The TH Interview: Chris Luebkeman, Director for Global Foresight and Innovation, Arup

Trained as a geologist, engineer and architect, Chris Luebkeman describes his job as "helping people think constructively about the future." His official title is Director for Global Foresight and Innovation at Arup, a global engineering firm that is actively involved in several cutting edge projects around the world.

We caught up with him recently at the Ecocity World Summit in San Francisco to talk about his work at Arup, the future of the global economy, and his ubiquitous bow tie ("a regular tie is too long for an engineer to wear at his desk, it gets in the way").

Chris Luebkeman: It is my observation that by optimizing the now, we forget to pause periodically to question if what we are doing now is the right thing — could (or should) we be doing things differently?

In the corporate world, decisions tend to be made very quickly. Once a business person can see a context, they are required to make a decision. With the continued globalization of industries of all kinds, we need to change corporate mindsets. By doing so, I believe we will have the greatest impact in dealing with the challenges currently facing the world.TreeHugger: What is an average day at the office like for you?

I spend, on average, about four days out of the week traveling, so there is no such thing as an average day at the office for me.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, I was in Los Angeles, California hosting a conversation with four major entertainment groups about the future of themed entertainment parks, with a focus on sustainability. That was a day at the office.

Shortly thereafter, I was in Cremona, Italy, the home of Stradivarius and the violin-making capital of the world. Arup is engaged in a project with the city to help them consider what the next generation of a musical experience visualization suite might be. When an artist purchases a violin, they like to play it, to hold it in their hands. A violin is a living object, it expresses itself differently in different spaces. I help them to hear the sound without leaving the room.

TH: What you are describing is not what we would expect from an engineering firm. How would you describe the work that Arup does?

CL: Arup is a series of vectors with a direction, a velocity and a common origin — in building engineering. Everything that we do flows from that common origin. Our focus is on integrated design, meaning we pull all of the different building and engineering professions together in one team. For example, we have people whose focus is on human behavior in spaces. This method gives us better results than using segregated design groups.

We design everything that could make up the components of a city. It all focuses on the built environment — not making sausages or growing rice. Our job is to create environmental systems which support healthy and balanced living within the built environment. This involves layers of interactions between natural and artificial systems, all of which allow you and me to sit here today.

We're on a journey with this, trying to understand these interactions as engineers and designers. Take bread, for example, a basic carbohydrate. Today, bread is shipped all over the place, and this movement requires enormous amounts of energy. So we ask the question, could these basic carbohydrates be produced locally? It is the same with all nutrients and minerals, you have to ask the question — where do they come from? It is the same with water, why do we flush our toilets with drinking water? And eliminating garbage; it is all a huge opportunity. This relates to the Factor 10 approach to radically increasing the productivity of the resources that we use.

When I went into engineering in the 1970's, we were building bridges and roads to make the world better. Today the context has changed completely.

TH: Your job is to predict future trends. What are the major trends currently looming on the horizon that are likely to have an effect on Arup's work and on people's lifestyles in the future?

CL: First of all, I don't make predictions. I like to help people articulate what they already know. I try to help people describe their context and future contexts. There is no singular reality, rather there are always two sides to every story. I share observations, I do not predict.

If I look ahead, and these are observations , we already know that in the near- to mid-term, we will no longer be able to afford to ship goods all over the world. This is due to rising fuel costs owing to resource depletion. This will lead to a re-localization of manufacturing in countries all over the world.

Difficult issues are inevitably brought up. For example, the "poisoned chalice" of the service economy. Every country in the world is trying to move toward a service-based economy, as the US has done. China has made this a goal in its 2007 five-year plan. The "services" in a service economy are generally understood to be professional services — doctors, tech professionals, etc. But what about farmers? They provide an incredible service. We engineers provide a service with our PhD's, but a healthy ecosystem has everything from the humble ant to the mighty lion, from amoebas to leaves.

I think we will reach a breaking point regarding the wealth gap sometime very soon. Historically, when the gap between rich and poor becomes critically unsustainable, that is when you see revolutions and major geopolitical shifts. We're not quite there yet, but we're not very far either.

Sooner or later, a single person receiving a bonus of $6 billion will become obscenely intolerable in the face of the reality of the overwhelming majority of humanity.

TH: Can a project like Dongtan, which Arup is planning in China, really compensate for future trends such as these, when already today we are struggling to deal with current challenges and limitations?

CL: China has been incredibly clever, they used the US to kick start their economy, and now their internal demand will pick up any slack. They've never had an internal consumption economy, but they will build one through foresight and good planning.

It's not a matter of this or that project compensating for all future change — every little bit has to help. What we are trying to do with projects like Dongtan, and ecocity projects elsewhere, is to continually raise the bar.

Left: Dongtan ecocity in China. Raising the bar for cities.

Take LEED, for example. LEED has finally become an accepted standard for green building in the United States, but now they have to refine and improve the system if it is to remain relevant - something which I sincerely hope will continue to occur. Our approach is similar, we challenge ourselves to constantly set higher standards for sustainability.

TH: Are you optimistic about the future?

CL: It saddens me that my grandchildren will never see a polar bear. Still, I'm optimistic. It's a matter of each individual believing that they can make a difference. Every individual has to act, we carry a communal responsibility. It's not yet a tidal wave, but it's starting to happen. I'm optimistic.