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November 28, 2007 / or4green

Ecological Design

Book: Ecological Design by S. Van der Ryn and S. Cowan, 1996

A chief concern of this book is to bring ecological concerns into the world of design. Ecological design as defined by the authors is “any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes.” [p18] The first part of the book makes the case for a new kind of design and introduces concepts that appear throughout the rest of the text, such as appealing to nature for design inspiration. In the second part, the authors lay out their five principles of ecological design, which are roughly: 1) solutions in a place can arise from the nature of the place, 2) undertake ecological accounting, 3) design with nature, 4) involve the community, and 5) make nature visible in people’s lives.

The chapter on ecological accounting contains a number of interesting examples such as the tracking of a tomato and its packaging from their origins to the consumer, an accounting of resources and wastes in the San Francisco area, and a number of university resource flow accountings. It also has a product breakdown based on an earlier writing of Cradle to Cradle’s Braungart that is similar to the biological/technological split in that book. In fact, this book discusses many of the same or similar ideas as Cradle to Cradle, although Ecological Design was published about six years earlier. The “design with nature” principle outlined in the subsequent chapter has much in common with the goals of industrial ecology. That chapter also describes a number of interesting examples such as plants whose roots filter heavy metals out of soil or factory runoff. This use of examples to support the well thought out principles of ecological design is a strength of the book. On the down side, the writing is sometimes prone to broad generalizations about the ubiquitous design ills imposed by city planners, engineers, etc. But overall it is an interesting and often inspiring work.

The book is primarily about sustainability and design. As such, the relevance to Operations Research and Sustainability is fairly general. But there are a couple of items with more obvious connections. One was a description of the California Waste Exchange’s “Directory of Industrial Recyclers and Listing of Hazardous Wastes Available for Recycling” (see This directory lists recyclable hazardous wastes, and available surplus materials and recalls the Glassey and Gupta LP analysis of matching various kinds of paper waste with recycled paper production (see References). The other item was this quote: “Classic economic notions of optimization and efficiency are no longer adequate to describe the ecological complexity surrounding us.” (p141) The challenge that the OR practitioner faces in many realms, of applying what can be inherently reductionist techniques to complex problems is particularly acute when the subject matter is the environment.

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