Environmentally sustainable engineering?

Mauri Favaron
Posted August 8, 2013 from Italy

The problems the World is facing in the "next" future, due to climate change and population growth, demand us to rethink in deep what we intend for "development".

Sure a change of mindset is necessary, in global way. A diffuse awareness of how "things which may occur within 50 years" are in reality affecting our life perspectives and quality just now, with a dire worsening our immediate descendants will face.

But in this post I'll try to address a relatively "minor" aspect, and a mentality change many of us could practice now, without waiting for the next implementation of Kyoto protocol and Doha amendment. It has to do with how we "design" things, and more importantly "why" - in ways more respective of the environment than we do.

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My feeling is, in so many cases the best product design strategy we might adopt is not designing it at all. Better even, not even devising it.

Part of this consideration comes from the basic unusefulness of very many objects around of us. Fancy and noisy sport cars to mention just one.

Maybe, should we not stop to (un)usefulness?

As my dear friend Jacqueline (http://worldpulse.com/user/1390) pointed out so brilliantly to me, anything (not just products) exists with and thanks to a flow of energy. As we do something (conceive/design/build a product, use it, and finally decommission it to the waste can) we force some of the natural energy flow to re-route towards this new artificial object. Inevitably, this rerouted energy will be subtracted to the overall flow, so that something/someone will have not their right share.

In this view, is "usefulness" enough? I feel not. A new product should be worth the energy put in designing / producing / learning / using / recycling it. Worthness might be "measured" as a sort-of ratio of the overall benefit coming from the "new thing" to the overall cost.

A new thing might be useful, in some very single-minded way, but not worth.

Or even "might be worth", provided we find some design/production/use/decommissioning way which is not as costly as it is today. An example may be cellular telephones, which allowed many people to communicate in places once not reached by copper wires, but whose production demands use of materials like "coltan" whose access to causes unacceptable exploitation of people, war, and paradoxically even famine.

Another example of "potentially-worth-but-unsustainable" technology, awaiting some new ideas, is the Internet itself. In its recent evolution, its scope changed from a way to communicate (in peer-to-peer style) to a medium for distributing audio and video contents: these data flows are massive, compared to those proper to e-mail and old-style web pages. But it looked a promising business, so many Internet providers built new data centers which are, to say the less, power-hungry. An example I know is a new server store facility under construction close to Po river, in Lombardy: it is located in the nearby of a pre-existing thermo-electric power plant, because it "have to": once operating, this new server facility will drain ten megawatts for its basic operation. That is, around the 3% of the thermoelectric plant capacity!

Looking for "worthness", and not just "usefulness", may lead us to a virtuous cycle of "designing the production process" along with the product itself. And this jumps directly to the next point: "broad-mindedness".

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In my professional life I've known many design and production engineers, and can testify their variability in attitude and expectations is so large no generalization can be drawn.

Meanwhile, I've seen a tendency (maybe stemming from how engineers are trained) to adopt a very linear and single-minded thinking style. The idea behind of this is something like "give me the problem, and possibly some budget constraint: I'll solve it". Forgetting in the process to question whether the problem itself makes some sense - but this, of course, is imagined as someone else's responsibility.

This highly focussed but laterally blind mindset is in my feeling quite incompatible with an engineering leading to sustainable products and processes. Unfortunately, young engineers are not encouraged to adopt a more web-like thinking and problem-solving strategy - the linear way is still considered the "professional" one.

As the dimension of worthness is intrinsically multi-dimensional, so the perceptual antennas of engineers should be. If they are aware that any new product is a potential aggression to the overall ecosystem energy flows, and they have direct responsibilities in this, such a broad awareness would give great yields allowing exploration of many paths and consequences.

Multi-dimensionality is maybe not exactly the same than "multi-disciplinarity", but it looks very much akin to it. And here a legitimate doubt arises: may a single person be really multi-disciplinary?

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In my experience, the answer to the previous question is a resounding "no". To date, science and technology are so specialized and vast that no single human mind can contain them all at a level of detail sufficient to do something useful.

But this is not a real problem: specialists may, and should, cooperate.

This may be difficult, if we stay within the standard mentality of engineers today: a lot of ego, spiced by a pinch of self-aggrandisement. To date, engineering is imagined (and teached) as a mainly solitary discipline, and training at colleges and university is strictly confined to (apparently unrelated) technical skills. Of equal (if not more) importance, other skills preparing people to cooperate are not part of curricula - but should be: language, leadership, teamwork, and why not, self-control would be of great advantage to engineer-cubs in the future.

(I add that even today, the curricula vitae are scrutinized also to evaluate these "human" aspects; job-looking engineers are not very much aware of this, as their average CV reveal, but many company have realized that "technical skills can be learned on job, while it's almost impossible to turn, on job only, a hooligan into a gentle(wo)man". So, thank to my tip-off, you young engineers are now aware... ;-) )

Humane skills and web-thinking: these are two key aspects, in my view, for the actors of future sustainable engineering.

