Engineering the future, honored alumnus tells students how

Civil engineer Douglas Sereno delivered the annual Ira A. Fulton College honored alumnus lecture to a packed auditorium on Oct. 9, in what he said “ranks as a capstone” of his career. As director of program management for the Port of Long Beach, California, he is a “macro-engineer,” managing multi-billion dollar budgets and gargantuan infrastructure. He has helped the port become an example of cultural respect and environmental responsibility. In his lecture he advised students to be a new kind of engineer: one that can “engineer a sustainable future.”

This new engineer must break from old views and logic—he said the world’s conditions are changing, the Earth’s resources are overused and there is greater social awareness of engineers’ work.

 “We need a new engineer that will not be neutral about the environment…we are either making things better, or worse.”

This requires a complete reversal of priorities and understanding. Ultimately, he said engineers must work under the assumption that the environment is the immutable force that society and the economy depend on, and that we can’t just “fix it [the environment].”

“It requires new design approaches. We have to design with uncertainty in mind and develop new relationships, not just with the owners [of projects] but the community that will be impacted by that project…It’s possible now not just to ‘do no harm’ [to the environment] but restore the environment to a condition that it can help us regenerate the Earth,” Sereno said.

The decision to build in a way that can restore the environment is made before ground is ever broken on a project. He said engineers should look beyond the end of construction when planning and instead consider the end of the project’s life. Plan for what will happen to the materials (the concrete, steel, and other resources) of that project when the project is no longer needed.

To be this new engineer who can engineer this sustainable future, Sereno said students must:

  • Work to understand the environment and plan for environmental uncertainty
  • Increase the efficiency of resource use
  • Make the restoration of the environment a part of their projects
  • Reach beyond the owner of projects and involve the community the project will affect, and respect their cultures in the project development
  • Be extraordinary in collaboration and transparency

With this long-term perspective, Sereno tied his thoughts on sustainability back to the Gospel, referring to Doctrine and Covenants 104:15-17.

“The world [God] gave you is in your hands. You can choose to follow the commandments or violate them. The earth is not enough unless we care for it.”

Sereno’s own education was unconventional.  He didn’t go to college directly out of high school. Instead he started his career as a heavy equipment mechanic, but “a loving wife, recognizing long subdued potential, inspired me to complete my education at BYU when I was 37 years old,” he said.

After completing his degree, he “decided to go big,” working on macro engineering projects like the Port of Long Beach. He also worked as consultant program manager with Hyperion Treatment Full Secondary Expansion, which was put on American Public Works Association’s list of 10 most important civil works of the 20th century. He credits his initial passion for cultural respect and environmental sustainability to his Hawaiian heritage, only to be augmented by his work with the Sustainability Committee for the American Society of Civil Engineers.

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