The Natural Edge Project The Natural Advantage of Nations Whole System Design Factor 5 Cents and Sustainability Higher Education and Sustainable Development

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Principles and Practices in Sustainable Development for the Engineering and Built Environment Professions 

Unit 1 - Redefining Roles


Lecture 2: Rethinking the Application of Engineering Design


Engineers are problem solvers who apply their knowledge and experience to building projects that meet human needs, and to cleaning up environmental problems. They work on a wide range of issues and projects, and as a result, how engineers work can have a significant impact on progress toward sustainable development.

World Federation of Engineering Organisations (2004)[1]

Educational Aim

To reflect on the need to rethink the way engineering design is used to solve problems. Although engineering achievements have usually addressed and solved one problem, they have unfortunately often created several other problems within the system. Engineering institutions, scientific communities, the corporate sector and government are recognising the need to change the design scope; now seeking to design for sustainability/environment.


Required Reading

Hargroves, K. and Smith, M.H. (2005) The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London:

  1. Chapter 1: Natural Advantage of Nations, ‘Significant Potential for Resource Productivity Improvements’ (2 pages), pp 12-14.

  2. Chapter 1: Natural Advantage of Nations, ‘A Critical Mass of Enabling Technologies’ (5 pages), pp 16-22.

  3. 3. Chapter 3: Asking the Right Questions, ‘How do we Design for Legacy?’ (2 pages), pp 52-54.

Learning Points

* 1. The engineering profession has much to be proud of with regard to our past achievements; improving the quality of life, health and opportunity for many people. Engineers have made significant contributions to:

  1. improving public health through water sanitation and treatment,

  2. improvements in communication, transport and trade,

  3. the designs of most technologies that we know today, and

  4. numerous advances in medical and manufacturing techniques.


* 2. Although engineering achievements have usually addressed and solved a number of problems, they have unfortunately often created several other problems within the broader system. Some of the profession’s greatest achievements in the past are contributing significantlxy to the sustainability challenges we now face globally:

  • The internal combustion engine, while providing society with transportation and lifestyle services, has significantly contributed to the amounts of atmospheric pollutants, including greenhouse gases, and smog producing particulates.

  • The development of chemicals for agriculture has increased yields but generated vast amounts of toxic waste that has been put into the atmosphere and biosphere.

  • The manufacture of electronic goods to significantly improve communications, data processing and information transfer has created problems with the use and disposal of toxic waste products (‘e-waste’).

  • The development of technologies has allowed humankind the ability to harvest and exploit the world’s fisheries at unsustainable rates, impact upon rivers with untold ecological damage, and level forests at faster and faster rates.

  • Infrastructure associated with urban development - including roads, rail, electricity grids, water supply (dams and pipelines), and sewerage collection and treatment systems – has contributed to deforestation, soil erosion, water quality degradation and ultimately reduced biodiversity.

* 3. In 1972, the biologist Barry Commoner showed in his book The Closing Circle[2] that the escalating growth of environmental problems in the United States was partly due to flawed technology, and that this was due to the design scope being too narrow and not factoring in potential effects on environment, people’s health and cultural and historical sensitivities.

* 4. By not considering a wide range of options, some of which involve facets beyond the technological knowledge of any one engineer, many engineering applications have performed poorly as part of the larger system. This is partly due to the lack of knowledge and interaction beyond one’s own discipline and a lack of knowledge amongst many engineers and designers of the subject of ecology and its limits and thresholds. The confidence in the value of technological progress has also led at times for scientific and engineering designers to be too quick to reach their conclusion. There has been an under-appreciation of the value of a precautionary approach to technological development. Two examples that illustrate this were the development of leaded petrol[3] and ozone destroying CFCs for air-conditioning and re-refrigerators.[4]

* 5. Other problems have been created by blocking coalitions and lobby groups, who, under pressure to improve profit margins, have deliberately challenged the early warnings by scientists of the health and environmental risks of for instance, asbestos[5] (first warning 1898), PCB’s[6] (first warning 1899), benzene[7] (first warning 1897), acid rain[8] (1872), lead[9] (B.C.), and ozone depletion (1974).[10] Now industry increasingly understands that preventing such problems and designing out pollution and waste in the first place is a far more profitable way to operate.

* 6. Engineers and designers have a critical responsibility and sacred trust as society’s technical experts to both alert industry, government and the broader society to risks and dangers with technological options. Engineers have an important responsibility to seek always to develop design solutions that are safe and environmentally benign to meet everyday needs and services. History has shown that a failure to take this responsibility seriously has led to very serious accidents and the deaths of innocent people such as Chernobyl, Bopac, etc., together with the impacts on the biosphere becoming more and more evident.

