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ESD200 Sustainability Methods and Metrics

ESD E200

Sustainability Methods and Metrics

 Leader:           Professor Dick Fenner  

Timing:           Michaelmas Term

Structure:        Eight 2-hour sessions in Weeks 1 to 8: plus coursework assignments.


The module will examine representations of sustainable development, as a value laden term and contrast classical reductionist approaches to engineering problem solving with the need for a multi-perspective view of defining problems in complex socio-technical systems. The role of engineering decision making in an uncertain world operating under the new paradigm of post normal science will be explored with the core aim of achieving a mindset change in how graduates from the MPhil programme think about engineering problems. The focus will be on the introduction of a range of tools and techniques which can lead to quantifiable metrics and indicators that can test whether engineering decisions are sustainable, with a balanced critical overview of their applicability and limitations. The module will include introductions to techniques including basic System Dynamics, Life Cycle Analysis, ecological footprinting, carbon accounting, and whole life costs, ecosystem services valuation and agent based modelling.  Such techniques can generate a wide range of disparate output information and this needs to be structured in a systematic way using multi criteria decision making tools, whilst uncertainty in future engineering design will be addressed through a consideration of real options appraisal and agent based modelling. Social science tools and paradigms will be introduced.

Key themes:

Dealing with complexity requires a systems approach

Dealing with uncertainty through risk based decision making

Dealing with other disciplines by building multidisciplinary teams

Dealing with environmental limits by assessing the impact on resources and ecosystem services and ensuring pollution control

Dealing with project externalities by calculating whole life costs and ecological evaluation.


Principles, mindsets and complexity; discussion of sustainability as a contested concept; engineering consequences at the systems level, uncertainty,  multi-perspective viewpoints, working from the rational to the post normal. Widening horizons: enlarging the system boundary ( to include values, constraints and processes).

Introduction to systems thinking, patterns of behavior and system structure, feedback loops and causal loop diagrams, leverage points, stocks , flows and dynamic equilibrium, stock flow models, effect of time delays on system behaviour; system surprises and non-intuitive outcomes

Introduction to Life Cycle Analysis ; goal and scope definition, inventory analysis, impact assessment ( impact categories) , interpretation and presentation of results (normalization and weighting  procedures) ; functional units, ISO allocation procedures, calculating environmental burdens what can go wrong, eco auditing, case study examples . Unresolved problems in LCA. Carbon accounting procedures and carbon footprints, PAS 2080: (2016)  for carbon management in Infrastructure: UKWIR carbon accounting in the water industry.

Multi criteria decision analysis (MCDA): The decision making process: structuring the problem, modelling the preferences, alternative evaluations, making recommendations. Specific techniques: simple comparison matrix; Analytical Hierarchy Process (AHP), pairwise comparisons, comparison matrices, consistency ratio, generating global priorities. Rank reversal Electre method, concordance / discordance analysis. Designing for uncertainty, real options analysis.

Ecosystem services valuation; ecosystem functions and structure: provisioning, regulating, cultural and support services types of value (use value, option value, bequest value, non-use value, existence value). Principles of ecological economics. Total economic value (TEV) framework, Economic valuation (revealed preference methods, stated preference methods); examples using  hedonic pricing, travel cost methods, contingent valuation. Valuation tools for appraising multiple benefits

Social science tools and paradigms. Qualitative research methods. Conducting qualitative interviews. Agent based modelling, determining agent rules and behaviours, opinion dynamics, Use on Net Logo. Example for flood evacuation.

Learning Objectives

(also supported through the Seminar Programme  and other related activities including the self reflective learning logs):

To enable students:

  • To explore   mechanisms  by  which  sustainability  can  be  introduced  into  engineering  practice  and  its implementation assessed and evaluated.
  • To examine ways of providing better problem definition and needs assessment, when formulating engineering plans and conducting option appraisals.
  • To develop an engineering discipline mind-set which is capable of meeting pressing  environmental and social concerns as well as pursuing commercial opportunity.
  • To select suitable methodologies for the evaluation of sustainability in a variety of contexts and to understand their limitations
  • To converse with specialists from different disciplines and to think critically about issues in these disciplines (economics, social science etc) and their relationship with engineering practice.


Assessment:  100% coursework

Indicative items ( may vary from year to year):

3 submissions covering

i) System Dynamics 

ii) MCDA using AHP 

iii) General book review 

NB.  Coursework submissions are intentionally open ended, in some cases  allowing the freedom for students to adapt briefs to reflect their own engineering backgrounds, interests and aspirations as well as seeking a demonstration of understanding of any specific  techniques involved, clarity of argument and reasoning, novelty and originality in arriving at a response, reference to both an engineering and sustainability context, and a reflection on the process and outcomes achieved
Detailed criteria by which the work will be assessed are provided on the individual assignment briefing sheets issued at the start of the teaching of each module.


NB: Modules and structure of the MPhil are subject to change year on year. This information is representative of the 18-19 structure but options may not be available in future years.