Cristina Contreras is a Research Associate in the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard University, where she focuses on promoting sustainable practices in infrastructure projects on a global scale, with a special emphasis on emerging economies. Recently her work has focused on the business case for sustainable infrastructure.
Professionally, Cristina is a member of several working groups in sustainable infrastructure including the “United Nations Environment Programme’s Expert Working Group on integrated approaches to sustainable infrastructure”, American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) “Sustainable Infrastructure Standards Committee – Leadership Writing Group” and the “Planning Committee on Global Sustainability”.
ISI had an opportunity to connect with Cristina to learn more about her work, and her experience with Envision.
Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure (ISI): Cristina, in addition to the outstanding work you do at Harvard, could you tell us about some of your other work and current pursuits?
Cristina Contreras (CC): In addition to my research at Harvard, I also work as an independent sustainable infrastructure expert collaborating with financial institutions and international organizations in the US, Latin America and Europe to incorporate sustainability into their practice. My work has allowed me to first, focus on understanding the tools and frameworks that currently exist to quantify sustainable infrastructure, and second, reflect on the main impediments we face to streamline sustainability in infrastructure projects.
As part of my interest in understanding the different tools and frameworks that currently exist to quantify sustainability in infrastructure at the global scale, I have worked on the development of the Sustainable Infrastructure Tool Navigator. This online platform aims to consolidate and provide easier access to existing tools, guidelines, benchmarks etc., helping better understand how to integrate sustainability in the different phases of the infrastructure project lifecycle as well as to allowing stakeholders identify the tool that better fits their needs.
During the last years I have also collaborated on the development and strengthening of different taxonomies for prioritization and screening of investment projects and programs towards more sustainable infrastructure, as well as advising on the incorporation of sustainability practices on National Infrastructure Plans.
(ISI): What drew you to your field of work?
(CC): I consider myself a very curious person, always eager to learn new things. That is precisely what made me come back to academia after spending several years working in the private sector back in Spain, my country of origin. I believe that the exploration of synergies between research and industry allows us to push our boundaries and explore new ways to solve existing problems. I became interested in sustainability in infrastructure when I realized that this was the only possible path to development while minimizing the impact that we have in our communities and the environment as a whole.
(ISI): What would you say has been your biggest career challenge to-date?
(CC): Achieving a multidisciplinary view of sustainability and further educating myself in this quickly changing field has been rewarding but also challenging. The work that I have developed during the last decade has evolved from an almost entirely technical focus to a more policy and an economic driven approach. From an engineering perspective, we tend to think that having a great idea is enough to solve a problem; however, I quickly learned that listening to other people’s perspectives and understanding their challenges it is the only way to ensure a truly integrated approach.
(ISI): What has been your proudest career moment?
(CC): During the last couple of years, I have had the opportunity to participate in the United Nations High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development that takes place at UN headquarters. My collaboration with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research was centered around building capacity and sharing good practices regarding the key role of sustainable infrastructure to help on the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – Recording available.
Another proud moment in my career was the delivery of a commencement speech this last spring at the “Universidad Europea” in Madrid. The opportunity to address new graduates in the fields of architecture, engineering, and design and share with them some of the lessons that I have learned during my professional career was a very emotive moment for me.
(ISI): You have a wealth of experience in sustainable infrastructure and have explored it from multiple perspectives and angles. Are there any stones left unturned for you? What else are you interested in doing in this field?
(CC): During the last few years, most of my work has focused on the integration of sustainability practices in emerging economies. As such, numerous challenges regarding governance and lack of capacity have come across as some of the complexities to be addressed. It is for this reason that moving forward I would like to focus more on building capacity and providing training to decision makers, and other stakeholders as part of the effort to incorporate infrastructure in different markets. This includes providing training in other different languages. To this day I have had the opportunity to organize numerous training workshops in Spanish.
Another interest moving forward is to advance the understanding of how the sustainable infrastructure indicators are aligned with other frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in order to help recognize the commonalities between sustainable infrastructure and sustainable development. The work conducted in this regard during the last years will be presented in the forthcoming course “Sustainable Infrastructure: Learning from Practice” starting next spring 2020 at the Harvard University – Continuing Education.
(ISI): For the benefit of our readers, could you tell us how you originally learned about Envision?
(CC): I’ve been a member of a key partner on the development of the Envision rating system—the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure at Harvard University—since 2012. As such, Envision has been directly or indirectly present in the work that I have done ever since.
(ISI): Why did you decide to pursue an Envision credential?
(CC): After working with Envision since it was first launched, I pursued credentialing as an Envision Sustainability Professional (ENV SP) in 2013 and later as an Envision trainer in order to promote and educate sustainable infrastructure concepts.
(ISI): How are you using Envision?
(CC): During the last few years, I have had the opportunity to work on the application of Envision from a research standpoint in roughly 40 projects distributed across 12 countries in Latin America. I have analyzed the sustainability performance of a wide diversity of infrastructure projects including wind farms, Photovoltaic plants, airports, roads, ports, water treatment plants, and mass transits among others, representing a total investment of around 20 billion USD.
Envision has also been a fundamental tool in capacity building activities conducted during the last few years. This has included the coordination of Envision sustainability credentialing workshops, engagement with public officials to raise awareness on the importance of sustainability and elaboration of cross comparative analyses regarding the evolution of the sustainable infrastructure field and the existing tools and frameworks.
(ISI): Can you share some highlights in terms of how you’re putting your ENV SP credential to good use?
(CC): I have had the honor of leading the first Envision Certification Workshops in Spain, an effort to build capacity around sustainable infrastructure in other regions of the world and in other languages. During three consecutive years working in collaboration with the Spanish Association of Civil Engineers (Colegio de Caminos Canales y Puertos), representatives from numerous construction and engineering companies in Spain have gotten trained on the use of Envision and the benefits that sustainability can bring to their companies and their clients. These workshops were delivered in Spanish.
(ISI): With all this work you do in sustainability, and knowing that sustainability is defined differently by everyone, what does it mean to you?
(CC): For me sustainability is a new way of living and an opportunity to going back to the drawing board and ask ourselves where do we want to be as a society in a couple of decades from now.
(ISI): What are some of your favorite hobbies and interests?
(CC): I have a wide variety of hobbies ranging from sports such as biking, hiking and yoga, to the arts. My art interests include painting, ceramics, and recently, the creation of jewelry made out of recycled bike inner tubes. When I have the time, I also enjoy traveling. I was fortunate enough to travel to Alaska, Iceland, Paraguay, Chile, Brazil and Ethiopia during the last two years.
(ISI): What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
(CC): I was a member and coach of the Harvard Dragon Boat Team for several years. During this time we represented Harvard in international tournaments in China, Italy and Canada as well as in other numerous locations domestically.