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Re-Engineering the Engineering Profession For the 21st Century

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The late19th century and early 20th century was a time of tremendous innovation and creativity within the water and wastewater industries. Large portions of North America and Europe had been transformed by the industrial revolution from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing economy, introducing major socioeconomic and cultural change as population shifted from rural farming areas to densely populated urban areas to support new textile and manufacturing industries. In response to these changed conditions, environmental engineers (then known as civil or sanitary engineers) adopted a completely new mindset with regard to water quality and sanitation issues. New technologies, such as the activated sludge process for wastewater treatment and rapid sand filtration for water treatment, were developed and implemented on a wide scale; centralized water and wastewater collection systems became an essential part of urban planning; and the importance of infrastructure investment was recognized and acted upon by both political leaders and the general public. The ability of the engineering profession to apply original, resourceful thinking to a fundamental change in societal conditions created enormous advances in public health and environmental protection and, in many ways, provided the foundation for the success of the new industrialized economy of the 20th century.

Similarly, the engineering profession today is at a defining moment; the cumulative effect of increased rapid world population growth and urbanization, water scarcity, climate change, and an increased demand for energy and limited natural resources have created the need for a sea change within the water and environmental management industry. As in the early years of the 20th century, the early years of the 21st century present a dramatically changed set of world conditions that demand a break with traditional practice and a fresh look at emerging technologies and innovative water and environmental management strategies. A new, more sustainable mindset will be required as the engineering profession turns its attention to the major issues of the 21st century. As was the case 100 years ago, the ability of the engineering profession to develop and implement on a wide scale new solutions to rapidly changing world conditions will have a major impact on economic and quality of life issues for the next several decades.

This paper will examine some of the changes in project approach and mindset that will be required for the environmental engineering profession to make this transition and meet the challenges of a new century, drawing upon the lessons of the previous century.
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Keywords: Sustainability; biosolids reuse; history of water treatment

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2010-01-01

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