Environmental engineer Declan Clausen was first elected to Newcastle City Council in 2015 at the age of 22, while he was still an undergraduate at university. Today, he is the youngest person to ever serve as Deputy Lord Mayor of Newcastle.
We ask him why politicians should care about engineering and how his background has informed his career in government, and get the details on how a focus on innovative ideas is transforming his city.
create: What attracted you to engineering?
DECLAN CLAUSEN: Right through primary school and high school I was interested in science. I was quite involved in a lot of environmental projects while at school and had some interesting discussions with mentors about choosing careers.
Originally, I was thinking about studying something like environmental science and law, but I was advised that there might be greater benefit in having something more practical.
So I selected environmental engineering as a profession that covered a broad range of different environmental problems but also, and probably most critically, had the ability to solve some of those problems rather than just observing that they exist.
create: How did you become interested in environmental concerns?
DC: Something that was quite formative in my thinking around it was Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers book, which came out when I was just starting high school. It really laid out the science of climate change and the impact that humans were having on the natural environment.
Environmental engineering fit in very well because the subject matter it covers is particularly relevant to some of the struggles that we have in this space.
create: Should engineers care more about politics? Should politicians care more about engineering?
DC: Engineers — and technical people right across the spectrum — need to be more involved and engaged in politics. It’s easy for a technical person to understand the best technical response to any given problem, but work and effort is required to have a technical response initiated as policy.
In addition to having technical expertise, we need engineers who understand how policy happens in order to get good outcomes. And, equally, politicians should absolutely pay attention to engineers. They’re the subject matter experts and also quite a large portion of the community.
I think that engineers, particularly in the past, haven’t done the best job in demonstrating their size and the degree of influence, and just how well connected they are as a profession.
create: How has engineering helped you achieve things in politics?
DC: An engineering degree is all about being able to analyse and solve problems, and politics exists to help solve complex problems. The research and analytical skills that come along with engineering are really handy, as well as understanding the implementation process — understanding how infrastructure decisions are put together.
Something that I’ve tried to challenge and understand are the path dependencies of the infrastructure decisions that we’re making.
create: What environmental challenges have you applied your expertise to?
DC: Newcastle is a coastal city. Like all coastal cities, the implications of climate change and sea-level rise are significant and require engineering solutions. We’re also a large user of energy and so, at the moment, one of the major projects that I have been involved in initiating and championing is a large-scale 5-megawatt solar farm that is currently under construction.
The contemporary environmental problems in Newcastle probably aren’t all that different to those of other similar large cities, but the local context is important, and they do require a unique solution in each of the different areas.
create: How is Newcastle’s Smart City Program transforming the area?
DC: There are two projects that are worth talking about. One is the Hunter Innovation Project, the key components of which are about delivery of city-wide, free public WiFi. The city’s rolling out its own fibre-optic network in the CBD and changing streetlights to high-efficiency LED — but the poles also have WiFi active.
It also is about putting an innovation hub in the city. We’ve partnered with the University of Newcastle — it’ll open as part of their new Honeysuckle Campus. The particular innovation strength of Newcastle is we’re not really trying to replicate what Sydney or others are doing in the fintech space; it’s really a focus on energy-style innovation and technologies, and manufacturing-style innovation and technologies, which go back to the city’s roots as an energy and steel town.
The second part of our Smart City work is called Smart Moves, and it’s about partnering again with the university, but also the local transport provider Keolis Downer, looking at deployment of autonomous vehicles. That will make use of the smart poles and the fibre-optics we’ve put in.
create: What has been your biggest achievement on council?
DC: Getting our large solar farm off the ground. The work that was required across the council, but also working with people like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to make sure it was viable, was a pretty challenging period, but it is a project that I think sends a very strong signal about the direction of Newcastle and the action that we’re taking as a city to address climate change. It won’t be our only action in this space, but it is an important symbol of the future of the city.
It will be the first live solar farm in Australia on top of a closed landfill site. It’s at our Summerhill Waste Management Centre on closed landfills, and it’s really hard to do anything once you’re finished with a landfill — they just become these barren grassed areas. That’s not the best use of the land, but something that is compatible is to locate a large solar farm on it instead.
This article originally appeared as “Spotlight: Declan Clausen” in the December 2018 issue of create magazine.