* 7. Engineers and designers are above all problem solvers par excellence. There is never just one solution. A goal may be reached by many, many different paths. The challenge then for engineering in the 21st Century is to re-design the way society meets its needs and provides its services, so that rather than depleting nature’s stocks, we now restore ‘natural and social capital’.

Brief Background Information

The engineering profession has many achievements of which it can be immensely proud. But the pace of progress from technological innovation unleashed by the first industrial revolution has had a significant environmental cost. History has shown that often new production technologies have had a far greater negative environmental impact than the approaches and technologies they were replacing. As an example, the use of agrochemicals enabled farmers to get higher yields from smaller land areas, but at an environmental cost. Pesticides polluted waterways, and killed or harmed other insects and animals that were not originally targeted. Artificial fertilisers depleted the soil of naturally occurring nitrogen fixing bacteria. This ensured continuing dependence on the new chemicals and the need for ever increasing amounts to be used, something that worked in the favour of the chemical companies.

As far back as 1921 Nobel Laureate Svante Arrhenius wrote,

Engineers must design more efficient internal combustion engines capable of running on alternative fuels such as alcohol, and new research into battery power should be undertaken… Wind motors and solar engines hold great promise and would reduce the level of CO2 emissions. Forests must be planted. To conserve coal, half a tonne of which is burned in transporting the other half tonne to market… so the building of power plants should be in close proximity to the mines… All lighting with petroleum products should be replaced with more efficient electric lamps.

Arrhenius understood the danger of wasting precious non-renewable resources and called for a war on waste:

Like insane wastrels, we spend that which we received in legacy from our fathers. Our descendants surely will sensor us for having squandered their just birthright…Statesman can plead no excuse for letting development go on to the point where mankind will run the danger of the end of natural resources in a few hundred years.

Arrhenius above all believed in humanity’s capacity for innovation and foresight to solve these problems. He wrote,

Doubtless humanity will succeed eventually in solving this problem….Herein lies our hope for the future. Priceless is that forethought which has lifted mankind from the wild beast to the high standpoint of civilized humanity.

Already by 1924 engineers had developed the following examples of ecological sustainable and renewable forms of engineered technological solutions:

  • Energy: Wind driven mills were operating in Persia from the 7th Century A.D. for irrigation and milling grain. Wind powered all sea faring ships and transport for thousands of years. Clarence Kemp patented the first solar water heater in 1891. By 1897, solar water heaters serviced 30 percent of houses in Pasadena, California.[13]

  • Transport: All major cities by 1920 had train and light rail systems connecting the suburbs to places of work. The modern bicycle had been invented by engineers in the late 19th Century.[14] Biofuels and bio-diesel were already being used. In 1895 Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913) developed the first ‘diesel’ engine to run on peanut oil, as he demonstrated at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900. Unfortunately, Diesel died 1913 before his vision of a vegetable oil powered engine was fully realised. He stated in 1912,[15]

    The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in the module of time as important as the petroleum and coal tar products of the present time.

  • Recycling: The recycling of metals, glass and paper products goes back to the early 1800s. The cost of refining metals, and creating glass and paper products was far greater then than it is today. Many industries recycled materials. Henry Ford recycled his Model T Fords back in the 1920s in order to save money and resources, as well as designing the first engines to run on bio-fuels and petroleum.[16]

  • Green Buildings: The ancient Greeks pioneered passive solar design of their whole cities so all homes had access to sunlight during winter.[17] Low embodied energy building using passive solar design has been practised in different forms for centuries. Many green buildings today are actually modelled on 19th Century building design that needed to keep buildings cool in summer and warm in winter without air conditioners and heaters to assist. Nineteenth Century engineers and architects knew how to design buildings to stay at roughly the same temperature without today’s powerful air-conditioning and heating systems.

So why then today, have we seen so many technologies initially hailed as another great sign of progress later prove to be significantly adding to humanities environmental load on the planet? Technologies have caused such environmental harm because they often have unexpected side effects or second order consequences that were not originally understood by the designers of the technology. This is certainly true of a wide range of technologies such as adding lead to petrol or CFCs to air-conditioners.

