Microlecture Series in Sustainable Living: Building a better future with Usman Khan

Globe and York branded box for the Microlecture Series launch

York University’s free Microlecture Series in Sustainable Living is an innovative, interdisciplinary and open access program that gives participants the opportunity to earn a first-of-its-kind digital badge in sustainable living.

Throughout the Microlecture Series in Sustainable Living, six of York University’s world-renowned experts share research, thoughts and advice on a range of critical topics related to sustainability. Their leadership and expertise, however, extends beyond the six-minute presentations.

Over the next several weeks, YFile will present a six-part series featuring the professors’ work, their expert insights into York’s contributions to sustainability, and how accepting the responsibility of being a sustainable living ambassador can help right the future.

Usman Khan
Usman Khan

Part three features Associate Professor Usman Khan.

Usman Khan is an associate professor of civil engineering at the Lassonde School of Engineering. His research interests lie in water resources engineering, focusing on urban hydrology, including flood risk assessment and uncertainty analysis, sustainable water resource management and infrastructure, and the impacts of climate change on these systems. Khan specializes in developing novel machine learning and artificial intelligence methods for various engineering applications. The role of civil engineering in creating vibrant, liveable and sustainable cities is a strong motivator for Khan. He is committed to using his professional practice to meet the challenges that face the urban environment. 

Q: What does it mean to be a “sustainable living ambassador” and how does it foster positive change? 
Being a “sustainable living ambassador” means, first, that you’re committed to learning about global sustainability problems, such as the climate crises, and second, that you’re committed to creating positive change in your community – either through direct action or through advocacy. As more people become ambassadors, I hope the discussions about sustainability on campus increase and that these discussions then lead to positive change on our campuses. Sustainability is an integral component of our University’s mission (University Academic Plan) and therefore, I think the York community should be well-versed in the topic.

Q: What would make you most proud for viewers to take away from your lecture, and the series as a whole?
The role of engineers in designing and creating a more sustainable world is under-appreciated. I hope that viewers who watch my lecture understand how important a role engineering design can have on sustainability in our communities. The design of engineering infrastructure – even relatively simple technologies to manage stormwater – influences each component of sustainability: environmental, social and economical. I want viewers to learn that, indeed, there are more sustainable options for stormwater management, and deciding who receives this sustainability benefit is an important decision. We should be demanding more sustainable solutions.

Q: Equity and equality are a common theme throughout these sustainability lectures. Why is that such a critical component of sustainability? 
We need to make sure that any new technologies and systems that are designed and implemented are providing benefits to those who need them the most. In my work, this means providing engineering solutions, for example for flood risk reduction, to people who are most at risk and disadvantaged.

Q: Are there changes you’ve made in your work at York that other York community members can learn from? 
I am fortunate to be able to commute to campus via public transport – despite two subway stations and bus connections, I know it is not easy for everyone in the York community to be able to do this. Since the transport sector is responsible for 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, it is important to me personally to commute using low emission modes.

I am not convinced yet that paperless assignments are a better route than traditional approaches. I am wary of the size of emissions from increased online education (online assignments, streaming lectures, life-cycle cost of all our new devices, etc.). Much of York’s online infrastructure is powered by data centres (off campus) which use a huge amount of energy to store all of our assignments and data in “the cloud,” and host all of our Zoom lectures. I would encourage community members to think about these “hidden” emissions when they are participating in academic life on campus.

Q: How do you view collective responsibility vs. personal responsibility in creating a more sustainable future?
This is a difficult question to answer, and I am not an expert in this area. I think that personal responsibility alone cannot be used to address the climate crises and sustainability more broadly. For example, substantially reducing our emissions requires a fundamental change in our systems, and small, personal actions are not the path to this change. Heavily focusing on these small, personal changes, takes attention and energy away from the systemic change needed for a more sustainable future. Our collective attention should be on large-scale, system-wide solutions that are urgently needed.

Q: How is York leading the way towards a more sustainable future? 
As a university, York’s strength in creating a more sustainable future lies in its role and responsibility in training the next generation of leaders and innovators. Having sustainability embedded in its academic curriculum, research enterprise, and in operations, means that thousands of students are exposed to new ideas and expertise in sustainability every year. These students, with this new knowledge, will be the foundation for the system-wide change that our planet needs. 

Visit the Microlecture Series in Sustainable Living to see Usman Khan’s full lecture, as well as those by the other five experts, and earn your Sustainable Living Ambassador badge. Watch for part four of this series in an upcoming issue of YFile. For part one go here, and part two go here.