In This Issue
Sustainability Engineering
March 1, 1999 Volume 29 Issue 1

Harnessing Ingenuity for Sustainable Outcomes

Monday, March 1, 1999

Author: Deanna J. Richards


Reconciling economic growth with the needs of the environment and society will require human creativity and technological innovation.

Will technological innovations save us from an unsustainable future? Or will the major social and environmental challenges facing the planet -- poverty and inequity, pollution, climate change, and resource depletion -- overwhelm us? More to the point, will technological progress and economic growth lead to a better life for the majority of humankind? These are controversial questions.

Robert J. Eaton (Getting the Most out of Environmental Metrics, The Bridge, Vol. 29, No.1) observes that when he started his engineering career, the major design constraints were economic (i.e., material and labor costs, time to market, and manufacturability). Today, environmental considerations are routinely being internalized in management and design decisions. "Ecoefficiency" has emerged as a buzzword for maximizing economic returns while minimizing environmental impact. (1) It gives environmental considerations strategic importance rather than treating them simply as overhead. Sustainable development captures this idea but takes it farther: Economic and environmental goals must be met, along with social goals, creating a new triple bottom line.

The questions posed above present a good starting point for exploring technological futures in terms of economic vitality (which is well understood), ecological sustainability (which requires a better understanding of the ecological constraints on human endeavors), and social desirability (which is manifested in a mix of cultural and social values).

The history of technological adaptation to meet societal objectives (sustainable development being one of the more recent) suggests that we can reconcile economic growth with the needs of the environment and society. To do so will take human ingenuity and technological innovation. It will require the creation of new markets for redesigned products. And it will take a willingness to take calculated risks and develop engineered systems that are better integrated with natural and social systems. It will also mean navigating the unintended consequences of technological advance: Even our greatest accomplishments sow the seeds of future problems.

Achieving Sustainability

The impact of human activity on the environment is a product of population, wealth or affluence (a surrogate for consumption), and technology and know-how (which create wealth). To achieve sustainability, environmental impacts will have to be reduced and the equilibrium between economic growth and the environment maintained. This can be done by stabilizing population, decreasing wealth, or applying technology and know-how.

Population stabilization is a daunting social challenge. Improving the education of women so that childbearing is delayed is often cited as an effective way to relieve the global population burden (World Bank, 1992). Such an approach may seem more acceptable than more aggressive strategies. Yet, even progressive social innovations such as this are stymied by differing political and cultural values. Typically, the rate of social change is very slow, making population stabilization a necessary but not sufficient approach for achieving sustainability.

Reducing wealth (or, rather, consumption) appeals to some as a way to encourage sustainability, but it is an unlikely outcome. It may even prove to be foolhardy: Decreasing wealth may make the situation more unsustainable. Birth rates fall when education levels and standards of living are raised. Indeed, education and economic growth will be necessary for stabilizing population.

A "Lever" for Sustainable Outcomes

That leaves technology (including know-how) as the most promising lever for sustainable outcomes. Technology is broadly defined here as the application of science and the entire body of methods and materials used to achieve industrial or commercial objectives. The energy crisis of the 1970s demonstrated that Americans would not readily give up their automobiles, throw on extra sweaters, or lower their thermostats. Energy companies like AES (2) recognized and cashed in on these aspects of human behavior. Indeed, the challenge is to harness technological innovations that create, deliver, and manage superior goods and services -- the vital engineered systems humanity depends on -- for sustainable outcomes. While population and consumption are social issues, technology is an industry concern. It is the business and pursuit of engineering.

Over the last decade, the National Academy of Engineering, through its program on Technology and Sustainable Development (TSD), has tried to illuminate the relationship between technology, economic growth, and the environment. It has done so through a series of annual industrial ecology workshops, related studies, and resulting publications. The work of the TSD program spans three broad areas: environmental design and management of systems of production and consumption; ecologically informed engineering; and technological futures and the environment. Several important ideas have emerged regarding prospects for an environmentally sustainable future.

We are a learning society. In this regard, the "greening" of industry that has occurred over the last 30 years is instructive (Allenby and Richards, 1994; Richards, 1997). It has changed forever how industry conducts business. Prior to the 1970s, environmental considerations were externalities not captured on the balance sheets of industrial operations. During the 1970s, highly visible environmental incidents such as Bhopal and Love Canal led to calls for regulations. These regulations, however imperfect (see Eaton), began the process of internalizing environmental costs.

