New Bottom Line Volume 6.25 – Some Food for Thought. Please Chew Thoroughly.

December 29, 1997

Last week I shared the US Department of Energy Industrial Assessment Centers’ “Top Ten” list of low cost actions that would produce the greatest immediate impact as cost cutting measures by industry. (See NBL 6.24, in case you missed it.)

A number of readers were grateful, so I thought I’d rummage my list of lists for lists that are both useful individually and perhaps offer some additional insight in juxtaposition. (As you will see, these tend to be design criteria lists, rather than more implementation oriented lists like the Business Charter for Sustainable Development <>; and the CERES Principles <>;.)

So here they are, undigested food for thought, cryptic enough for plenty of new year’s musing. A do it yourself New Bottom Line. Please chew thoroughly before swallowing.

One certainty faced by business (not to mention government, and just folks) is uncertainty. Another is change. So these criteria for resilience — the ability of a system to response to change and maintain its integrity — offered by noted ecologist C. S. Hollings seem a good place to start:

  • Dispersion
  • Numerical redundancy
  • Functional redundancy
  • Optional interconnection
  • Flexibility
  • Modularity
  • Internal buffering
  • Technical simplicity and forgivingness
  • Easily reproducible

Hardin Tibbs, in his seminal paper “Industrial Ecology – An Agenda for Environmental Management,” identified key ecosystem characteristics that could guide potential industrial ecosystems. Tibbs’ “Core Principles for Industrial Ecosystems” include:

  • No waste (the output of one process becomes the input for another);
  • Concentrated toxins are not stored, but synthesized as needed;
  • “Elegant” cycles of materials and energy weave among the companies;
  • Systems are dynamic, and information driven;
  • Independent participants in coordinated action.

Tibbs went on to suggest a program of transition for industrial society that focused on:

  • Creation of industrial ecosystems;
  • Balancing industrial output to natural ecosystem capacity;
  • Dematerialization;
  • Improving metabolic pathways;
  • Systemic patterns of energy use;
  • Policy alignment w long-term perspective of industrial system evolution.

Living Machine inventor Dr John Todd and industrial engineer Dr Douglas Holmes took their own look at industrial ecosystem design criteria in 1995:

  • Diverse, modular production units;
  • Renewable energy sources;
  • Variety of raw materials, from multiple sources;
  • Leverage of aggregate efficiencies;
  • Optimal flow and exchange rates;
  • Synergism and symbiosis.

The Natural Step program’s four “system conditions” (which we’ve written about often in NBL) suggest that for there to be a sustainable society+ecosphere:

  • Substances from the earth’s crust must not systematically increase in the ecosphere.
  • Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in the ecosphere.
  • The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of Nature must not be systematically deteriorated.
  • There must be fair and efficient use of resources with respect to meeting human needs.

(I’m inclined to add a fifth: Any ecologically sustainable solutions had better be economically viable, or they’re not likely to be widely adopted.)

In a recent design seminar with University of California engineering students, I identified yet another collection of “Industrial Ecology Design Principles” that clustered under three main themes:

  • Close and shorten material loops
  • More service, less product, long lasting product
  • Minimize
  • throughput,
  • extraction,
  • virgin materials,
  • non-renewable energy,
  • adverse environment impacts, and human health effects

William McDonough, designer and Dean of Architecture at the University of Virginia reduces it all to a simple and elegant formulation:

  • Income energy
  • Waste equals food
  • Honor diversity

(In recent talks McDonough has added one more extremely powerful criterion, ascribed to Curitiba mayor Jaime Lerner: Love all the children.)

Finally, here are a simple few that seem to keep showing up on my personal radar:

  • Reduce inputs: don’t buy resources you don’t need
  • Reduce “non-product output” (NPO): don’t make product you can’t sell
  • Track metabolism: make invisible flows visible
  • Succeed both short term and long term
  • Eschew suboptimization
  • Innovate, don’t compromise

And what continues to resonate as the central business proposition for the 21st century:

More value. Less stuff.

Your challenge: put these lists to work.

(c) 1997 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

May be posted intact–including this notice–in any non-commercial forum.
Please inquire at “reprint_rights at natlogic dot com” before reproduction in any commercial forum.