Engineering has evolved into a logic where without further and certainly no deeper thought chemistry is used to transform materials, genetics determine new forms of food, mechanical pumps are planned in production, and airconditioning systems have become indispensable to operate a house or an office. The introduction of automated computer designs for everything from a simple home to the planning of complex petrochemical refineries uses existing and known solutions off-the-shelf often without any deeper thought. As a result we engrain a portfolio of standard solutions into the design of just about everything. Legal obligations and risk reduction requirements -with the best of original intentions- combined with our computer tools block the introduction of innovations which are only admitted after major expense and dramatic improvement has been demonstrated, often at high cost. The result is that engineering has lost its deeper meaning and innovations are limited to changes on the fringes. Industry finds itself in a straightjacket incapable of pursuing fundamental shifts.
While business students will occasionally get exposed to social responsibility and the green economy, engineering students are hardly challenged in their approach to design. Students and professors seldom have any notion of the underpinning philosophy that should guide their logic of using materials from complex plastic molecules to energy. This is not a call to expose engineering students to Socrates or Schumpeter. However, we are in need to go beyond the simple drive towards ever higher levels of efficiency measured in simple parameters as time and energy. Engineers are taught that “The slower the process, the more retention, the more space”, thus costing more and encumbering competitiveness. The faster the process, the more energy and the less space that is required, the more competitive the process. My own experience in the making of liquid detergents convinced me that the traditional forms of blending ingredients in water would have been revolutionized if a fundamental philosophy would have determined the direction of innovation. Unfortunately, in those days I lacked the insights I enjoy now.
When I observed that a 10,000 liter vat with a screw at the bottom requires 45 to 60 minutes of mixing, the best my research team could imagine was a new screw, one that did not move around in circles, but one that creates slow movements of an eight. Substituting fast screw revolutions with slow turns into an eight could save about 30 percent energy while the retention time remained unchanged. The engineers described it as a revolution inspired by the anthroposophic philosophy proposed by Rudolph Steiner. I was happy to innovate. It took me over a decade to realize that Viktor Schauberger, an Austrian forester had imagined a completely different mixing system that did not require any screw or blender. The vortex emerged as a remarkable gravity- based naturally swirling movement permitting to blend all ingredients in a matter of minutes, instead of hours solely relying on the law of gravity as a driving force. The ecological factory, with dozens of ten thousand liter vats could now have been reduced to one vat, and one only. The savings in space and energy are now not measured in percentages, rather in multiples.
After reviewing over two thousand innovations in the framework of the writing of my Report to the Club of Rome entitled “The Blue Economy”, it occurred that the reason why many of the “obvious” innovations could never find their way into industry is because the underpinning philosophy of engineering is focussing on known efficiency with known machinery. In this context, the best we can expect is a marginal improvement like saving energy, but never a paradigm shift that goes beyond the obvious. Engineers are not expected to rock the boat, and change the fundamentals. Engineers are expected to build on the established fundamentals. Time has come to rock the boat and the best way forward were to expose students in all classes of engineering to some fundamental principles which one day could emerge as a new philosophy of engineering. That could warrant a fresh look at innovation, steering society towards health, sustainability with the capacity to respond to the basic needs of all.
All is Connected
The first line in this philosophy should be that “all is connected” based on the extraordinary insights of Arne Naess, the Norwegian founder and inspiration of deep ecology. While even many of my green friends have hardly ever heard his name, Professor Naess who was recognized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences with a life time achievement award, argued very effectively for a rigorous understanding of how everything is connected. If we pursue a singular goal, a simple objective like energy savings or speeding up processes, then we are bound to cause unintended consequences, like the excessive use of harsh chemicals. Deep ecology unravels the links amongst everything we know and see. While this increases the level of complexity in a world fascinated with simplicity, it allows the design to resolve issues that could never be tackled in an isolated fashion.
The Law of Physics
When we realize that “all is connected”, then we will have the freedom of mind to observe that the laws of physics should be applied before we attempt to revert to chemistry and genetics. It is amazing how often designs of production or construction systems go against the laws of physics. Pumping cold air up as is done with airconditioning systems, or pumping water down as is done in mining, simply does not make any sense, and yet these are the standard. How come we could ever permit this level of “ignorance” in engineering? Or, should I ask who taught such stupidity and tolerated its widespread replication?
