The Natural Edge Project The Natural Advantage of Nations Whole System Design Factor 5 Cents and Sustainability Higher Education and Sustainable Development

"I'm going to tell you about a book called The Natural Advantage of Nations. It's a remarkable book just out about how to develop a sustainable economy and society. It is packed full of local and international innovations and solutions and I'm well advised that it's sure to become a must read for anyone with an interest in the field."
Geraldine Doogue, Radio National

Introduction to Sustainable Development for Engineering and Built Environment Professionals


Unit 1 - A New Perspective

Lecture 4: Emerging Technologal Innovations

Educational Aim

To provide some examples of technological innovations that are beginning to drive what we have referred to as ‘the next industrial revolution’ for sustainable development. To also note the importance of existing innovations that may have the potential to be dramatically transformed.

Required Reading

Hargroves, K. and Smith, M. (2005) The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London:

  1. Chapter 1: 'Significant potential for resource productivity improvements (including Table 1.1), Creating competitive advantage of the firm.' (2.5 pages), pp 13-16.

  2. Chapter 13: 'National Systems of Innovation', Table 13.1 (1.5 pages),pp 256-257.

  3. Chapter 17: 'Profitable Greenhouse Solutions', Table 17.2 (4 pages), pp 331-334.

  4. Chapter 20: 'Water: Nature's Gold', Table 20.1 (1 page), p 390.

Learning Points

* 1. In the case of modern society, two critical global needs are: 1) a dramatic improvement in resource productivity and, 2) a reduction in environmental impacts – or indeed (ideally) a net improvement in environmental conditions. We will require radical gains in resource productivity and energy efficiency, much larger than the incremental gains currently achieved in most day to day built environment and engineering applications.


* 2. Science and engineering innovations that could assist in moving toward a more sustainable society may be just around the corner – or are here already! Some examples include optoelectronics, fuel cell technology, materials science, nanotechnology and Biomimicry.


* 3. It is important for the professions to give careful consideration to the benefits and disadvantages of emerging innovations. Although innovations are intended to provide benefit, there are numerous historical examples of unsuccessful and harmful consequences. Some technologies - which on their own were previously deemed economically unfeasible or not useful - have the potential to be combined with other technologies to provide products and services with radical resource productivity improvements.


* 4. There are numerous examples of governments, businesses and communities around the world who have already made the decision to address these needs (or who have ‘caught the wave’) and who are enjoying the successes that follow. A well known international example is that of Interface Carpets. Ray Anderson, engineer, CEO and Chair of Interface carpets, said that realising the unsustainable practices performed by his company ‘was like a spear in my chest’, while reading Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce. This resulted in Ray completely changing the way his company does business, making Interface one of the most recognised sustainability-oriented companies in the world.[1] The publication The Natural Advantage of Nations documents many other such case studies.


* 5. Examples where new and exciting techniques and technologies are leading to products and services with resource productivity improvements include:

  • Optoelectronics: Significant moves are being made to design the optoelectronic computer, designed to run on particles of light (photons), as opposed to the traditional electronics. About the size of a Frisbee, the optoelectronic computer concept is extremely fast (comparable to today’s fastest supercomputers), generates much less waste heat, and is more compact than the current electronic version.[2]

  • Materials science: Two engineers from University College London have devised a method of customising the properties of a three dimensional material structure to dramatically improve the efficiency of materials usage and ultra-lighting – making, for example, aircraft wings that are dense and strong close to the fuselage while making the tip of the wing light and flexible. This method uses the culmination of existing technologies including finite element analysis, genetic algorithms and rapid prototyping technologies.[3]


Brief Background Information

Emerging Technologies as part of the Sixth Wave of Innovation
The enabling technologies introduced above are further elaborated below:

  1. Resource Productivity or Eco-Efficiency: DuPont’s Chairman & CEO Chad Halliday stated in March 2006 that, ‘In working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we achieved real benefits, including more than $2 billion in avoided costs due to energy conservation activities.’ Dow Chemicals has reduced its energy consumption per unit of production by 21 percent since 1994, saving itself $3 billion in the process. BASF has cut its annual costs at one site alone by €500 million through improved efficiency.