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May humane skills blossom, in cut-throat style company?

Of course, it is not impossible. But my bet is the associated probability is not greater than ten up to minus twenty-three - and am quite sure mine is a gross overestimate.

If all what is demanded to people within an organization is just blind loyalty, questionless action and possibly greed, all what you get in the long term is a floundering company (maybe, with one or two top dogs earning unrealistic amounts of money, while losses accumulate - but if you are wondering it could be not that bad being one of these two fellows, calm yourself down: if you have arrived here in reading my post I guess you are not the type of person likely to "excel" in such a money-and-energy-and-motivation-wasting system).

I can't imagine an organization authentically embracing the idea of sustainable engineering which is not "flat". Deep hierarchies (are gross ways to waste economic and ecologic resources and) seem to me quite incompatible with the very idea of sustainable engineering. May you imagine, a person constricted into a blinkered (but very loyal) frame will have a bit of difficulty in developing the kind of "lateral awareness" which worthness evaluation demands. The only hope of integration would be, in this case, in the personal qualities of the top managers - but this is a random variable, whose probability of occurrence is, well, "modest" among a bunch of cut-throats.

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The development of flat, web-structured organizations in which inclusion of diversity is a source of strength instead of fear is the natural environment within which sustainable engineering may thrive. But sure, at least in Italy outside the non-profit sector, quite uncommon.

Institutions may provide a lot of real help, maybe even at low "cost".

For example, they may foster an interpretation of ISO-9000, ISO-14000 and other quality and organization "norms" which is not subrtly against "webs of inclusion". More specifically: although this is not strictly demanded by these norms, consultants helping companies often ask their management to provide an organization chart, which is by the very way it is commonly drawn intrinsically top-down. All what norms really ask for is to provide a description of the organization, whatever it is. A web-structured company organization chart may resemble more the design of an integrated circuit than a pyramid of king/controllers/slaves - but this goes way beyond the average culture of many quality and organization consultants. Institutions (both at political and professional level) could make a great difference, by developing awareness in operators about "less conventional" organization forms and, why not?, sustainable engineering.

Removing cultural obstacles is just one point. Another could be, routing financial aids preferentially towards efficient and lean organizations. For example by allowing lean, responsible and productive companies to pay less taxes, or access bank loans on a preferential lane. In the meanwhile, companies with a more costly and energy wasting structure could be "sanctioned" by raising taxes, accelerating if necessary their floundering to free resources in advantage to more productive organizations. Here, politics may help a very, very lot - which demands from them to develop a clear, simple idea of what future should be for economy.

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The value at the heart of sustainable engineering is "responsibility".

This, instead of a desire of proving their intellectual prowess, or greed, should be the quality entrepreneurs might look for in job applicants.

Would it be sufficient? I believe not so much. As I mentioned, a different kind of organization, less hierarchical and more funcional (besides: much less expensive and energy wasting) could greatly help. As well as a policymaking effort aimed at leading the way and providing a clear, simple frame for sustainable engineering.

All of this could be the start. But a lot more should be also made - including maybe a new definition of profit, in which some "value" of worthness might be included.

Things too big for me ;-)

But all these measures could be a start. They may seem complex, formidable. But the stake is so high - and closer in time than commonly imagined - so an urgent an action is needed.

I'm beginning to practice this all, on my small scale.

Comments 2

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  • Jacqueline Patiño
    Aug 08, 2013
    Aug 08, 2013

    Thanks for quoting me. I believe you are right my friend. I believe the change of how we see value and worthness is necessary, and indeed the time to do it is now.

    How I wish people I have sent my ideas to, would understand that need the way you understand it. Then we could work globally to do this with the correct funding. But no. Funders do not see the need of changing the conversation about the words we now use and that are not giving the results we seek.

    So, meanwhile, people like you and I, are the ones in the frontlines. Every time we talk about the new ways of shaping the power words, we are advancing.

    Thank heavens like minded people always unite!

    I shall finish writing about this, I have now a clearer mind and intend to go over this again.

    Thanks again my dear Mauri.



  • Mauri Favaron
    Aug 12, 2013
    Aug 12, 2013

    Dear, I wish this all will, more sooner than later, others will join.

    I think you're so right: few voices rising do a front, and may change bit by bit the status-quo.

    Resistance is formidable, today, mostly because people (and funders in the first instance) do not foresee how dramatic the situation is. They "know" most problem will manifest two or three generations from now. Or they're well aware to the actual urgency (much more urgent, indeed) but hope to get massive advantage from the evolving situation.

    And, go on writing about the subject!! I know your words are more than needed!