This is a transcript of the speech Cris Liban, chief sustainability officer for Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation gave after being named ENR's 2020 Award of Excellence winner for his work in promoting sustainability. See a video recording of his speech here.
I would like to thank ENR for recognizing almost three decades of my work in the environmental science and engineering profession. No one can ever predict where their careers will go. I started out thinking I could solve the economic problems of the Philippines through my discovery of the largest oilfield in the country. I had very idealistic hopes back then.
[Read ENR's cover story on Cris Liban here]
Today, I want to focus on three things: practice … civility … and engineering.
On practice, I would like to explore the paradigm shift that has changed how we develop, build and maintain our infrastructure.
To be “civil” refers to being a good citizen and showing respect. I would also like to expand on infrastructure’s role in reducing social tensions of the past few months. Finally, I will share how engineering, engineers and this industry are making a difference in peoples' lives.
The State of Practice
Engineering is built on codes, standards and practice derived from data that has not foundationally changed. A wealth of historical empirical data combined with “factors of safety” has guided construction of infrastructure intended to be long-lived, safe, reliable and cost-effective.
But the conditions upon which these assumptions are based have changed, and continue to change.
Whether it be the results of global pandemic or the environment, one thing is obvious and true—we need to revisit the “how.”
How do we adapt to a set of fundamentally different infrastructure design assumptions and conditions? How do we proceed with project development, design, procurement, construction, operations and maintenance when all of the things we know are challenged by current events?
We now live in a world where an unseen enemy has killed many loved ones and friends. We now live in a world where the fear of getting close to people we know paralyzes us. We live in a world where the closest we feel and touch and experience our day-to-day lives is through a virtual meeting.
I miss the moments when I could pick up my bags in the morning, walk through the neighborhood, stand by the bus stop, and interact with other human beings. I miss those days when at the spur of the moment, my wife and I would go to watch a movie and then eat in a local restaurant.
I miss those days when my son and I would go to the local ice cream shop and talk about his childhood, when I could mentor him on how to prepare for life. I miss those days when interacting with co-workers meant sitting across the table, watching the body language, and coming to consensus on difficult decisions. Our lifestyles have changed.
The challenge is how to evolve our practice given our new set of realities. Conduct of business in a mostly virtual world has changed how we interact, but has simultaneously accelerated the paradigm of a boundless world.
Several weeks ago, I started my day in a meeting with academics and engineers from the UK, Australia and Asia, I also met with colleagues from the American Society of Civil Engineers scattered around the globe, then spent the rest of the day discussing project issues and solutions with my staff who are working across the Los Angeles region. That evening I spoke at a career forum, then capped off the day with a late dinner with my parents, wife and son. This is a typical day. Exciting but exhausting. In a virtual world, there is no travel time to wind down. You go virtually from continent to continent—from one event to another in rapid succession.
Our practice needs to change to design to this level of need. There is a shift in how the infrastructure of the future will serve us.
[Watch the ENR video about Cris Liban's work here.]
Civil: Reflections on Life
I was born more than half a century ago in the Philippines. I spent about a quarter of my life there—enough time to experience life under the shadow of a political dictator and enough to come of age and realize what kind of life the majority of my fellow citizens had.
It also was enough time to find my identity as a Filipino, enough to compare a developed world lifestyle with that of a developing nation, and enough to be able to reflect on how lucky I am to have grown in the midst of all that poverty and realize a life mission to do whatever it takes to economically elevate the lives of everyone—Filipinos and other global citizens alike.
Living in the Philippines exposed me to people who live in a makeshift home where the bathroom is a hole in the middle of the bedroom. I appreciate eating all the food I have, after seeing young kids pick scraps from trash bins and collectively reheat all that combined “food” for dinner. I appreciate the value of work because I have seen men and women sell items to make a few pesos to buy a can of sardines and a quarter kilo of rice to feed a family of six.
I want to introduce to you the Philippines I know because I have also seen many of my previous life experiences here in the US. We have a shared history.
For over 300 years, conquerors repressed the voice of the Filipino. When the people finally had courage to declare independence, their voices were again repressed for almost 50 years. Leaders in that momentous time were put down, killed, or massacred as examples to keep anyone else from speaking up.
Here in the US, we are in a moment in history where repressed voices are slowly being heard. We are at a time when we need not pander— but instead need to ponder on how human beings can peacefully co-exist. We are at a moment in our lives when barriers of racial interaction need to be completely broken down. We are at a moment in time when our common tragedies resulting from this pandemic could help unite us.