The laws of physics have no exceptions. Hot air always rises, and water is more dense than air, therefore generates more pressure when moving. This puts hydropower at the top of renewable energy, since it generates potentially 832 times more energy than wind ever could. Then physics also teaches us that for any force in one direction, there are forces in the opposite direction. That helps us understand why the apple can get up in the tree, before subjecting itself to the law of gravity. While we teach all these core facts of life one by one in high school, engineers seem to have forgotten the basics once they graduate from university. The mere fact that we pumps water in straight pipes, with elbows that move the direction of the flow in 90 degrees angles leads to a generally accepted use of pumps that consume up to ten percent of all energy requirements of production facilities. The introduction of energy efficient pumps, or for that sake even solar pumps, does not change the fact that a smart gravity based process could eliminate pumps all together.
Substitute Something with Nothing
When I observe the theory of evolution, and realize how ecosystems evolved over millions of years, then there is one principle that inspires me most, and one that should guide our engineering design: “substitute something with nothing”. While the majority of engineers are frightened by the idea, and therefore ridicule the concept since it eliminates the core building blocks that are part of the automated designs, it is a sign of the master when one succeeds in turning production and operations simpler by eliminating what is not needed. I have often argued for keeping it simple, but here it is kept so simple that what was considered key is now superfluous. Many of the eliminations are possible only because we rely on the laws of physics. The fact that we can cleanse water with a vortex, driven by gravity, or that we can have color, without color pigments, or that we can eliminate bacteria without chlorine, or control fire, without fire retardants helps us imagine cheaper, healthier, more sustainable solutions that are also very competitive. In order to embark on such fundamental shifts - substituting something with nothing - does require the capacity to think out of the box and embrace solutions that are not off-the-shelf. These solutions are not even on the shelf!
Work with What you Have
When Anders Nyquist exposed me to the possibility of refreshing the air in a school in the North of Sweden every thirty minutes all year around without the need for additional energy, it occurred to me that architects and construction engineers have no exposure to this philosophical approach. We have to respond to the basic needs with “what we have”. The engineers in modern society operate on the premise that we can get whatever we want even when it is not immediately or locally available. Now the laws of physics unveil tremendous predictable forces that are available all the time and everywhere. And, if we adhere to the principle that we use what is locally available, then we can strengthen the concept that we should substitute something with nothing.
The consumption of batteries is an obvious point in case. The desire to have a permanent source of power for our miniaturized mobile electronics leads to the production of 40 billion batteries annually which unfortunately spur the need of mining in the four corners of the world. This leads to the indiscriminate dispersement of minute amounts of metals in our environment. The introduction of green batteries which last longer and use less toxic metals will not change the predicament: we still deplete the earth's crust, we continue to consume non-renewable energy to make it, and we force our living environment to accept our incapacity to recover the precious materials. While these metals can never be destroyed, the uncontrolled waste flows into our habitat, even with green batteries.
Keep it Simple
What we need is mobile electronics without batteries, applying the core principle that we have to substitute something with nothing. Now cell phones, iPads, and gameboys could all function based on physical and locally available forces like temperature and pH differentials, pressure, also created by our voice, radio frequencies, and dozens more that can be converted into the low voltage that is required. If the electronic and electric engineers focus on circuits that require ever lower energy, by shifting to materials that have less resistance, then we see emerge before our eyes a world of efficiency and mobility without ever having to rely on the toxicity of metals nor the exploitation of more greenfield mines. This implies that the laws of physics permit us to evolve from the elimination of something with nothing to the clear practice that we have to keep it simple and we use what we have. Of course, those who have been trained as engineers, this may even sound heretic, and that is the reason why we have to revert to the need to agree on a philosophy of engineering, instead of the simple pursuit of productivity measured by one parameter only.
