An Indigo Industrial Ecology Paper
Creating systems solutions for sustainable development through industrial ecology

Industrial Ecology as Systems Thinking and Practice

Industrial ecology is a branch of systems science and systems thinking. These terms are over-used and often abused. Here is a brief introduction to what we mean when we use them, and how they relate specifically to industrial ecology.
  •  A system is a set of elements inter-relating in a structured way.
  •  The elements are perceived as a whole with a purpose.
  • The elements interact within defined boundaries.
  •  A system's behavior cannot be predicted by analysis of its individual elements.
  •  The properties of a system emerge from the interaction of its elements and are distinct from their properties as separate pieces.
  •  The behavior of the system results from the interaction of the elements and between the system and its environment.  (System + Environment of System = A Larger System )
  •  The definition of the elements and the setting of system boundaries are subjective actions. So the assumptions of the definers or observers of any system must be made explicit.
Systems science ranges from highly theoretical work defining research methods to applied work in virtually all areas of life (often called "systems practice"). Some modes of applying systems thinking include the learning organization, systems dynamics, sociotechnical systems, and the viable system model.

In this time of complex and rapid change, systems thinking has immediate, pragmatic value for companies and agencies of any size.

We will give an industrial ecology example of the subjective nature of systems definition in the sidebar on steel. Understanding that we construct a system from a particular point of view is crucial to working with systems thinking and IE. This concept often helps to resolve conflicts between conflicting points of view.

The following examples illustrate the subjective nature of systems definition. Understanding that we construct a system from a particular point of view is crucial to working with systems thinking and IE.

Applying Industrial Ecology: two examples of systems definition

Thinking about Steel -- three perspectives or levels of system

Different firms and agencies define quite different systems relating to this basic commodity and its environmental impacts or benefits.

1. Managers in a mini-mill company are interested in such elements as the reliability of supply and costs of recycled scrap, technological breakthroughs that increase strength and durability, and process changes that lower emissions. For them, the purpose of the system may be to build a competitive edge for recycled steel.

2. Managers in an auto company, on the other hand, may define a system focused on materials selection that enables them to weigh the relative environmental, production, and cost factors of steel, aluminum, and plastic. They may choose design for environment  or life-cycle analysis tools to gain competitive advantage for their product designs.

One important overlap between the steel producer's and the steel user's systems is competitive advantage. The more the mini-mill reduces the environmental impacts of steel while keeping prices right, the more desirable it will be in the final product.

3. An environmental or economic development agency may define a system seeking to optimize the total recycling of metals, including, steel in a region or country. Elements could include relative recycling rates for different sources; industry needs for technical transfer and information flows; government procurement policy; and new business niches.

4. All three of these players may come together to consider the system of resource consumption and demand as impacted by large scale increases in demand due to China's rapid growth and post-tsunami reconstruction.

Making these different systems definitions and values explicit supports strategic planning in public/private partnerships or supplier/customer

Thinking about transportation

In transportation, an industrial ecologist would support short-term enhancements in automobile design through such tools as Design for Environment (DFE). The basic question would be: How can we optimize trade-offs to reduce energy use and pollution in the production process as well as during use of the product?

At another level, an industrial ecologist might ask, how can we transform small vehicle design to capture levels of efficiency and freedom from pollution not possible within the internal combustion model. Rocky Mountain Institute's Hypercar and hybrid electric vehicles are examples.

At a still broader level, an industrial ecologist (possibly in public policy or a competing business) would ask, how can we design integrated transportation systems to move people with highest resource efficiency and lowest possible pollution? How can telecommunications, urban planning, and design of work patterns reduce the number of trips and distance traveled.

See our transportation case for more details on this example.


Two  whole systems web sites with many links and bibliography:
additional links

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis 
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
Society for Organizational Learning SOL

Principia Cybernetica Library of electronic books on systems

"Restructuring a system doesn't mean shoving people or things around, bulldozing, rebuilding, hiring, firing -- that's not what changes system behavior. Almost always, the most effective restructuring means putting information into a place where it doesn't now reach, or changing goals, rewards, incentives and disincentives, so that the same people, in the same positions, make decisions in a different way. Restructuring a system means changing what's in people's heads."
                    --  Donella Meadows, co-author, Beyond the Limits to Growth

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