Professor Cheryl Desha is reimagining our cities, creating places that are more resilient, more pleasant, and more attuned to the wider world.
When Engineers Australia Fellow and Chartered engineer Professor Cheryl Desha FIEAust CPEng looks at the world, she sees connections.
Trained as an environmental engineer, Desha develops systems that strengthen the resilience of our cities, our communities and our lives. And she is well aware that these things depend deeply on one another.
“As nature has webs through its forests, you can think about that as being a metaphor for our cities,” she told create. “Our cities are intricately connected with our rural and remote townships.”
Today, she works on building this sense of interconnectedness at Griffith University’s Cities Research Institute (CRI), a multidisciplinary organisation addressing important questions facing urban areas in Australia and internationally.
Desha’s interest in the interlocking connections making up our world began, however, in an island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
“I was born in Mauritius, and our family immigrated to Australia in 1981 through Dad’s civil engineering work with Queensland’s Hay Point coal terminal. We went back often to stay with family for holidays,” she recalled. “At the top of the island there’s a beautiful beach that we walked through on Christmas Eve, and everyone was having a party and it was absolutely gorgeous.
“The next morning, we took a morning walk, and it was just devastated. There was rubbish everywhere; the Coke cans and fruit and veg and plastic were all floating out on the outgoing tide of this beautiful coral reef.”
She knew then that she wanted to make a difference: to develop a relationship with the world that was about taking care of it as well as enjoying it.
“As an 11-year-old that epiphany for me changed my life,” she said.
“Mauritius was a catalyst for me to think about the planet as an island, and … these last two years in particular have connected people to think about living in a world rather than living in a city, in a state, in a country.”
Expanding our mindset to encompass the world as a whole, Desha believes, will be crucial to dealing with the challenges of climate change, responding to disasters and continuing to rapidly curb carbon emissions.
From fire to flood to more intense storms and heat waves, climate change is bringing about a world in which resilience will matter more than ever for our cities. But for Desha, resilient engineering is about how the solutions affect the planet too.
“For me as an environmental engineer, to ensure that our communities are safe, we have to ensure safe planetary conditions,” she explained. “I think this will be an ongoing tension going forward. We must harness opportunities in disaster prevention, preparedness, response and recovery — known as PPRR — to ‘build back better’ and adapt our infrastructure to changing conditions.”
Living in South-East Queensland, Desha is keenly aware of this tension. She describes it as a “hotspot within a hotspot”.
“Queensland receives nearly two-thirds of the nation’s disasters,” she explained. “When we look back at the last decade of expenditure from a government context, in Queensland around $16 billion has been spent on response and recovery — R and R — and about $0.25 billion on prevention and planning.”
It’s a skewed balance, and one she wants to address.
“As we face ongoing adversity in increasingly severe and frequent weather patterns, we can actually reduce the stress for communities around the impacts that those disasters have,” she said.
For Desha, this means designing new infrastructure and refurbishments with a systems approach and keeping future conditions in mind.
“It’s protecting one road by increasing its height so that it will still be usable in the next flood event to allow freight, fresh food, fresh water, and critical medical services to be able to traffic that road,” she suggested.
“Or it may be letting that road be inundated and ensuring that there’s another route. It might be longer but it’s usable, and … the population knows to detour to that other infrastructure.”
Another weak spot Desha identifies is the energy grid. She believes there are more resilient ways to store and disseminate energy, such as using battery systems, increasing efficiency and embracing renewable resources.
“No kidding, our energy grid can be seen from space,” she said.
“We have a $21 billion energy grid that is above the ground that is at the whim of wind, fire, flood, so we can still use that grid and we can use it better.”
In 2021, Desha was recognised by Engineers Australia as Queensland Professional Engineer of the Year, after having been listed as a finalist the year prior. She’s proud that the award recognises her work as an academic engineer, saying it shows the strengthening links between engineers in universities and industry.
“No academic should be away industry for more than five years, as the workplace is changing so rapidly” she said.
“For me, working as Griffith’s end-user coordinator for a building in our Brisbane campus at Nathan was a way to keep current with sustainable design briefs, digital innovations, low-carbon procurement issues, and an unprecedented opportunity to design a multi-purpose building for disaster-management and resilience within a great learning and teaching facility.”
That building — Griffith University’s new Engineering, Technology and Aviation Building, also known as N79 — represents a major step forward in universities using their campuses for disaster management related civic duties.
The location of the building alone reflects Desha’s design principles; it’s a 10-minute drive from the centre of Brisbane, but is nestled in forest and proximate to other important government and health infrastructure. It is a place to prepare for an uncertain future.
“Nature-inspired, nature-loving, place-based design is my technical passion,” she said. “When I think about the benefits of biophilic design, nature-loving design, as an environmental engineer, it’s about enabling people to think well.”
Under Desha’s oversight, the N79 building expanded from four storeys to six and accommodates a disaster management facility that can operate alongside the teaching and learning operations of the building. Desha described it as combining Transformers, The X-Men and MacGyver in its versatility.
