Future Forward: Learn from Nature to Build Smarter Infrastructure
Ahuja is LEED Accredited and has more than 30 years of experience in sustainable building systems design, including the last 14 years as president of CCJM Engineering Infrastructure Solutions. A frequent speaker and contributor on the topics of holistic smart city development, Ahuja serves on the board of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, the U.S. Green Building Council, and chaired the Environmental and Sustainability Committee for the Chicagoland Chamber.
However, he credits his upbringing in India under very difficult conditions as the basis for much of his work on sustainability and leading a movement to design cities and systems that will protect Earth and the people who live on it.
“I grew up in India, where I lived in extreme poverty for a long period of time, especially with water and food,” notes Ahuja. “Then I traveled the world—114 countries—and I wanted to make people aware that yes, we have manmade structures, but the structure of nature is very important to understand. You need to have a love of technology and biology at the same time to understand it and do it right.”
Ahuja believes the suburban model has failed, and it has been a major contributor to some of the world’s key problems such as increased pollution and choked- off transportation. He promotes urban living, where everything is where you live, including vertical farming in high-rise buildings via hydroponics.
“The future will be urban living,” he notes. “All of the millennials will be living in urban more than suburban, and then there will be sub-country and urban, no suburban in between. Suburban is a failure; that model failed.”
Ahuja also believes humans can make do with the materials we already have, and that mining should be limited as much as possible. The focus should be on material optimization and recycling.
“Everything we have on the planet is a finite amount: water, minerals, metals, oil,” he notes. “The only thing that is infinite and comes to the planet is sunshine, and that’s the only thing that comes from the outside since the creation of the planets 4 billion years ago. Nothing has changed, we drink the same water dinosaurs drank; we’ve got a finite amount of water that recycles itself—that’s all it does.
“I believe in Big Data mining vs. Big Earth mining,” he adds.
According to Ahuja, another major problem in modern infrastructure is a lack of integration in the various governments and utilities. The departments of transportation, water and sanitation, among others, don’t talk to each other. One update made by one department causes further updates in other departments, when they should have been done at the same time for much better efficiency.
“This lack of coordination of different departments is a huge drain on the system,” adds Ahuja. “That’s very political, and it’s difficult to realign all those departments in one agency.”
If Ahuja were to give one piece of advice to young engineers so they can make the infrastructure they design more sustainable and efficient, he would tell them to focus on green infrastructure vs. hard-surface infrastructure. Engineers should use bioswales for storm water management; stream creation for some urban environments; and further adaptation so we don’t build unnecessary large-scale water-pumping stations and collection areas.
“Mother Nature manages the water, like in the forest,” he notes. “There’s no need to make hard pavements. Perforated permeable roads and pavements can manage the water, and there will be no floods; they just seep through the ground and keep the aquifers charged up properly.
“That’s something I want to tell all the civil engineers that learn the natural cycle: find the civility of nature in your civil design, and bring green infrastructure into your designs.”