The same pandemic, however, is threatening that core desire to be one human race—to gather in offices, at concerts and on buses and trains and in that cacophony of conversations where we can hear about people’s lives. We go outside, but avoid closer than six feet from one another.
Engineering our Human Moment
Change—especially that involves engineering for change—is a very challenging task. Whether we’re talking about infrastructure or about a process, a sentiment or an action toward public good, “engineering” as a word can take on very broad definitions.
I began my career as a scientist, trained to use the scientific method to verify a hypothesis. I discovered that I needed to re-invent how I approach things. Trying to understand the problem is a good way to do things, but dealing with the problem head-on results in the most efficient and fulfilling way to resolve issues.
Armed with that discovery, I learned and lived the way of the engineer.
I am an ardent student of human character, focused on that to understand how I can engage with individuals for consistent win-win situations. It often works, but not always. In a virtual and post-lockdown world, I need to re-invent my strategy to work through the new rules of human interaction.
Who will lead the discussion? Who will facilitate the solution?
I spoke on a keynote panel on climate change in the fall of 2019 along with realtors, logistics officers and finance executives of trade organizations. I spoke on behalf of ASCE.
The animated discussion turned to a unified assertion from my fellow panelists: “You Dr. Liban and your fellow engineers are the ones missing in the conversation. As the masters of change, engineers need to lead the way—not just in technical adeptness but to insure that action and implementation happen.”
Reflecting on that reality, I saw myself in the middle of it all; and for a moment, I was overwhelmed.
I look back at my career and I say, yes, job well done. Something my parents, my siblings, my wife and child could be proud of.
But looking back should not be the endpoint, it is looking forward that is more challenging. And that challenge ladies and gentlemen, is the engineering of our human moment.
Our Time is Now
There has been significant attention on my life related to this award. I am not the son of some famous person. I come from a middle class family in a developing nation, whose people are generally regarded as great workers but not great leaders. I am an engineering convert who happens to be socially aligned and in tune with the pulse of his community.
I am an immigrant who on my own decided to uproot myself because of an opportunity that my parents gave me.
I chose to live and grow old in my adopted land of the United States of America. But I also chose to keep my Filipino identity because I wanted to help my son JP and his offspring appreciate the melding of our Philippine traits and traditions with the Californian and American culture that he came to know.
The Filipino people have recognized my career by bestowing me their highest civilian honor for Filipinos living overseas, which I received almost four years ago to the day. Today, I am being honored by ENR, the bible of the construction industry, for the positive difference I am making in the infrastructure that we need and enjoy.
I reflect on the timing of this Award of Excellence. There were almost as many men and women that have preceded me in this moment as I am alive.
How many past awardees have fulfilled their promise? How many have used the opportunity of a platform like this to finally articulate the message they really want people to hear? How many of those messages had such tectonic impact in people’s lives that the words not only resonated, but also made people go out of their way and actually CHANGE their lives?
I leave you with one anecdote. One morning while on the bus to work, a younger person sat beside me and said, “Dr. Liban, you probably would not remember, but you spoke about your career when I was in fifth grade. I want to let you know that I am going to Cal State Los Angeles to be a civil engineer. My parents did not go past elementary school. My aunts, my siblings, my cousins, well, none of them went to college. I am the first one.” At the next stop, he got off the bus.
You never know how much impact you have until the day when someone like this kid approaches you with a story of triumph. You will never know how things turned out, until you piece together the smaller outcomes leading up to the big result.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are faced with multiple crises: the pandemic, the environment, and social tensions.
Politics aside, the crises of human, infrastructure, and environmental interaction are exacerbated by shifts in the conduct of our daily lives. The level of human interaction, at least for now, is reduced for the most part to the face on the screen.
But some traits in the Filipino culture can resonate with you—traits that may not be unique, but I point them out so you can consider them in dealing with the crisis of the moment and the looming climate crisis of the future.
Be resilient, take pride in your humanity and in your relationships with other races and cultures. Draw strength from the inspiration of others and of a higher power. Be respectful, help one another, value your identity while appreciating others.
Love what you build and appreciate the legacy it leaves for future generations. But most of all, have fun in this life. We only have one, so make the best use of it—for this industry and for the communities that infrastructure serves while least impacting our planet and bringing prosperity and access to all.
I hope to see all of you one day on the street, or on the bus, or at another event and talk about how what you heard here today influenced your life and the lives of others.
“Influence does not matter if one does not effect a difference in other people’s lives.”
Salamat. Thank you! God bless us all!