  2. Whole System Design: Whole system optimisation for a paper manufacturing plant found that the plant could be a net generator of electricity. The key trick is the gasification of the black liquor and biomass, releasing significant energy and heat through which to power co-generation, creating a surplus of electricity for the plant. But making this change to the system creates other changes which also need to be optimised. K. Maunsbach et al optimised the whole system to demonstrate that paper and pulp plants can be designed or re-designed to produce a net surplus of power.[4]

  3. Biomimicry: Mick Pearce is world famous for the way he mimics in building designs termite mounds in order to maintain pleasant temperatures (26 C), even in extreme conditions. As Mick Pearce describes it, ‘Termites encapsulate an environment fit for themselves and for the fungi which they cultivate. They are masters of air-conditioning without added power to the buildings they make.

  4. Green Chemistry and Engineering: Sydney-based Peter Steinberg and his colleague Staffan Kjelleberg have found a way to prevent bacterial build up or biofilms (bacterial colonies) on boats or any surface in water, using an environmentally benign approach with no heavy metals or harmful chemicals. They discovered a sea plant that emits a molecule to dissuade bacteria from colonising on its surface, effectively jamming the bacteria's communication networks. Using this insight, they mimicked the chemical and have subsequently invented an environmentally friendly anti-fouling substance that can be used on surfaces in hospitals, contact lenses and paints to reduce slimy build-ups in an environmentally benign manner.

  5. Industrial Ecology: The Kwinana Industrial Area of Western Australia is one of the early examples of industrial ecology. The region is home to an alumina nickel and an oil refinery, a coal and gasfied power station, a cement plant, three major industrial chemicals plants, a pigment plant, and a number of small to medium sized operators. A number of synergies have been realised so far – within the bauxite residue disposal areas; conversion of weak hydrochloric acid from pigment production into ammonium chloride for synthetic rutile production; and conversion of waste hydrogen and carbon dioxide into commercial gases. In total, there are 106 existing resource interactions taking place.

  6. Renewable Energy: Professor Andrew Blakers and Dr Klaus Weber’s innovation has created more efficient solar cells while cutting the costs by 75 percent. Their work at the Australian National University’s Centre of Sustainable Energy Systems has stunned the industry with a simple but brilliant breakthrough. They slice the silicon wafers which convert sunshine into electricity and turn the slices side-on to the sun. This increases the surface area and reduces the amount of silicon needed, reducing the amount of expensive silicon needed by 90 percent.

  7. Green Nanotechnology: As Janine Benyus explains in her book Biomimicry, James Guillet of the University of Toronto is experimenting with the creation of specific chains and clusters of molecules designed to harness light and focus its energy. Guillet is experimenting with these molecular light harvesters to target the focused energy to break and/or create bonds between and within molecules floating in water, effectively doing ‘chemistry in water’.


Optional Reading

- Lovins, A.B., Datta, E.K., Feiler, T., Rabago, K.R., Swisher, J.N., Lehmann, A. and Wicker, K. (2002) Small is Profitable: the hidden economic benefits of making electrical resources the right size, Rocky Mountain Institute, Snowmass, Colorado.

- National Academy of Engineering (2002) Engineering and Environmental Challenges: Technical Symposium on Earth Systems Engineering, NAE. Available at Accessed 7 June 2006.


Recommended Websites


[1] Anderson , R. (1999) Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise : The Interface Model , Chelsea Green Publishers, White River Junction, VT. (Back)

[2] Crosby, K. (2000) ‘Introducing the Computer of 2010’, e-article, 21 August 2000. Available Accessed 7 June 2006. (Back)

[3] ‘Material benefits’, e-article, 10 March 2005. Available at Accessed 7 June 2006. (Back)

[4] Maunsbach K., Isaksson A., Yan J. and Svedberg G., and Eidensten L., Integration of Advanced Gas Turbines in Pulp and Paper Mills for Increased Power Generation, J. of Eng. for Gas Turbines and Power, Vol. 123, pp 734-740, 2001. (Back)

The Natural Edge Project Engineering Sustainable Solutions
Program is supported by the Australian National Commission
for UNESCO through the International Relations Grants
Program of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

unesco logo