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Deon Pretorius

Deon Pretorius - Aurecon

Deon Pretorius is Aurecon's Unit Leader, - Built Environment, Africa.

Innovation and participation: The key ingredients for urban sustainability

The factors that influence society’s needs are changing at an ever increasing rate. Engineers cannot continue doing what they have always done merely because it has been tried and tested successfully in the past. 

“We need to listen to the affected parties, visualise the broader picture and make sure we have identified the correct challenges,” says Aurecon’s Deon Pretorius. 

Pretorius looks back on some of the proudest moments in his career and gives his thoughts on the challenges facing urban development.

A series of proud moments . . .

I cannot think of any one particular moment which stands out, but I can think of many achievements of which I am proud: some of which were my own, and others a team effort, or achievements of those I work with. Indeed, creating an environment in which others can achieve is something to be proud of. This does not happen as a single event, it is the result of an ongoing series of interventions facilitating individuals to reach their maximum potential.

Being able to make a difference . . .

Thinking back, every project that I have worked on is significant in its own way – from providing engineering for basic services in Cape Town’s informal settlements, such as a sewage connection or designing a simple parking area for a library, which makes a difference to the lives of people by improving access to knowledge and their future growth, to the infrastructure planning of large scale projects in the Middle East and Asia. I came to realise that although the scale of a project can be noteworthy, of greater importance is the difference that it makes to people’s lives.

Seeing projects come to fruition . . .

Shortly after joining Aurecon, I was thrown in the deep end by being handed the infrastructure planning for the Palm Deira project in Dubai, one of the largest man-made islands in the world. The master plan was still evolving, resulting in key assumptions having to be made for the transport and the utility infrastructure. While Aurecon completed the assignment, the global financial crisis (GFC) resulted in most projects in the Middle East being phased over longer periods due to subdued market demands. The development of Palm Deira is only now proceeding but it is hugely satisfying to watch this project come to fruition.

Transforming a community’s quality of life . . .

Being involved in the planning and concept design of infrastructure for the historically sensitive Walled City of Lahore, Pakistan, was a memorable project. Standard engineering solutions were simply not possible, as it was a key requirement to maintain the historic fabric and architecture of this United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) site.

The Walled City is a highly populated urban area, with sewage, stormwater and solid waste all being channelled in open channels and downstream rivers. This results in a toxic situation for the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of the Walled City, and the millions affected in the City of Lahore. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, as part of their Historic Cities Programme, commissioned Aurecon to undertake the planning and conceptual design for an infrastructure solution and has subsequently appointed Aurecon for similar complex projects.

The keys to successful project delivery . . .

Participation is without a doubt essential for successful project delivery. The key to successful delivery in precincts and estates is having the ability to listen and to instil a participatory process for developing the ideal solutions. Below optimum solutions are associated with wasted investment and high lifetime costs.

Aurecon’s strength lies in not only being able to provide cutting-edge engineering solutions, but also having the ability to communicate the value of design options to our clients. This is achieved through the use of the latest visual technologies and the integration of different technologies to enhance whole-of-life asset management.

The most important lesson learnt early in his career . . .

Humility is undoubtedly the most important lesson! You can never have all the answers and, when you think that you do, it is only a matter of time before unintended consequences become evident. The most important lesson in the built environment is that we must listen, consider the specific influences and all possible implications of an intervention, and learn from others before implementing solutions. Our own knowledge is not sufficient to make the right decisions for our cities, especially with the changing realities associated with rapid urbanisation, climate change and resource depletion. 

How precincts and estates will change over the next five years . . .

Engineers and built environment professionals, together with society as a whole, have often not done enough in terms of responding to the needs of communities. There is a marked realisation that alternative, enhanced responses to macro changes (and resulting challenges) are required. Issues of rapid urbanisation, climate change, reduced energy availability, water shortages, food security, volatile economies and the rising expectations of communities are intensifying, facilitated by technological advancements in communication and access to information. The challenge for built environment professionals is to develop solutions that address the requirements for sustainability represented by these issues.

A new approach is required in which the desired end state is the primary informant to the development of a precinct. The ultimate client, the people who will live and experience the urbanism, should have input into that desired end state. It will therefore be key that ongoing engagement with communities will be required, from the early stages through to concept and implementation.

In developing countries, financial resources are limited, which will impact on infrastructure provision and housing typologies. Also, more often than not, housing infrastructure or commercial developments are provided without adequate input or coordination with the respective engineering line departments, and transport, water and energy projects are implemented without consideration of the full impact on other infrastructures. An interdisciplinary approach is required and the built environment professional will have to play the integrating role.

Sustainable cities . . .

The word ‘sustainability’ is often used without a clear understanding of its meaning. For example, there is a particular challenge in South Africa where many large residential communities are located far away from economic opportunities, resulting in poorer households having to spend a higher proportion of their income on transport than the more affluent living in the cities. The use of the latest sustainable infrastructure solutions in these housing developments, situated remotely from economic opportunities, will not remedy this unsustainable situation. Consideration of economic opportunity, together with sustainable infrastructure is required.

Innovation is essential . . .

Innovation is becoming more important and will be essential due to limited financial resources, as well as the increasing need to respond to the macro challenges mentioned above. Innovation is adopting new ways to respond adequately to the changes that are happening around us. We cannot continue doing what we've always done as the factors that influence our thinking have changed, and will continue to do so at an increasing pace. Being innovative is about identifying the challenges and changes that are happening, and coming up with solutions that are effective. These, will often be different to the way we did things in the past.

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