One of the first books I bought on the ‘the future’ outside of texts I was reading for the Masters of Strategic Foresight was Cradle to Cradle by McDonough and Braungart. I bought a copy in 2003 while at a World Future Society conference in San Francisco, it is printed on a material made from plastic resins and fibres. It claimed to be waterproof, which I tested, and recyclable, which I haven’t as yet. The material is soft and pleasant to the touch. They describe the material as a ‘technical nutrient’, “a product that can be broken down and circulated infinitely in industrial cycles.” (p5) I still remember how excited I was by both the book’s message and the embodiment of the message by the artefact itself. The idea of cradle to cradle manufacturing, where the waste products of one process becomes the feedstock for another, is still a very seductive idea to me. That this should be key requirement of all design is also one which has been slow to catch on, but is starting to appear. Europe requires that the recycling of packaging and products be considered during the design process. The idea of upcycling is starting to gain traction, as is the closing of systems in restaurants and the like.

Cradle to Cradle

 

What I had seen less of until last year is the organised networks of companies working together to create an ecology of industries that are aware of the feedstocks required for their processes and work together to try and match these to the waste processes of other industries. Hume City Council in Melbourne has been consistently enabling this ecology to develop by holding events and helping companies to network.  They have produced a Hume Resource Recovery and Cleantech Map (opens pdf) which indicates what is available in their area. Their Business Efficiency Network is also very active. This type of activity takes time and supported effort to operate, and I have watched from the sidelines as they start to develop and deliver real changes in their area. (I have no direct involvement in this activity, I am an interested observer) If your local council is looking for a way to stimulate change in their area, this model has real lessons that can be transferred.

This topic was brought to mind by the recent reporting that:

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have succeeded in genetically altering Ralstonia eutropha soil bacteria in such a way that they are able to convert carbon into isobutanol, an alcohol that can be blended with or even substituted for gasoline. It is hoped that once developed further, this technology could help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and lessen the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by smoke stacks. Gizmag

The use of a waste product from industrial fossil fuel based processes as a replacement for fossil fuel is seductive as it means the current industrial infrastructure and way of life may not have to change. I expect that we will continue to see many of these types of announcements in coming months/years as the bite of climate change and restricted resources really starts. Whether the bacteria can do the job or not is irrelevant to some degree, the real question is what should we be doing to plan for the changes we need to make at a domestic, community, and country level to adapt to the future which is approaching? The recent work done in the Arctic and Antarctic suggest that changes are happening more rapidly than models were predicting, and the summer just experienced by the USA and Europe may be a sign of worse to come. If we are going to try to keep a semblance of an industrial society going then activities, like the work being undertaken in Hume, become  extremely important and must given due focus.

 

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