A new monthly create series featuring engineers at the top of their game and how they got there.
In the lead up to World Environment Day, create chats with sustainability consultant and Engineers Australia member Ashley Olsson CPEng on his journey from environmental engineer to sustainability consultant.
When Chartered engineer Ashley Olsson created his first decarbonisation strategy for a company, he hadn’t even graduated from university.
“I was doing an internship with an engineering consultancy in my last year of university and that’s when I developed my first decarbonation strategy,” explained Olsson. “That was 15 years ago, before anyone was really interested in sustainability or decarbonisation.”
It was this future thinking which saw Olsson promoted from intern to environmental engineer embedding sustainability into large infrastructure projects. In the 15 years that followed, Olsson has jumped between working for a large consultancy firm, to providing engineering and strategic sustainability support in the energy sector, and back into consultancy — this time as the director of his own consulting firm Evolveable Consulting, an organisation focused on helping businesses achieve their sustainability and carbon transition goals.
“I was at a point in my career where I wanted to help drive the systemic change required to achieve a sustainable future,” reflected Olsson. “Business as usual is no longer commercially sustainable. To remain competitive, businesses need to look at their value chains and the impacts of their products or projects across their entire life cycles, by doing this early companies can identify and create long term value and resilience.”
In a world where sustainability hasn’t always been a business priority, Olsson has successfully carved his own niche within environmental engineering. create sat down with him to discover how he got there.
How did you become interested in environmental engineering?
I’ve always been passionate about the environment, even as a kid. It is why I chose to do both environmental science and engineering at university — with the engineering element I could be involved with sustainability in design, this is where you can have the largest influence and create the most value for companies.
What role throughout your career has provided you with the most learning opportunities?
Working in the energy sector across different companies allowed me to work across the full project life cycle, from the concept phase all the way through to decommissioning. From a sustainability design perspective that provided me with great exposure to key sustainability levers and business models.
Can you provide an example of the type of projects you work on?
I have worked on large energy and infrastructure projects globally, from in-field environmental studies, monitoring and gaining environmental and social approvals, through to concept design and feasibility. Those elements have fortunately provided me with a base understanding of environmental and social impacts on the ground and given me the confidence to know what is practical, not feasible or will not be environmentally acceptable.
Being able to translate that to two different teams is not easy. It’s here where my unique skill set as an environmental engineer plays a role by sitting in the middle of engineering and environmental teams and facilitating the various trade-offs and decision making to deliver sustainable outcomes.
What challenges/hurdles have you faced in your career?
Sustainability and decarbonisation for the majority of my career has been a challenge. There’s always been a hurdle to justify business cases and to quantify the trade-offs between various project criteria. But that tide has turned and it’s for the better. Now, people are embracing sustainability and see the value that it can create for businesses and stakeholders. Previously it has always been an uphill battle and the percentage of success for getting sustainability initiatives across the line at both a corporate and project level was low. At times it was challenging to stay motivated, but now everyone is keen to make a positive impact and deliver sustainable outcomes.
What do you want people to know about sustainability?
It’s no longer a ‘nice to have’, embedding sustainability into the core of your business or project will create more value in the long term. Our current rate of resource consumption is not sustainable, business models need to change from a typical linear model to more circular. We need to focus on designing out waste and pollution, valuing all resource streams, keeping products and materials in use at their highest value and regenerating natural ecosystems. Collaboration across value chains and nearby industries will be a key enabler to this, I’m a big fan of enabling industrial symbiosis.
What would you say is the best part of your job?
It’s working with people and companies that want to make a change, they’re purpose driven and dedicated to becoming more sustainable and delivering sustainable outcomes to not only their customers, but to stakeholders like the community. I’m currently advising several climate technology companies that are leveraging digital technologies to accelerate the systemic change needed across value chains to achieve sustainable outcomes. These companies are inspiring to work with and that is what energises me.
What skills have served you well over the course of your career?
It’s having that unique science and engineering background, but I also think systems thinking. Systems thinking is taking that holistic approach to a project or problem and really understanding what the core issues are and understanding how all the possible direct and indirect impact and risks are interconnected. This allows for more informed decision-making.
For example, one of the challenges I’m finding now is everyone’s so focussed on climate change and their carbon emissions, which is a good thing, but sustainability is much bigger than just carbon emissions. So a lot of our work is helping clients understand the bigger picture, making them understand their impacts in relation to other areas of concern such as biodiversity loss, resource scarcity, social issues or water usage not only in their core operations but across their value chains. All these aspects are interconnected and need to be considered to deliver truly sustainable outcomes for the future.
As an Engineers Australia member, what has helped you most within your career?
I think it’s having a network of other engineers to reach out to. I’ve been fortunate enough to have met some great mentors through Engineers Australia that has served me well.
Finally, did you have any tips for engineers looking to go into environmental engineering?
Engineers will be critical to solving the global sustainability challenges, every engineer needs to be considering sustainability and how their decisions now will impact the future. My advice is to consider the full life cycle of your projects and identify the key levers where you can make the largest positive impact. Embrace systems thinking approaches to tackle problems. Business as usual is no more, business models need to change and collaboration across value chains is crucial to achieving a sustainable future.
Do you want to hear more about engineers working across sectors to address the problem of climate change? Register your interest for the CSE22 Conference on 22-24 November 2022.