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Sustainable Innovation 06: Resilience
Jeremy Faludi, 31 Oct 06
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Dr. Joseph Fiksel, co-director of the Center for Resilience at Ohio State University, spoke at Sustainable Innovation 06 about design for "global resilience". Resilience, by his definition, is an additional layer of good design. First there was design for the environment, then design for sustainability (which includes not only the environment but also labor and social justice considerations), and next will be design for resilience. Resilience means having the ability to change and adapt. Businesses today operate in a complex world, not just in the sense of being complicated, but in the chaos-theory meaning of complexity: sensitive to initial conditions, with some points of stability but other points of radically unpredictable change, or what Fiksel called "turbulence." Turbulence makes it hard to predict even to the next day, much less twenty years down the line. Because of this, he says the discipline of strategic planning has largely been abandoned because it's been proven ineffective. Strategic adaptation is the new method. Drawing on Arie de Geus' The Living Company, if you look through history, the life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company is about 40 years, and small companies are even shorter. Long-lived companies share some traits. They are attuned to their environment and change when it changes; they have a cohesive, shared identity; they tolerate diverse ideas; and they are financially conservative, avoiding risk and often eschewing short-term profits for long-term gain.

Profitability is a symptom of corporate health, not a predictor. Profit machines are designed, maintained, and controlled; living systems, by contrast, are self-organizing, autonomous, and adaptive. Resilient companies and resilient products act more like living systems. This is, of course, a form of biomimicry. One of his side-points was that environmentalists' frequent denial of growth and advocation of steady-state systems is wrong. It's natural for organisms to need to grow. This can open up a whole debate of its own, which I won't get into.

Fiksel's design-for-resilience basically adds some metrics to the already long list of requirements for success:

  • For utility, measure not only usability, usefulness, affordability, accuracy, quality, and reliability, but also versatility.
  • For life cycle, measure not only feasibility, testability, scalability, serviceability, and disassembly, but also renewability.
  • For environmental impact, measure not only waste and toxics avoidance, recyclability, and eco-efficiency, but also eco-intensity (the consumption of resources per dollar).
  • For continuity, measure not only safety, security, redundancy, flexibility, and recoverability, but also adaptability.
  • For social responsibility, measure not only equity, accessibility, sensitivity, integrity, dignity, but also diversity.

    He also mentioned the Central Ohio Resource Transformation Center: an industrial center being created in central Ohio to develop an industrial ecology network between companies and municipalities. It will be a place where the waste from one industry gets turned into resources for another. While still in its infancy, it will hopefully divert 50% of waste from this industrial center (amounting to 500 tons of waste per year), and will not be static but will be a reconfigurable network of waste-to-resource sharing.

    More from SI06:

  • Sustainable Innovation 06: Dispatch from Chicago
  • Sustainable Innovation 06: Green to Gold
  • Sustainable Innovation 06: Sun's Green Computing

    (All photos are c/o the Centre for Sustainable Design, who organized the event. Taken by Laura Flanigan of Foresight Design, Chicago)

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