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Design Impact » Blog Archive » An Engineer In Awe of the Natural World

An Engineer In Awe of the Natural World

On the one year anniversary of Design Impact (Earth Day 2010), I thought I would share some thoughts about how my experience as an engineer has shaped my view of the natural world. The things engineers create can be phenomenally complex, challenging and surprising their makers. We know a lot about engineered systems (they were created by people after all), but we don’t understand them completely. It may be easy to understand their constituent parts, but because of the numerous direct and indirect interactions within a system, understanding how the overall system behaves is a more demanding task. It’s difficult to conceptualize how a small change might propagate throughout a system. Engineering experience has taught us that as systems increase in complexity, the consequences of change tend to be more profound. People often get first-order effects right, but some non-intuitive outcomes are the result of a chain reaction several layers deep. For example, engineers thought they understood the behavior of the Millennium Bridge very well before opening day, but were in for a surprise:

In hindsight the interaction between the sideways bridge motion and how people walk is clear, but it eluded engineers until it was too late.

Now take a moment and consider what we know about natural systems. They are resilient, elegant, and essential to human survival. We have studied the natural world and have remarkable (but incomplete) knowledge of it. As with engineering systems, we might have reasonable component-level knowledge, but our comprehension of the intricate inter-dependencies within natural systems is truly embryonic. Lack of system-level knowledge hinders our ability to predict the full consequences of human influences. We were caught off-guard by the results of a single interaction in the Millenium Bridge system - something that we built! What then can we expect when we mess with systems that we did not create, systems with structure only partially revealed through our observation and study?

Humans have several advantages when it comes to understanding engineered systems. We made them and know how they are put together. We can consult specifications and computer models used in their design. In contrast, we don’t have access to design plans for sophisticated natural systems that have evolved and adapted over millennia. We are constantly discovering new relationships and behavior, as well as the importance of seemingly insignificant species in ecosystems. As John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” The intricate links between elements of the natural world are astounding and humbling, surpassing by magnitudes the complexity of mankind’s most sophisticated creations. We can understand and predict correctly the effect of some disturbances on natural systems, but the full ramifications of human impact are likely to be more extensive and deeper than we expect — far more surprising than the wobbly bridge.

Even with modern analysis tools, predicting the results of substantial changes in engineered systems is somewhere between hard and impossible. To avoid unpleasant surprises when designing especially complex systems (automotive design, for example), engineers typically put forward designs that are essentially small perturbations of previously proven systems. We are conservative and resist ambitious changes in engineered systems, yet for some reason (economic externalities?) humans are quick to risk big impacts (pollution, unsustainable resource depletion) on the natural systems we depend on. Some dismiss the notion that humans can have extensive impact, even labeling this idea as arrogant. This convenient rationalization for continued consumption growth is short-sighted and blind to history. Human disruption has caused collapse of ecosystems, even whole societies. While past collapses have been regional in scope, modern society is more populous, resource intensive, and globally interdependent than ever, enhancing our potential for impact.

In summary, we need to recognize the limits of our ability to predict the consequences of human disruption; these consequences are likely to be more profound than we expect. Our interest in the long-term health of natural resources and ecosystems provides incentive to be conservative in our consumption and impact. Our current trajectory cannot be maintained; no system can keep expanding without bumping into limits. Planning and self-imposed restraint are more pleasant options than waiting until we run up against hard constraints such as resource depletion. As the most intelligent and powerful earthly inhabitants, stewardship to preserve is ours. Over the last year Design Impact has addressed ways to leverage our intelligence to provide a high quality of life without applying unsustainable pressure on our world, and will continue to explore how we can create a brighter future for ourselves.

Posted: April 22nd, 2010 | Filed under: Design, Sustainability, Vision |

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