Thomas Midgley, the man responsible for these decisions did not appreciate or understand the negative effects that lead would have on public health or the effect that CFCs would have on the ozone layer.[18] Thomas Midgley, Jr. (May 18, 1889 - November 2, 1944), an American mechanical engineer turned chemist, developed both the tetra-ethyl lead additive to gasoline and chloro-fluorocarbons (CFCs). Midgley died believing that CFCs were of great benefit to the world, and a great invention.[19] While lauded at the time for his discoveries, today he bares now a legacy of having engineered two of the most hazardous and destructive inventions ever in human history. But he was not alone in being guilty of ignorance, scientists and engineers, until the 1950s, were ignorant of the negative environmental effect of burning fossil fuels. All assumed that the oceans and forests would absorb all the carbon dioxide produced from burning fossil fuels and it never occurred to them that burning fossil fuels could be a problem.

The reason plastics do not degrade in the environment is because they are designed to be persistent; similarly fertilisers were designed to add nitrogen to soil so it is not an accident that they also add nitrogen to waterways as well as leading to algae blooms. Part of the problem Commoner argued in his book, The Closing Circle,[20] was that designers make their aims too narrow: historically they have seldom aimed to protect the environment. He argued that technology can be successful in the ecosystem, ‘if its aims are directed toward the system as a whole rather than some apparently accessible part.’

Sewerage technology is an example. Commoner argued that engineers designed their technology to overcome a specific problem: when raw sewerage was dumped into rivers it consumed too much of the rivers oxygen supply as it decomposed. Modern secondary sewerage treatment plants are designed to reduce the oxygen demand of the sewerage. However, the treated sewerage still contains nutrients which help algae to bloom, and when the algae die they also deplete the river of oxygen. Instead of this piecemeal solution, Commoner argued that engineers should look at the natural cycle and reincorporate the sewerage into that cycle by returning it to the soil rather than putting it into the nearest waterway. Commoner advocated a new type of technology, that is designing with the full knowledge of ecology and the desire to fit in with natural systems. This sentiment was echoed in the World Federation of Engineering Organisation’s (WFEO) submission to the 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development:[21]

If humans are to achieve truly sustainable development, we will have to adopt patterns that reflect natural processes. The role of engineers and scientists in sustainable development can be illustrated by a closed-loop human ecosystem that mimics natural systems.

Today we call this approach ‘design for environment’ or ‘design for sustainability’. The challenge then for science and engineering is to find profitable ways to provide sustainable solutions, unleashing creativity and innovation that goes beyond simply large reductions of negative environmental impacts to instead create positive social and environmental impacts. Many engineers and scientists have sought to respond to these issues, articulated by writers such as Commoner over the last 30 years, and have succeeded in truly designing for sustainability.

Leaders in this new field of design for sustainability,[22] such as the innovative work of Dr John Todd and others have addressed Commoner’s concerns about sewerage treatment and designed new sewerage treatment processes utilising a deep understanding of the natural cycle. John Todd’s eco-machine[23] sewerage treatment process is an example of the sort of holistic design approaches now being undertaken that will enable engineers to help humanity achieve sustainable development.

Qualitatively it works as follows: raw sewage and air are pumped into a series of linked plastic tanks in which plants from over 200 species are suspended in wire mesh containers. While the plants drink up nutrients in the sewage, countless bacteria and microbes roots break down pollutants. As the sewage proceeds from tank to tank, becoming progressively cleaner, fish and snails join in the feast. What comes out of the last tank is sparkling water, at least clear enough for irrigation, toilet flushing or car washing. The plants produce enough flowers to delight any gardener and abundant material for compost. Todd's ‘eco-machines’ cost about half as much to install as traditional treatment plants laden with concrete and plumbing. They don't smell, they are nice to look at, and they are educational.

In Fuzhou, China, a 600-meter canal (called Baima) became famous for being one of the most polluted in the city. Upwards of 3,000,000 litres per day of untreated domestic sewage was pouring into it causing significant health, safety and environmental issues for the community. Instead of the typical approach - re-pipe the polluted water to a central waste treatment facility - a 500-meter long Eco Machine Restorer was installed through the middle of the canal, comprising of 12,000 plants with over 20 native species.

Figure 2.1. An Eco-Machine at the Intervale Food Centre, Burlington, Vermont

Source: John Todd[25]

Figure 2.2. Transforming the Baima Canal with Todd’s Living Machines Source: John Todd[26]

Some eco-machines treat municipal waste, others industrial. The largest, for a food processing plant in Australia, can handle 100,000 gallons of waste per day, about as much as a town of 2,000 people would produce.


Key References

- WFEO (n.d.) Engineering for Sustainable Development. Available at Accessed 5 January 2007.

- Engineering Subject Centre: ToolBox for Sustainable Design Education. See Loughborough University at Accessed 3 February 2007.

