The amazing image above shows how much can happen in a city over 26 years. We know cities are growing at amazing rates, but these images are poor at capturing any tensions of over stretched infrastructure that struggles to keep pace. Slow development is never desirable in urban growth, but it is hard not to see dystopic visuals of urban decay as the cities struggle to pay their own environmental bills.
Conversations about ecosystem development as a strategy for solving human environmental crises are clearly not new. In a paper from 1969 recently sent to me by Bruce Hinds there is a rich account of the previous thinking and inspiration that has as of yet translated into human innovation. Some of the language and concepts in the paper are clearly out of date, as most of the resilience theory work and C.S. Hollings was not yet integrated, but at the core there are some really key concepts.
Core Trends of Ecosystem Succession
Ok wonderful people out there, I need some input. I’m framing a discussion around scenarios of sustainability and the deeper I get into the issues of design, the further I get from inspiration from nature. It may be because I am in a process of trying to over simplify things and might not be seeing the wood for the trees, so I’m looking for some feedback.
Scenarios of Sustainability:
I want to qualify that my statements below are my first attempt at articulating what the scenarios of sustainability are from a product design perspective. I’m not sure all my generalizations below will stand up to Architectural investigation (yet), and am well aware that there are huge issues (social sustainability, cultural diversity) that are not being tackled (yet).
Scenario A: We stop consuming
I just returned from the Biomimicry Education Summit in Cleveland, which was fantastic, and explains a little lull (breather) in the blog postings. I will warn you that if I get a spare moment there will be a torrent of ideas bouncing around that have been stirred up over the last few days.
Remember the discussion about the future of materials? Biodegradability as a scenario of sustainability? On Monday morning John Warner, the godfather of green chemistry, gave a talk about his journey and the true story of how stuff could and should be made in the future.
He also shared the secrets of the future of hair dye, but you’ll have to ask him directly for that.
For those of you who haven’t had the luxury of seeing an industrial chemist spin an incredible, compelling tale about the reality of the profession, I have included one of John’s lectures below. It is an incredibly important story, because to most of us Industrial Chemistry is a pretty frightening partnership of concepts. It is a black box of science that shapes everything we do, and yet is poorly understood by most. It turns out that it is even poorly understood by the chemists, who have traditionally had absolutely no formal education in toxicology, and therefore an extremely limited understanding of the impact of the synthetic chemicals produced.
So I invite you to explore John Warner’s story, which includes connections between music composition and chemistry (which is an incredible concept). I’ll be diving into this area for more resources and ideas, there is a lot of emerging information to be explored.
John Warner runs the Warner Babcock Institute, which will, I hope, shape everything in the future.
Science fiction may be getting closer to reality in the future of materials.
The WYSS Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard is an interdisciplinary “alliance” between the internally diverse schools of Medicine, Engineering, Arts & Sciences, as well as a broad array of Universities and Research Centres. Their focus is the development of new materials using the deep, micro scale principles of self assembling natural materials, and the vision of their research is pretty wild.
The deceptively simple mission statement of the WYSS Institute reveals incredible goals:
The Wyss Institute aims to discover the engineering principles that Nature uses to build living things, and harnesses these insights to create biologically inspired materials and devices that will revolutionize healthcare and create a more sustainable world… Understanding of how living systems build, recycle, and control is also guiding efforts focused on development of entirely new approaches for constructing buildings, converting energy, controlling manufacturing, and improving our environment.
The self assembled future
There are huge gaps in my knowledge around industrial ecology (or it’s new title; “industrial symbiosis”) and yet it is a story I want to know more about. The famous Kalundborg industrial park is the poster story, of integrated fabrication with cyclical processes, waste becoming food, becoming waste, becoming food in an increasingly closed loop. More information here.
But beyond Kalundborg, it is hard to find many good stories. I’d love if someone more aware of these processes might have something to share, there is a lot more to learn. In the mean time, I recently read an article about Subaru’s manufacturing plant in Indiana that got me thinking. Here’s an opening quote from the article:
Toyota made kaizen—the Japanese principle of constant “change for the better,” with a special focus on efficiency, aka “pushing lean”—famous. [Subaru], you could say, has instilled green kaizen, or pushing green. Starting in 2002, SIA set a five-year target for becoming the nation’s first zero-landfill car factory. That meant recycling or composting 98 percent of the plant’s waste—with an on-site broker taking bids for paper, plastic, glass, and metals—and incinerating the remaining 2 percent that isn’t recoverable at a nearby waste-to-fuel operation to sell power back to the grid. Within two years, the results spoke for themselves.
