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issue 08/15/2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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1 The IE 2000 conference is Oct. 5-8 at the University of California at Berkeley, Haas School of Business. For more information on the conference call Eric Stryson at 415 235-6199 or visit the Global Futures website at

2 For some great thinking on this topic, see Peter Russell's The Global Brain Awakens or From Science to God, or take a look at



Industrial Ecology: Can We Trust It?

by Cate Gable

When I hear the term 'industrial,' I see factories pumping waste into once clear-running streams (and, now, Erin Brockovich/Julia Roberts running around in sandals and a halter top collecting water samples. By the way, if you haven't seen the movie it's worth it; ecologists don't get many chances to cheer in movie theatres these days, but this true story provides one!); or a 'maximum yield forest,' which is the Boise Cascade euphemism for a clear-cutting policy that turns a deeply-shaded, mossy, multi-layered Pacific Northwest forest into piles of slash, dry snags and rubble. So I don't much trust that 'industrial' can be joined to 'ecology' with any good results.

My mind is being changed, however, by an 'industrial ecologist' named Bill Shireman, President and CEO of Global Futures. Bill has been a soldier for the environment for over 20 years and has the distinction of being one of the authors of California's Bottle Bill-one of the first pieces of ecological legislation that was crafted by a coalition of business people and enivronmentalists. The Bottle Bill was passed in 1987 and establishes a redemption value of 2.5 cents for selected glass, plastic and aluminum containers in California. It is still in effect and, in fact, its scope has just been increased by the current state administration.

It was during this time, in the middle of Bill's environmental lobbying days, that he had a mini-revelation about the nature of systems. He was gardening in his backyard one afternoon and wondering whether his efforts were worth it-not only his efforts in the garden, but, perhaps also his lobbying efforts. He found himself mulling over the number of hours he spent in the garden, the amount of money spent on fertilizers and fungicides, and on buying the plants themselves. As he stopped to think about this for a moment, he stood looking out over his fence to a vacant lot just behind his house. There the field was growing all by itself. Now, granted, it wasn't producing peppers and tomatoes, but, without any human intervention at all, it was providing a mad variety of blooms and greenery and life.

"My thought was something like-it's the system that's wrong." said Shiremen from his office last week in San Francisco. "My garden would not be sustainable without me but the vacant lot had developed sustainability. I realized that we need to create human living systems-processes of communications and activities and feedback-that are sustainable and produce the results we want."

Bill's epiphany resulted in his changing course slightly. Instead of lobbying corporations for the environment, he now works with them to craft policy and projects that, step by step, bring us all closer to a sustainable future. Bill founded Global Futures in 1988 (originally California Futures) with the purpose of putting ecological and biological values at the center of the business world.

Shireman defines "industrial ecology" as the application of ecological and biological principles to business practices. He is convinced that the key to working out the problems of the environment lies in bridge-building between corporations and ecologically-minded citizens and consulting professionals; and he has staked his reputation and his own money on it.

The difference in Global Futures' approach is the notion of creating a system as opposed to creating a 'program.' A program has certain goals, executable strategies, and a finite time-frame, after which, in true entropic fashion, whatever forces were operating in the first place take over again. A program uses money and efforts, generally from the outside, to 'solve' a problem.

A system, on the other hand, is about setting into motion a set of interactive parts that use feedback to avoid problems and, aside from the entropy tithe, generally end by creating rather than consuming resources. A natural field, the original Mid-West prairie, let's say, is a system that produces and supports a variety of plants and animals, and provides oxygen, flowers, fuel, etc. The way mono-culture agriculture is currently employed in the US, a field of grain is a 'program' that uses labor, special equipment, fertilizers, and water to produce crops which generally can't reseed themselves. (The domination and dissemination of hybrid, usually sterile, plants by the petro-chemical industry is a story for another day.)

One of Bill's most useful industrial ecology models or metaphoric systems is the idea of the four phases of management, based on the biological stages of a forest or any natural system:

    • creation
    • growth
    • development
    • climax: or creative destruction & renewal

Creation is the brainstorming phase, when lots of ideas are created and an abundance of energy and resources explodes into activity. In the growth stage, the ideas and creativity sort themselves out and what has proven successful becomes apparent. In the development stage, tasks and analysis become more decentralized; replication of the 'successful idea' is needed. Total Quality Management (TQM) and 'learning organization' practices take place in this phase as processes that have already been established become codified and made more efficient or specialized.

At the end of the development stage, factors are already incubating that provide limits to development; conditions may be changing such that the original creative idea is no longer exactly on the mark. Usually at this stage the 'development machine' is already in place, though, and processes become difficult to change. Thus, the climax stage arrives; collapse or destruction of the old processes or environment occurs and a chance for a new start and renewal begins. The fire that destroys a section of the forest but allows dormant seeds to burst out into newly-created sun would be an example of this destruction and renewal phase.

This biological model is one of the tools that Bill and his staff use in their consulting projects with corporate clients. Right now Global Futures is working on several ideas:

    • In collaboration with Asian Productivity Organization, Global Futures is producing a Green Productivity manual
    • MacMillan Bloedel -- the facilitation of an alternative forest business plan
    • Environmental Protection Agency -- a study on computer buy-back and recyling issues
    • Industrial Ecology (IE) 2000 : Maximizing Shareholder Value, Lessons from the Natural World -- the fifth year of an annual conference on industrial ecology that includes discussion of eco-issues and green case studies 1

Many green activists feel that working with business in this way is selling out to the enemy. We have all watched the forces of information technology bring the goals of the industrial revolution to a level of more efficient and feverish execution. Why should we help?

If technology, in the service of industrial ecology, expands the extractive and exploitative capacity of our industrial complex, the environmental crisis that many of us are already aware of will accelerate. But if information technology is used to strengthen our ability to collect, aggregate, and analyze data; if we us it to increase our understanding of the natural processes around us; and if it allows us the means to more efficiently communicate with each other, then technology becomes a handmaiden to our sustainable future.

"We have an ingrained habit of finding enemies, whether it's eco-activist versus corporate CEO or liberal versus conservative." says Shireman in the context of ecology, technology, and current business forces. "We are always on the look-out for the 'other.' I think we need to realize now that there is no 'other.' We're all in this together."

Global Futures is putting the emphasis in the right place. If information technology is providing us the Global Brain 2 then the Global Heart must provide our direction and values. Or as Shireman puts it, " 'Head' is executing against our goals, it provides the means; but Heart is the destination."

b i o :
Cate Gable is a poet and writer (author of Strategic Action Planning NOW!) , strategic marketing consultant in e-commerce, teacher, and President of Axioun Communications International. She divides her time between Berkeley, CA; the Pacific Northwest; and Paris, France. Send comments to her at


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