VICKSBURG, Miss. – In this episode of the Engineering With Nature® (EWN) Podcast, guests Don McNeill, business development manager for Caterpillar Inc.’s Earthmoving Division and director of the Natural Infrastructure Initiative (NII), and Dr. Mike Donahue, vice president of Water Resources & Environmental Services at AECOM, discuss the need for natural infrastructure solutions.
The growing global population is putting a lot of pressure on the world's natural resources and its natural infrastructure ⸺ the forests, prairies, agricultural lands, estuaries, coasts and wetlands on which the world’s population depends. Protecting and restoring the health of our natural infrastructure is paramount to the continued enjoyment of the many economic, environmental and social benefits that it provides. McNeill and Donahue believe that sustainable natural infrastructure is critically important, and they are leading their organizations and others in taking action to promote natural infrastructure solutions as part of standard practice, rather than as an afterthought.
Caterpillar, a construction and mining equipment manufacturer, is making sustainable progress possible AECOM, an American multinational engineering firm that focuses on infrastructure design and engineering consulting, is promoting natural infrastructure solutions with clients and identifying opportunities to incorporate it in project designs. In this podcast, they talk about their efforts to find more sustainable infrastructure solutions that incorporate EWN principles and practices, therefore contributing to its evolution.
To put the infrastructure challenge in perspective, McNeill talks about a recent McKinsey Institute study that suggests approximately $3.7 trillion a year is needed in global infrastructure to adapt to population growth and sustainability goals. Unfortunately, only about $2.5 trillion a year is currently being invested. McNeill believes that increased natural infrastructure investments, with its cost-effective solutions and multiple benefits, can help shrink that $1.2 trillion gap. This thinking underlies the NII, launched in 2017 by Caterpillar.
NII brings together a group of companies and organizations to promote the use of natural infrastructure projects that advance economic vitality, environmental health and safety in communities. Membership includes the following organizations: AECOM, Brown & Root, Caterpillar, Dawson & Associates, Ducks Unlimited, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, The Nature Conservancy, the University of Georgia and recently, Conservation International.
NII’s objectives include creating awareness to support the benefits and uses of natural infrastructure; growing investments, completing and considering projects that embed natural infrastructure thinking; developing and promoting new tools, processes and capabilities to support natural infrastructure uses and investments; and advocating for policy and legislation to increase the opportunities, considerations and ultimately the quantity of natural infrastructure projects.
These objectives are well aligned with the forward-looking approach of EWN. Donahue talks about AECOM’s work with USACE on nature-based engineering pilot projects and the two organizations’ collaboration on the development of the Natural Infrastructure Opportunities Tool, a means of sharing information and identifying opportunities for developing on-the-ground natural infrastructure solutions.
As McNeill and Donahue emphasize, the ultimate goal is to see natural infrastructure solutions become institutionalized in the analysis of project options ⸺ not added on as an afterthought. Sometimes built infrastructure is the right solution, sometimes natural infrastructure is best and sometimes a hybrid solution combining both will be the most effective. McNeill said, “When we're talking about natural infrastructure, this is an ‘and’ and not an ‘or’.” The trend toward greater acceptance of natural infrastructure solutions will continue and grow.