Scenarios of Sustainability
What if the life cycle of the product reflects the energy inputs into the product?
A lot of talk exists around this idea, in part I think, because it helps justify certain perceptions of “good design”. The argument for this scenario is the rolex watch. An excellent watch bought now, year 2011, could be handed down from father to son (apologies for patriarchal slant, but that is part of the fantasy, I think), to grandchild and to great grandchild. In the year 2095 it may be onto the fourth owner, have had a few repairs, and be worth considerably more than it was purchased for.
But is this the Modernist (capital M) fantasy? That one pure, perfect design will meet the needs of all? Would someone who can afford a Rolex be happy with one all their life, especially if it was owned by their father, who they have had cycles of rebellion and reconciliation with all their life. Is it a father’s fantasy for their son to want to reflect their image, and the reality a son who wishes to forge their own identity?
See my tongue in cheek history of the telephone below to further frame my argument above.
One product for one person. A solution for every personal need.
Scenarios of Sustainability for Design
If you could make the perfect digital camera. Would you need a new one? If you played an active role in the design and creation of your winter coat, would it last more than one season? If the couch was uniquely and individually yours, would it make the trip to your new home intact, rather than left by the side of the road in anticipation for something “new” from IKEA?
Mass customization and personal fabrication is becoming a thing of the present. It is being written about aggressively in WIRED magazine and is a very real movement. Design is becoming more democratic, the tools available to more people and the process of turning idea from concept to reality is being fuelled by emerging entrepreneurial models and micro-financing.
Does this mean we will have better stuff that will last longer, meet more individual needs, and slow down cycles of consumption?
Scenarios of Sustainability within Design
True closed loops, natural cycles.
Is the answer edible technology? The edible cell phone?
We don’t have to eat it, but as long as some organism or bacteria finds our products edible, we could create a biodegradable future where all our waste can be easily breakdown and return to the earth.
It is easy to think of biodegrading as a negative. Who wants their cell phone slowly breaking down in their pocket? Flakes of screens being caught in the washing machine, buttons that slowly disintegrate through use.
But John Warner, godfather of green chemistry argues that in nature biodegrading is coded with signals. When specific conditions are met; chemical, temperature, time, reactions trigger internal chemical responses that alter the properties of the material.
Drop the cell phone in water mixed with vinegar and it begins to disassemble. Return in a day and in the bin is floating a case, screen and electronics board. Need to go further? You drop the electronics board into a warm bath of a different kind and it comes apart in another layer.
Could this be the silver bullet for product design?
If biomimicry principles are used to define the criteria of success for a project, whether someone is “trained” in the biomimicry tool and executes it according to the defined methodologies or not, the end result will fit into the broader vision if the project is successful. Conversely, as outlined here, if the tool is applied without criteria of sustainability from the beginning, there is no guarantee biomimicry adds holistic sustainable value to the process. Therefore, a shift (or a balance) must be made from training specific skill sets of “tool application”, to defining clear, measurable criteria that has value to a project’s stakeholders.
For example: Biomimicry as Tool
Eastgate Building in Harare, Zimbabwe, by Mick Pearce Architect and OVE Arup engineering. They were tasked with the challenge of building a large complex in a desert environment without energy sucking air conditioning units. They could have taken any approach to resolve this challenge, and there are many examples of passively cooled buildings that do not take explicit inspiration from nature.
But, Mick was inspired by a documentary by David Attenborough that led his engineering team to develop a solution inspired by the termite mound, which has since become a celebrated icon of biomimicry. It is an excellent case study, they saved an enormous initial cost, continue to achieve enormous energy savings, and the chimney effect of drawing cold air up through a building has sense been replicated and advanced through many different applications.
With oil over $60 a barrel, and the icy lands of Greenland slowly defrosting, there’s no need to panic, no need for doomsday scenarios of the future. In fact, it’s a cause for celebration; “drill baby, drill!”
This businessweek article highlights the contradictions between the need to realistically consider tough decisions to explore scenarios of sustainability, vs the desire to chase profits wherever they exist. If it is knowingly possible to drill oil in a habitat that has become exposed thanks to the burning of fossil fuels, without ever taking into consideration the cost of the side effects, scenarios of sustainability will simply not be explored until humanity faces a realistic threat of extinction.