- Building Design Professionals: (n.d) Environmental Design Guide. Available at Accessed 3 February 2007. For a succinct overview about this resource see

- Beder, S. (1997) The New Engineer: Management and Professional Responsibility in a Changing World, Macmillan Education Australia Ltd Publishing, Chap 9: Technology and the Environment, pp 195-224.

- Commoner, B. (1972) The Closing Circle: Nature Man & Technology, Bantam Books, Toronto.

- Johnston, S., Gostelow, P., Jones, E. and Fourikis, R. (1995) Engineering and Society: An Australian Perspective, Harper Educational, Sydney.

- Todd, N.J. and Todd, J. (1994) From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. An overview. Accessed 4 January 2007.

- WFEO (n.d.) Engineering for Sustainable Development. Available at Accessed 5 January 2007.


Key Words for Searching Online

Discover Engineering Online, sustainable engineering, World Engineering Congress 2004, WFEO, Design for Environment, Design for Sustainability, Sustainable Design.


[1] See WFEO Engineering for Sustainable Development website at Accessed 5 January 2007.

[2] Commoner, B. (1972) The Closing Circle: Nature Man & Technology, Bantam Books, Toronto. (Back)

[3] US EPA (n.d.) History of Lead. Available at Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[4] Elkins, J. (1999) ‘Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)’ in Alexander, D.E. and Fairbridge, R.W. (1999) The Chapman & Hall Encyclopaedia of Environmental Science, Kluwer Academic, Boston, MA, pp 78-80. Available at Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[5] Deane, L. (1898) ‘Report on the Health of Workers in Asbestos and Other Dusty Trades’, in HM Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops (1898) Annual Report for 1898, HMSO London, pp 171–172. (see also the Annual Reports for 1899 and 1900, p 502). (Back)

[6] Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are chlorinated organic compounds that were first synthesised in the laboratory in 1881. By 1899 a pathological condition named chloracne had been identified, a painful disfiguring skin disease that affected people employed in the chlorinated organic industry. Mass production of PCBs for commercial use started in 1929. (Back)

[7] Santessen, C. G. (1897) ‘Chronische Vergiftungen Mit Steinkohlentheerbenzin: Vier Todesfalle’, Arch. Hyg. Bakteriol, vol 31, pp 336 - 376. (Back)

[8] Smith R.A. (1872) Air and Rain, Longmans Green & Co., London. (Back)

[9] US EPA (n.d.) History of Lead. Available at Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[10] Molina, M.J. and Rowland, F.S. 'Stratospheric Sink for Chlorofluoromethanes: Chlorine Atom-Catalysed Destruction of Ozone', Nature, 249 (28 June 1974):810-2. (Back)

[11] Arrhenius, S. (1926) Chemistry in Modern Life, Van Nostrand Company, New York. (Back)

[12] Ibid, p 144. (Back)

[13] Perlin, P. (1999) From Space to Earth - The Story of Solar Electricity, Aatec Publications, Ann Arbor, MI. (Back)

[14] (n.d.) History of Bicycles and Cycling. Available at Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[15] Cummins, Jr, C.L (1993) Diesel's Engine: From Conception To 1918, Carnot Press; Grosser, M. (1984) Diesel, The Man and the Engine; For additional information see (n.d.) Biodiesel. at Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[16] Burkhalter, S.K. (2006) Newfangled? Hardly, Grist Online Article, 04 December 2006. Available at Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[17] Perlin, J. and Butti, K. (1980) A Golden Thread - 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology, Van Nostrand Reinhold. This book provides a short summary of the evolution of passive solar design. Passive Solar refers to an approach to heating and cooling homes through simple devices and architectural design, as opposed to mechanically operated heating and cooling systems. For additional information see California Solar Centre (n.d.) Passive Solar History at Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[18] US EPA (n.d.) History of Lead. Available at Accessed 5 January 2007. (Back)

[19] Bryson, B. (2000) A Short History of Nearly Everything, Black Swan Publishing, London. (Back)

[20] Commoner, B. (1972) The Closing Circle: Nature Man & Technology, Bantam Books, Toronto. (Back)

[21] The World Federation of Engineering Organisation's Reports. ComTech is the WFEO Standing Committee on Technology. Its purpose is the sharing, transferring and assessment of technology. (Back)

[22] Wikipedia (n.d.) Sustainable Design, Accessed February 2007. (Back)

[23] Todd, N.J. and Todd, J. (1994) From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, Accessed January 2007. (Back)

[24] Research for this section undertaken by Leryn Gorlitsky, University of Colorado, Boulder Maymester Course 2005. (Back)

[25] Picture provided by John Todd, Eco-Machines, John Todd Ecological Design Inc, Accessed January 2007. (Back)

[26] Ibid. (Back)

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