The core of this facility is level one, which features a central control room, an operations room, a broadcasting room, and a 20-screen video wall. In disaster response mode, however, the facility can annex ancillary spaces, taking advantage of fully operable walls to convert teaching spaces into auditoriums, call centres and refectories.
Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Superintendent Doug May sees the facility’s value.
“The concept of a dual use education and disaster management building, like N79, builds resilience into the disaster management arena,” he said.
“We have created a pretty cool building within a reasonable budget,” Desha said.
“Let’s have this dual-use for disaster management be copied by other universities — let’s have this go viral and enable public spaces in Australia and overseas to provide really effective environments for great thinking and decision-making.”
As well as its use as a resilience and management facility, N79 also offers students a rich learning space. It is complete with everything from a virtual reality simulation studio with optical motion capture to an aviation flight simulator and a five-tonne gantry capable of supporting vehicles or small planes.
Desha wants the space to support its users’ ability to address complex problems, such as climate change or population growth. That means a space that connects users to the world in which they work.
“Having immediate access to long views of nature immediately outside the building, being able to experience the weather patterns as they’re happening,” she said. “They all allow our brain to feel comfortable and confident to think in the present rather than relying on past patterns for quick-response fight or flight.”
Another of N79’s more ingenious features came through collaboration with one of Desha’s colleagues, civil engineer Professor Hong Guan, who leads the CRI’s Building Science and Construction Innovation theme.
“I discussed with her putting some sensors in the building,” Guan told create.
“I saw it as a very good opportunity because, once the building is built, sometimes it’s difficult to install, for example, underground sensors and even … above-ground sensors.”
Embedding these sensors, which measure information about the building’s energy, water and structural performance, during the construction stage means that the finished structure can be monitored through its service life for defects and structural changes.
“We could look at the foundation behaviour — settlement, for example,” said Guan. “And then, above-ground, we look at concrete slab deflection … We can look at acceleration, like when people are walking on the stairs. On the floor, there will be vibration, so we could collect the vibration data, and then we can check if all the structural responses are within the allowable range or becoming abnormal.”
Although doing so would require further research and development, Guan said it could even be possible to design algorithms that forecast the future health status of the building.
Guan is, like Desha, a member of CRI, but her work focuses on the structural engineering details of a city’s infrastructure rather than Desha’s broad purview.
“Our focus is mainly on how to improve the integrity, safety, and the robustness of buildings and civil infrastructure like bridges,” Guan said.
But these details of infrastructure nonetheless link to a city’s broader network.
“You look at the city as an organic whole, because you want the whole city to be well-managed and functional,” Guan said.
That’s where the value of combining different engineering perspectives, and the perspectives of other disciplines, becomes clear.
“You need different expertise to contribute to make sure your city is well operated,” Guan said. “And in the case of emergency or disaster, we need to look at how to recover and recover quickly, and to manage effectively so that the city can still operate as usual without too much interruption. So, in looking at the resilience of a city and community, a lot of disciplines can contribute.”
And as cities face increasing environmental challenges, resilience plays a more important part in their engineering.
“How do we look at the future?,” Guan said.
“How, in terms of resources available, how to do things more sustainably and more environmentally friendly?”
As a former Queensland Inspector General of Emergency Management, CRI Adjunct Industry Fellow Iain MacKenzie has had plenty of experience confronting questions of resilience and risk.
When disaster strikes, he says, society’s complex network of interconnected systems is stressed, causing confusion and tension.
“Every decision we make will some way affect these feelings,” he said. “Instead of planning to deal with the impact of disasters, we need to move to knowing and countering the consequences that will be faced — and on scales we have not previously encountered so that ‘unprecedented’ no longer justifies a failure of imagination.”
He said the COVID-19 pandemic is an example of the need for better approaches.
“While the health impacts are shocking, consequences have stretched across all aspects of society, including employment, education, transport, supply chains, construction, health infrastructure, manufacturing, hospitality, tourism, and energy sectors,” he said.
In the 1990s, when Desha’s engineering career began, environmental engineering was about triaging urgent pollution management. She saw however that her engineering would have to expand its purview. This is one reason she values biomimicry — innovation inspired by nature — as an approach.
“In nature we don’t see problems; we see systems working together extraordinarily well,” she said. “It’s actually working in that problem space and creating opportunities from it, so where there’s a problem there’s an opportunity.”
Her work at CRI helps her to put this approach into practice.
“As an environmental engineer, I was trained to be interdisciplinary in my approach to problem solving. At the Cities Research Institute we have engineers, designers, architects, planners, economists, scientists, agricultural scientists, energy scientists all considering complex problem solving,” she said.
“And that really excites me. So a typical day in the office, even in our virtual office, involves … talking across the areas of the university — from the health group, the sciences group, the business school.”
That permits Desha to draw on the full community of professional engineers, along with their tools and technologies.
“I’m in paradise,” she said.
The Engineer of the Year 2021 winners will be announced 1 March. To view the full list of finalists, visit our awards website.