Environmental and engineering convergence

My best friend Dave Faulkner runs an environmental consultancy. I host a couple of his papers on global warming on the Futurizon web site. We have many a beer over debate about environmental issues. Over the years, I have worked a few times with both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. I have a lot of respect for Jonathon Porritt and Doug Parr. We share a passion for a healthy environment, though we disagree on some of the ways to achieve it. It’s the same with my friend Dave. I can like and respect a person without agreeing with everything they say. It is nicer still when some common ground appears.

Only a small bit of my work involves environmental issues so I am far from expert in the environment field, though I do have my own embryonic environmental consultancy now. But I am expert at studying the future overall and pretty good at making predictions – I get it right 6 times more often than I get it wrong – and as I look at the many factors affecting the way the world is going, I feel hesitantly optimistic. There is some potential for a techno-utopia but I know we won’t get that. We will take a sub-optimal path that creates as many new problems as we solve. The world of 2050 and beyond will still be a mixture of good and bad, just with different goods and bads.

The approach to our environment though is one area I think will improve. On one side, we have the likes of Porritt and Parr, leading much of the green community and doing what they can to motivate people with the desire to live in a nicer world in harmony with nature. I can’t fault that, only in some of the policies they recommend to achieve it, which I think come from occasional flaws in their analyses. On another side, engineers are racing to develop better technologies, sometimes deliberately to help the environment, but more often almost coincidentally making better toys that happen to be better for the environment. Engineers are mostly driven by market forces, but they are still human, and many also care passionately for the environment, so will generally seek solutions that do their job but are better for the environment where the choice exists. In fact, it is hard to spot examples of new technology that are worse for the environment than their predecessors. Market forces, mediated through well motivated engineers, can make the world better just as well as any green. Both can help us move to a better world. 

I see a lot of needless worrying by environmentalists though, some of whom (I won’t name names) think of scientists and engineers as the enemy. Needless worry, and sometimes counter-productive. One of the big worries this week is that a lot of resources are scarce that we need to make renewable energy, or to make batteries to store it. But almost at the same time, articles appear on inductive power delivery to cars that circumvents the need for large batteries and hence the need for lithium – I even proposed that solution myself a few years ago, so it is good to see it appearing as a project somewhere. New materials for IT are being developed too, so we won’t rely for much longer on the other things that are scarce. So, no worries, it’s just a short-term problem. For the last few years it has been recommending spending trillions to avoid carbon dioxide production. But even without spending any trillions, future energy technology that is being developed anyway will make fossil fuels redundant, so it will take care of itself. Panic is expensive but unnecessary, the worry needless and counter-productive, serving only to slow down the race to sustainability by diverting funds to the wrong areas.

The environment has some very good friends in engineering now. Biomimetics is the engineering field of copying ideas  or at least inspiration from nature. I’ve occasionally use biokleptics when an idea is blatantly stolen. Nature doesn’t have any lawyers defending her intellectual property rights, but has been using random trial and error for 3 billion years to develop some fantastic engineering solutions and if anything encourages their copying. So, someone looks at spiders and develops a new kind of architecture that produces better structures with less material. Going way back to the 80s, I looked at evolution and made the tiny deductive leap to thinking of evolving software and hardware, then soon after looked at embryo growth and came up with ideas of how to self organise telecomms networks and sensor nets. I love biomimetics.  So do many other engineers, and the whole field is exploding now. It will help to make systems, objects, fabrics, materials, architecture and processes that are more energy or resource efficient, and quite often more beautiful.There are a few purists who insist on copying something exactly as nature does it, but mostly engineers are happy to be inspired and make their own tweaks to adapt it to needs. So, long ago, Icarus started the field by copying nature but a century ago we discovered we could make planes more easily with metal fixed wings.

Synthetic biology essentially completes the relationship by adding human design into biology. This embryonic field will expand vastly, and will be used for a wide range of tasks from resource extraction and processing, to computing. Nanotech and insights from neuroscience will add more to allow rich interaction between organic and inorganic devices, often bridging the gap to allow us to put electronic devices in direct connection with our bodies, or those of other creatures. This field also allows the wonderful possibility of undoing some of the damage done to the environment, and even making nature work better. Gaia 2.0 will be with us this century. Of course, if we don’t develop all this science and technology, we will be stuck with a human world that is immensely resource hungry and getting worse, using far more resources than would otherwise be needed, damaging the environment, with no hope of repairing the damage. There wouldn’t even be a plus side, because people would also live poorer lives and be less fulfilled and less happy.

Having been highly convergent on the goal of making the world a better place, this is where engineers often part company with greens. Most engineers think better engineering is the best route to a sustainable world, most greens (and, it has to be admitted, some engineers) think we should slow it all down. This superficially suggests lower environmental impact, implying that people will consume less if they swap devices less often, or don’t get that next pay rise, but it doesn’t deliver. It is a wrong deduction. In much the same way that poor people are often fatter than rich people, what it does change is the access to a better diet, in this case, of environmentally friendlier technology that really needs extra R&D before it is with us. That funding comes from market demand and the ability to pay, and that needs more people to be richer. For the next several decades, what we need is economic growth, selectively. Again, I start to agree with Porritt here. It isn’t just any growth we need, but growth that is spent wisely, using growth to improve peoples lives, and improving the environment we live in either directly or via R&D and the greener technology it will deliver.

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One response to “Environmental and engineering convergence

  1. If development is going to be neuromimetic, it’s going to go through pulsation periods of fast and slow, which seems to be how it actually does operate currently…

    http://committedparent.wordpress.com/2011/06/05/237-habits-of-highly-effective-mothers/

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