Industry's attitude changed from denial to feeling threatened, and the approach adopted was one of compliance. In the 1980s, competitiveness and globalization led to new approaches such as total quality management and just-in-time manufacturing. These encouraged the identification and elimination of inefficient processes and practices, which led to waste reduction and pollution prevention. Environmental change was further affected by strong corporate leadership (Creating Corporate Environmental Change, Edgar S. Woolard, The Bridge, Vol. 29, No.1). Reports began to emerge of companies realizing cost savings while also improving environmental performance.

The 1980s also found industry struggling to find substitutes for ozone-depleting substances in a range of applications, including electronics where they were used as solvents to clean components. The electronics industry was the first to develop usable substitutes. Shortly thereafter, the industry introduced design for environment, which integrated environmental considerations during the design of products rather than after the fact. This focus on product design grew in importance in the 1990s, as European product take-back and other regulations introduced the notion of extended product responsibility (EPR) around the world. EPR is based on the principle that suppliers, manufacturers, and consumers share responsibility for managing the environmental impacts of products throughout their life cycles. EPR extends the boundaries of environmental consideration downstream to products (and delivery of services). This is important, since in the case of many consumer durables (e.g., cars, refrigerators, washing machines), environmental impacts during use far exceed those during manufacture. EPR also looks upstream to the management of complex supplier chains (Committee on Industrial Environmental Performance Metrics, forthcoming).

As a result of the evolution in corporate environmental stewardship that has occurred over the last 3 decades, there are new opportunities to improve ecoefficiency. Operational strategies for realizing these improvements include:

  • minimizing emissions, increasing yields, reducing the generation of nonproductive material streams, using energy more efficiently, and substituting more benign materials for ones that are hazardous; and
  • considering wastes as "food" and creating symbiotic industrial linkages (Allenby and Richards, 1994; Richards, 1997) like those described by Gordon and Mangan (By-Product Synergy, The Bridge, Vol. 29, No. 1).

Improving Ecoefficiency

Strategies for improving product-related ecoefficiency include:

  • designing and selling more energy-efficient products that use fewer (or new and different) materials with equivalent or superior performance;
  • designing and making products with manufacturability, remanufacturability, and recyclability in mind; and
  • improving logistics and distribution associated with the delivery of supplies and product to markets and their take-back.

More ambitiously, ecoefficiency improvements from an EPR perspective suggest designing products and engineering systems to optimize "functionality" or "service" (Allenby and Richards, 1994; Richards, 1997). This means, for example, offering pest control instead of pesticides, refrigeration instead of refrigerators, document reproduction or printing instead of copiers or printers. For this approach to work, the design has to take into account upgradability and, for diverse product lines, interchangeability. In the latter case, managing the complex logistics of juggling different products, parts, and their recovery and remanufacture, as Xerox does (Committee on Industrial Environmental Performance Metrics, forthcoming), is key.

The hurdle for ecoefficient products and services is the customer. In many instances, the customer base for these products is small. However, it may be growing. Electrolux's new line of ecoefficient products now accounts for as much as 8 percent of its revenues. In addition, companies that are aggressive in pursuing ecoefficiency improvements in their industrial practices and products see potential markets looming simply from the demands placed on physical and natural resources by a growing population.

Most of the innovations discussed so far have resulted from incremental change. Incremental change is driven by pressures to reduce costs or meet quality, design, performance, manufacturability, or environmental goals. Change of this sort seldom results directly from any deliberate R&D, although it frequently is influenced indirectly by R&D conducted for other purposes.

Three Types of Innovation

There are at least three other types of innovation that have to be harnessed for sustainability to be realizable: radical innovations, technology-system innovations, and techno-economic revolutions (Freeman, 1992). Radical innovations are discontinuous events that result from deliberate R&D. (For example, incremental improvements in canoes did not lead to steamships and the developments of glass and paper did not lead to the creation of plastics). The underlying science and engineering are often incremental, but the deployment of the technologies leads to radical departures from past production practices. These innovations are unevenly distributed over industry sectors and over time. However, when they occur, they can spawn new markets or significantly improve the use of inputs (by lowering cost and improving the quality of existing products), as occurred with the shift to the oxygen steelmaking process.

Technology-system innovations affect many branches of the economy through far-reaching technological change. New sectors of economic activity are created. The development of the semiconductor industry can be attributed to technology-systems innovation, as can synthetic materials and petrochemicals introduced during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Adjunct developments in machinery for injection molding and extrusion and later innovations in packaging, construction, electrical equipment, agriculture, textiles, clothing, toys, and other applications resulted in a range of interrelated innovations that were not contemplated when the materials and chemicals were first developed.

