Mineral Engineering Club. During her Professional Experience Year (PEY) internship, Reny worked in the Mine Operations Department at the Kearl Oil Sands Project in Northern Alberta. After graduation, she will be pursuing a career in mining, where she will work towards building a more sustainable industry.

Arnav Goel portraitArnav Goel (Year 2 CompE)

Arnav Goel is interested in the field of machine learning and data science. He is involved in a number of student clubs, including the University of Toronto Robotics Association (UTRA) and Blue Sky Solar Racing, where he works with the software team to optimize algorithms. Goel is also a web developer for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ U of T student branch.

Richard Yuze Li portraitRichard Yuze Li (Year 3 IndE)

Richard Yuze Li is passionate about data science and operation research. Last summer, he worked as a software engineer intern for the Royal Bank of Canada. Li has been actively involved in sports and creating job opportunities for the student community. He is currently part of the You’re Next Career Network, the largest student-run career organization in Canada. This summer, he will be conducting research in data science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.


Calvin Rieder portraitCalvin Rieder (Year 2 MechE)

Calvin Rieder is interested in the areas of energy and water systems. Over the past several years, he has worked on designing solutions that combine environmental engineering with social justice to increase access to clean water where it is most acutely needed. He has been heavily involved in the U of T Human Powered Vehicle Design Team, contributing to the design and construction of two speedbikes. Rieder is also passionate about music and is a tenor in the Skule™ Choir.

Tobias Rozario portraitTobias Rozario (Year 1 ElecE)

Tobias Rozario is interested in energy and electronics specializations within the field of electrical and computer engineering. He recently obtained a summer internship for a startup company named Basilisk. He will help them develop a quiz-building app for students. Outside of class, Rozario trains in the art of tae kwon do, and is aiming to obtain his first-degree black belt this summer.

Enakshi Shah portraitEnakshi Shah (Year 4 ChemE + PEY)

Enakshi Shah is working towards completing a BASc in chemical engineering with a minor in sustainability and a certificate in business. She is passionate about programming, and is currently completing a software development internship at Nascent Digital, a digital consulting firm. She also enjoys learning about the intersection of policy and sustainable urban development, and how technology is shaping that landscape. Shah is active in helping Canada achieve its emissions reduction goals. In particular, she wants to engage young minds and develop opportunities for collaboration between students and environmental non-governmental organizations.

Marguerite Tuer-Sipos portraitMarguerite Tuer-Sipos (Year 3 MSE +PEY)

This past summer, Marguerite Tuer-Sipos participated in an international research exchange at Lund University in Sweden, where she investigated the biomaterial properties of titanium oxide for immobilizing enzymes. She will begin a PEY internship at Peel Plastics in May. Outside of academics, Tuer-Sipos enjoyed working in a TA-mentor role for first-year Materials Engineering students.

Jeremy Wang portraitJeremy Wang (Year 4 EngSci + PEY)

Jeremy Wang’s mission is to leverage aerospace and leadership development to empower society. Through the PEY internship program, he presently serves as the chief technology officer of The Sky Guys, Canada’s leader in unmanned aerial services, training and technology for industry and defense. Wang is also a part-time leadership facilitator with the U of T Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering, and was selected as one of The Next 36 in 2016. Read more about Wang’s PEY experience at U of T Engineering News.

Lingxiao Zeng portraitLingxiao Zeng (Year 3 CompE + PEY)

Lingxiao Zeng’s primary interest is software programming but she is also minoring in engineering business. This summer, she will be travelling to San Jose for a 12-month PEY internship at Intel. Zeng is involved in several student clubs, serving as vice-president of the Association of Chinese Engineers and is the co-founder of Freer, which provides volunteer opportunities in South America.

First-year engineering student Madelaine Elizabeth Shiell received an entrance scholarship but was not in attendance at the event.

This story originally appeared on U of T Engineering News.