The leads to the next baseline in the new philosophy: the pursuit of multiple benefits. Engineers are trained in the Cartesian logic of cause and effect. If you increase pressure and temperature, then you speed up the chemical reaction splitting long molecules into shorter ones. And, if that does not do the trick, increase the acidity. The toolbox of engineers has become oversimplified and does not permit the discovery of multiples opportunities. When we gain the insight that synergies are easily generated once a complex approach is pursued, then the “cause and effect” toolbox will emerge as too limited, not permitting the full exploitation of all potential. Therefore, the cause-effect logic fundamentally affects the productivity and the competitiveness of the overall operations. I am not against any of the past engineering exploits, I am in favor of doing much better.
If more water is needed, engineers may revert to water treatment and design a closed loop water use. An ore processing facility located adjacent to a mine potentially stresses out the water reserves of the whole region. Engineers would quickly embark on an expensive design of a water treatment plant that would reduce consumption of fresh water. However, a quick review of the ecosystem could reveal a broad presence of exotic species that deplete the water table, irrespective of the mine's presence. The replacement of the non-native eucalyptus and pine trees with a diverse portfolio of native vegetation not only increases the water retention, it also contributes to the replenishing of the top soil, the provision of construction material for housing, posts for farming, and fibers for paper production. Instead of increasing the investment and operational expenses, this approach reduces costs, while offering local solutions to local issues, including the strengthening of the commons (top soil generation) which offers a major plus to the influence zone. This approach position the company as a truly social and ecological enterprise that improves its competitiveness.
Strengthen the Commons
This highlights a key component of the Philosophy of Engineering: the engineering design will also contribute to the commons. If we aim to respond to the basic needs of all, then we must strengthen the commons: the ecosystem services on which life, especially our human livelihood depends. This includes clean water, fresh air, top soil, conversion of waste into nutrients, and an ever evolving biodiversity which provides resilience to change. While the costly management of each of these critical components of life lead to the exploration of private public partnerships especially for water and waste management, this has converted the commons into a commodity. While there may be a market logic to impose a scarcity framework for all the commons, this approach has decreased the purchasing power of the bottom of the pyramid. This created a poverty trap from which they cannot escape. This means that the only sustainable phenomenon of the dominating engineering principles today is poverty itself?
Therefore we have to engineer innovative business models in such a way that the commons can be guaranteed, free of charge as originally intended, through the system's design. Paolo Lugari at Las Gaviotas designs the regeneration of the forest, with results in a major increase in asset value, thanks to the generation of drinking water which is supplied for free to the local population. The management of solid municipal waste through its blend with the slurry of waste water treatment plants provides clean water while generating revenues through the production of biogas. This is sufficient to pay for the water treatment, even providing room for a profit. Whereas the dominant business model is based on taxing citizens for public water and waste management services, the new model generates revenues in excess of costs, eliminating the need for taxation, and therefore implying the reinstatement of the commons.
Health is the Overriding Priority
While the commons, and their wide availability to the most vulnerable in society is key, we need to ensure that whatever we do improves the healthy living conditions. This is more important than preserving our environment. Actually when we guard our health as the true objective that united all races and classes, then we share this common goal to enhance life on Earth. This goes beyond the control of bacteria and the use of antibiotics, which are not in tune of the philosophy of engineering outlined above. This means that we will undertake all we can to have quality air to breathe and rich water to drink. We ensure that our food is modulating our immune system, enriched with trace minerals, and that radiation of all types is brought to quasi nil. Metals are not dispersed, and plastics do not have the minute softeners and UV control agents. If we agree that health is the overriding priority, and even our mental health is considered a priority, then many solutions that may have appeared interesting, are now discarded from our portfolio of options.
If and when the new production and consumption system provides for the commons, made possible thanks to the multiple benefits, created thanks to the rigorous application of the laws of physics, going with the flows, then we can eliminate numerous superfluous components of the mechanical and chemical world. This cuts costs, renders the operations less vulnerable, thus more profitable while at the same time creating more value. The overriding principle is that we will enhance life, not in years but in quality. This Philosophy should be taught to students from economics to engineering. It provides a fresh look at how a market economy can turn social and sustainable, while generating jobs and improving competitiveness, finally lifting a major portion of the world's population out of poverty, not by chasing ever higher wages, but rather by improving their quality of life, including an improvement of their purchasing power.
© 2012, Gunter Pauli - reprint only with permission
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gunter Pauli is a serial entrepreneur, author and initiator of The Blue Economy. For more on this author, click here and here.