Even more far-reaching change results from new technology that has a ubiquitous effect on the economy, creating a techno-economic revolution. These innovations transform production and management throughout the economy, in essence changing the ecology of industry (Richards and Pearson, 1998). The introduction of electric power is an example of one such dramatic transition. The computer, microelectronics, and biotechnology are more recent cases in point.

Computers and microelectronics have radically improved the monitoring and control of emissions, and of energy and materials use, and they have facilitated more effective quality and inventory control. They have changed the social and management fabric of commerce and communications (e.g., through the Internet and workplace practices such as telecommuting) and raised the importance of knowledge management for environmental and other purposes (Richards, forthcoming). Biotechnology tools are transforming chemical companies into biotechnology companies. Monsanto, for example, is focusing on health services and food production as part of its sustainable-development vision (Magretta, 1997).

Indeed, it is insufficient to think in terms of strictly green or sustainable technologies, if sustainability concerns are to be effectively addressed. Technology is dynamic. Change is inevitable. History and projections of technological advance show that we have been replacing resources that are limited (or found to be wanting in other ways) with substitutes of similar or superior performance. For example, there has been a decarbonization of energy systems over the centuries. Studies of technological trajectories of energy systems indicate a shift to a hydrogen economy (which will require solar and nuclear power) (Ausubel and Langford, 1997).

Data also show that the economy is dematerializing (not literally, but in the sense of using less material by weight and per unit product). For example, newer materials (plastics and composites) have led to the lightweighting of cars. Lightweighting and more sophisticated electronics for monitoring and controlling on-board systems have led to greater fuel efficiency.

Other areas have also benefited from efficiency improvements. Water conservation is relieving pressures on fresh-water supplies, and further improvements are possible through technology and policy change (e.g., eliminating subsidies for certain consumptive uses, such as agriculture in arid areas like California). Improvements in agricultural practices and yields, combined with the potential that biotechnology promises, offers brighter prospects for meeting the food needs of the planet.

However, new technologies often create new problems. Newer materials such as plastics and composites that have environmental advantages are used dissipatedly. This makes their management (to prevent leaks and accumulations in the environment) an important design consideration. Similarly, improvements in agricultural yields may improve the availability of food but are not sustainable if they also damage ecosystems (e.g., as a result of pesticide use) or result in other unintended environmental impacts.

Unlike the environmental concerns of the 1970s, which were often local and recognized at their points of origin (e.g., smokestacks, effluent pipes, unregulated dumps), today's environmental threats are cumulative and interactive, often arising from multiple causes that are not sector specific. In addition, many more-recent environmental concerns, such as the potential of toxins to bioaccumulate or to disrupt basic human and animal endocrine systems, are subtle, often difficult to identify, and complex to manage.

The complexities associated with the interactions between human and natural systems make quantification and management in the sustainable-development context daunting. These tasks must be approached at many levels: national policy; interfirm decisions that change production and consumption patterns; process and product decisions made by firms; and choices made by consumers. In the short term, the move toward sustainable business practices presents an opportunity to disseminate "best practices" in environmental management as well as environmentally friendly products and services. The longer-term challenge is to manage the uncertainties inherent in resolving complex, coupled interactions between human and natural systems (Schulze, forthcoming; Schulze, 1996).

Addressing Indirect, Delayed Effects

We also need to improve our ability to predict and deal with systems effects. While any action has direct effects, interconnection within a system produces indirect and delayed effects. Chlorofluorocarbons were invented in the 1930s as a safe alternative to ammonia and sulfur dioxide, then used in home refrigeration. The intent was to eliminate the toxicity, flammability, and corrosion concerns of the other chemicals used at the time. The indirect and delayed effect was stratospheric ozone depletion (Ausubel and Sladovich, 1989) due to CFCs leaking from refrigerators, air conditioners, and electronics-cleaning operations.

Policies intended to address social and environmental concerns similarly have often had indirect and delayed effects. For example, solid-waste management policies enacted a decade ago led local jurisdictions to develop waste management plans. These included the siting and financing of landfills and the encouragement of curbside recycling. The intent was to have municipalities take responsibility for the waste they generated. The indirect and delayed effect has been the creation of an overcapacity of heavily financed landfills in search of trash. In this case, system interactions were interactive, not additive. Local trash volumes were lower than anticipated because of the success of recycling. The trash example also shows that when there are more than two actors in a system, the relationship between any two is determined not by the actions of the two players, but by the interactions among all those in the system. Landfill owners, including municipalities, struck deals with cities like New York to take their trash. As these deals have become public, they are being questioned by communities and environmental groups, who are concerned about what is in the trash and if it will cause problems locally.

