Michael E. Chang, Editor-in-Chief of Elementa’s Sustainable Engineering domain, shares thoughts on recent developments within the field, on joining Elementa, and on open access.

What specific research are you currently involved with?

My research has focused on urban and regional air quality. As air is a dynamic medium that crosses geographical, political, and physical boundaries, and as air quality affects and is affected by nearly every activity, process, and living organism, my past work has provided me a good platform for witnessing firsthand the challenges of sustainability and the need for multi-disciplinary collaborations. This work directly led to my current position as the Deputy Director of the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems at Georgia Tech. In this role, I help develop and support teams of engineers, natural scientists, social scientists, and others to address the most intransigent and “wicked” problems of our time such as climate change, urbanization, and resource management.


Why do you believe research surrounding human/nature interactions within the epoch of the Anthropocene to be of significance?

There are so many reasons, and everyone has their own. I recently read one from the perspective of the United States’ national security.

“The strategic landscape of the 21st Century has finally come into focus. The great global project is no longer to stop communism, to counter terrorists, nor to promote a superficial notion of freedom. Rather, the world must accommodate three billion additional middle class aspirants in 20 short years without tipping the system into a spiral of resource wars, traditionalist insurgencies, and devastation of the planet’s ecosystems.”

(Doherty, Patrick; “Working Paper: Grand Strategy of the United States of America;” New America Foundation, National Security Studies Program; November 2012.)

While the first half of this statement might certainly vary from one nation’s perspective to the next, the second half is universal. As all of our economic and ecological futures are now irreversibly and globally connected, it is vital that we understand how this massively complex, hybrid natural-human system works, and how we, as the newly ordained greatest agents of change, are changing it, intentionally and otherwise.


Which research within Sustainable Engineering were you particularly impressed by in 2012?

The most notable recent advance in engineering research has not necessarily been a significant finding or innovation, but instead concerns the process of research itself. Within the last year the power of partnerships has become most evident. At the National Science Foundation for example, the SEES program (Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability), and the nearly $1B in FY12 NSF-wide investments that have accompanied it, is challenging teams of investigators to work more closely with businesses, industries, governments, and communities to address issues of the environment-energy-society nexus. On a more local level, the City of New York, New York University and NYU-Poly formed the Center for Urban Science and Progress to address “the grand technical, intellectual, engineering, academic, and human challenges posed by a rapidly urbanizing world.” They have enlisted a consortium of other universities and international technology companies to form a “new kind of academic center that functions in collaboration with the city itself.” These and many other partnerships that are springing up both big and small, stand to transform not just the solutions that are provided, but the way that the problems themselves are formulated. These initiatives are also diversifying the research practice so that not only is the face of engineering changing, but so are the faces in engineering. With these kinds of new partnerships coming to fruition, 2012 very well may be seen as a tipping point in sustainable engineering research.


What are the main research themes you see as rapidly gaining in popularity within Sustainable Engineering?
  • Sustainable Energy
  • Sustainable Transportation
  • Sustainable Manufacturing
  • Sustainable Water Resources and Treatment
  • Industrial Ecology
  • Urban Ecology
  • Infrastructure for the Developing World
  • Design for the Environment and Bio-inspired Design
  • Sustainable Materials and their Management
  • Sustainable Systems


Why do you believe Elementa to be an important new journal that researchers should be interested to publish in?

What first attracted me to Elementa was the vision of the founders to rethink and redesign the very fundamental nature of academic publishing. As the longstanding traditional media is currently undergoing seismic transformations in the way it gathers information, processes and edits it, and disseminates it to its readers, it would be naïve to continue believing that science publishing could remain untouched. Rather than the superficial changes that traditional analog publishers are pursuing to try to meet the new demands of a digital and hyperconnected market, Elementa is a whole new re-engineering of the publishing system. From open access to dissemination via social media (that is also becoming increasingly mobile) to the business model of publishing to the metrics we use to measure impact, Elementa is a ground-up reinvention of the way the research community communicates even as it holds onto the requirement of rigor in peer review. And given these changes, it is wholly appropriate then that Elementa is about the Science of the Anthropocene. The speed and magnitude of change occurring in the publishing paradigm is an excellent metaphor for the speed and magnitude of change occurring on the planet. New challenges call for new solutions. Elementa is the right publishing platform moving forward. I’m not convinced that the old platforms will survive the transition.


Why do you believe that open access is important?

First and foremost, open access is good for science in society. In an age of growing skepticism and cynicism, open access throws open the doors of the scientific enterprise and allows anyone and everyone a firsthand view of the primary products of research – much of it funded with public resources. In removing the barriers to access, trust and confidence is restored and maintained. Second, open access is good for the advancement of science. More eyes mean more critical reviews which can lead to faster and more profound confirmations of nascent theories and ideas and their further development, or the swift and decisive refutations of false truths and the extinction of their lines. Third, open access is good for the corporeal ventures of research. Universities, national laboratories, and the private sector’s R&D labs are all struggling to keep up with the escalating costs of maintaining libraries for their constituencies at a time when scientific publications are proliferating. Open access creates a new and sustainable economic model for libraries. Finally, open access is good for individual and team investigators. In its most open and accessible form, copyright is retained by the authors allowing them to freely use, share, and adapt their own work for purposes of their choosing. It further and freely disseminates their work, which may lead to broader recognition than would be possible within the old pay-per-view system.


What does your role as Editor-in-Chief involve?

My first role is to serve the authors that entrust Elementa with their manuscripts by ensuring that the review process is fair, robust, and rapid. My second commitment is to the science and engineering community to help advance and raise awareness about the topics and issues emerging in the new trans-disciplinary field of sustainable engineering, and to further identify and spotlight significantly important research that arises therein. My third responsibility is to the success of Elementa itself as a stable and enduring open access journal for the publication and dissemination of the most important research in the epoch of the Anthropocene.


What is the overall scope of Sustainable Engineering within Elementa?

Technology certainly shapes society, but so too is it shaped by it. Likewise, technology derives from the material and energy resources of the natural world, but in the Anthropocene, it is also nature’s most forceful agent of change. Sustainable engineering is all about engineering in its traditional sense – mechanical, electrical, chemical, industrial, and so on – but it is also about understanding the coupling that exists between the material products and services of human invention (the domain of the engineer) and these other human and natural systems.


Are you looking for peer reviewers and Associate Editors?

Yes, absolutely! We need “cross-disciplinarians”—i.e., those who can speak the languages of the social sciences, the natural sciences, and the applied sciences.  They’re out there now, but they may have been forced into narrowly defined disciplines and give their service to profession specific societies and publications. Elementa is a chance to explore issues across their full relationship spectrum, and it is a chance for researchers to join the network of investigators that are discovering the secrets of the Anthropocene and innovators that are shaping it.