System effects such as these are everywhere. Hence, even the greatest steps toward sustainable development will bring future problems. Accepting this fact frees us from the futility of searching for magic bullets or having groundless faith in the perfectibility of human societies (which underlies much of the sustainable-development rhetoric). It allows us to embrace progress and take steps to improve the quality of life of humans and the environment.

As noted by Robert Frosch (Sustainability Engineering (editorial), The Bridge, Vol. 29, No. 1), over the next 50 years, assuming current trends continue, roughly 80 million people per year will be added to the world's urban population. That is equivalent to building an average of 8 cities of 10 million people each year for 50 years. How can the needs of those new urbanites be met without further affecting the sustainability of the planet?

The Need for Social Innovation

Large parts of Russia, China, and Africa are already unlivable by any reasonable standard and face serious trade-offs in their national investment decisions. For example, China burns coal as its primary source of power. Cleaner coal-burning technologies exist but are more expensive than traditional coal-powered plants. China is also a cold country, and a significant share of its population still lacks electricity, heat, or adequate nutrition. So, given the choice between building several dirty power plants or fewer cleaner ones that would deprive many of power, the economic and social choice is simple: Build the cheaper, dirtier plants.

In many instances, technologies exist to dramatically improve the world's worst environmental and social problems. What is missing are social innovations that can transcend or alter current political and economic realities.

The situation of the Dinka tribe in southern Sudan illustrates one extreme of the need for sustainable development. The Dinkas are on the brink of starvation, after having been uprooted from their homeland. They live on international handouts. One in six people in the world live like the Dinka (Hertsgaard, 1999). That is a huge number. The more telling point is that for much of history, that proportion has been closer to 9 out of 10. That means we've made tremendous progress.

The challenge posed by sustainable development is one of spreading and speeding this progress through technological ingenuity and economic growth that successfully integrate ecological constraints and social needs. This requires harnessing technological innovations already in the pipeline and developing new systems of sustainable production and consumption -- essentially reengineering industrial systems within emerging ecological constraints and social demands.

This challenge can be met by taking an integrated approach that taps the human capacity to learn and improve efficiency; harnesses the spirit of innovation; anticipates and acts on unintended consequences of systems of technology and public policies; and leverages new knowledge about ecological and social needs to improve the quality of human life and the environment.


Allenby, B. R., and D. J. Richards. 1994. The Greening of Industrial Ecosystems . Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Ausubel, J. H., and H. D. Langford. 1997. Technological Trajectories and the Human Environment. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Ausubel, J. H., and H. E. Sladovich. 1989. Technology and Environment. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Committee on Industrial Environmental Performance Metrics. Forthcoming. Environmental Performance Metrics: Challenges and Opportunities. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Freeman, C. 1992. The Economics of Hope -- Essays on Technical Change, Economic Growth, and the Environment. London: Pinter Publications, Ltd.

Hertsgaard, M. 1999. Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future. New York: Broadway Books.

Magretta, J. 1997. Growth through global sustainability: An interview with Monsanto CEO Robert B. Shapiro. Harvard Business Review 75(1):79-88.

Richards, D. J. 1997. The Industrial Green Game: Implications for Environmental Design and Management. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Richards, D. J. Forthcoming. Green Tech-Knowledge-y: Information and Knowledge Systems for Improving Environmental Performance. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Richards, D. J., and G. Pearson. 1998. The Ecology of Industry: Sectors and Linkages. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Schulze, P. C. 1996. Engineering Within Ecological Constraints. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Schulze, P. C. Forthcoming. Measures of Environmental Performance and Ecosystem Condition. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

World Bank. 1992. World Development Report 1992: Development and the Environment. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). 1996. Eco-efficient Leadership for Improved Economic and Environmental Performance. Conches-Geneva, Switzerland: WBCSD.


1. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (1996) has suggested that ecoefficiency is the delivery of competitively priced goods and services that satisfy human needs and bring quality of life and the progressive reduction of ecological impacts and resource intensity throughout the life cycle to a level commensurate with the Earth's estimated carrying capacity.

2. AES (previously known as Applied Energy Services) was founded by Roger Sant and Dennis Bakke, who headed up the energy conservation programs at the old Federal Energy Administration. Their experience showed them that Americans were not about to give up the comforts of industrial civilization, nor were those in developing countries going to accept poverty. They started AES with the goal not of producing energy-conserving products, but of providing services -- heat, light, and power -- at the lowest possible cost.

About the Author:Deanna J. Richards is associate director of the National Academy of Engineering's Program Office and directs the Academy's program on Technology and Sustainable Development, formerly known as Technology and Environment.