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Renewing Our Faith in the Future

dornfeld, david, u of california berkeleyOver the New Year in the US (perhaps other places too) there is a tradition of making a set of “resolutions” or pronouncements and promises that one will follow in the upcoming year that will make things better. These often have to do with personal behavior (“I will try to like my co-workers”) or health (“I will work out more and eat less”) or finance (“I will try to live within my budget”) and so on. Typically these last a few weeks or months before the reality of daily life kicks in and they are forgotten. But, no worries, another new year is just around the corner.

In thinking about new year’s resolutions this time around and this first article of the new year it seemed worth while to cite a few things that, relative to green and sustainable topics, encourage one to try to stick to at least an effort to become more sustainable.

So, I took a survey of what I had seen recently that made me encouraged. These are, in no particular order, reviewed below. The continuation of the discussion in the last article on increasing the effective utilization of resources will come up in the next article. But … these bright spots below certainly encourage an atmosphere that lends itself to better resource productivity.

First of all from my student researchers. We had a retreat in our lab back in November and we posed the question, “What would a sustainable world look like?” This came as a result of a provocative question posed to the audience at the Verve conference in San Francisco this Fall by Paul Hawken. He mused that maybe we should start concentrating on what a sustainable world embodied rather than just increasingly long lists of what is not sustainable about the world. This made good sense – sometimes the easiest way to identify the way forward is to reverse the way back!

So, in response to the above question about how the world would look if it was sustainable, the following responses, prefaced by “I know the world is sustainable because …” were noted:

– I am able to achieve my aspirations without limit
– I can meet my needs without “excess consumption”
– I have access to enough information to make truly informed decisions about consumption
– as an engineer, I can clearly see the connection between design, manufacturing, and impacts
– where to the extent possible, all output of activity or consumption is reused efficiently in the creation of new products, new energy, new capabilities, and
– I have the optimal level of control over my environment and products. I am able to use information to adapt to my environment. I live in a smart environment that adapts to my needs (e.g. NEST thermostat).

Not bad … and, as engineers, lots to work on there both for consumption and provision of goods (as manufacturers).

Encouraging for sure. There was more discussion which will come up in our continuing discussion about resource productivity. And, the grad course in Sustainable Manufacturing is taught at Cal again this spring so this list will be expanded thanks to input from a larger group of students.

Second, the McKinsey Global Institute publishes reports from time to on strategic observations, insights and trends in business and the world. These are invaluable both for their content and for the obvious expense that went into them (McKinsey is not cheap!). Iin July 2013 they published a report titled “Game changers: Five opportunities for US growth and renewal.” Granted, this is US centric but the potential, given the prominent role of the US economy is impressive.

So, what are these five and what does it have to do with sustainable manufacturing? They are:
– Energy: Capturing the shale opportunity
– Trade: Increasing US competitiveness in knowledge-intensive industries
– Big data: Harnessing digital information to raise productivity
– Infrastructure: Building a foundation for long?term growth
– Talent: Investing in America’s human capital

I will not comment on the first one as the issues of “bang for the buck” in terms of the environment are still being resolved. It clearly however offers a great source of energy close to us and not affected by global politics (the current debate in the US Congress not withstanding!).

The McKinsey report says that these five are all on this list because the technology breakthroughs underpinning these couple with the “changing costs of capital, labor, and energy around the world; policy innovation at the state and local levels; or new evidence-based understanding of how to address long-standing problems.” They go on to explain that, specifically, “… the shale boom, for example, is boosting trade competitiveness, particularly in energy-intensive manufacturing, as the shift in input costs caused by cheap natural gas has made the United States a more attractive place to base production. Big data can play a role in raising
the productivity of knowledge-intensive manufacturing for export, maximizing infrastructure assets, and facilitating new personalized digital learning tools.” Addressing education and workforce training,  a “talent revolution” will be needed to train tomorrow’s energy engineers and big data analysts, as well as the skilled workforce needed for a 21st-century knowledge economy.” One result is “longer-term enabling effects that build competitiveness and productivity well beyond 2020.”

The impact in productivity and efficient use of resources is what should intrigue us. The use of  big data analytics in manufacturing and across production processes and systems and product design offers many opportunities for progress. Engineers can link computer-aided design with data from production systems to minimize production costs and raw material use (increased yield!). During production, sensors in equipment can feedback information to minimize disruptions by monitoring operations for breakdowns and wear and, then, signal for preventive maintenance. Finally,  the use advanced simulation techniques to create 3D models of new processes and factories (and the resources they consume) can make green manufacturing embedded in industry. With enough impact industry can become sustainable.

This will require some “readjustment” in the way we develop the workforce to support this new way of operation – but that is for another discussion.

Third, and this is heartening, a recent comment published in Nature by Robert Costanza and colleagues  (Vol 505, 16 January 2014, p. 283) made the bold statement “Time to leave GDP behind” (!). The authors note that “When GDP was instituted seven decades ago, it was a relevant signpost of progress: increased economic activity was credited with providing employment, income and amenities to reduce social conflict and prevent another world war. But the world today is very different from the one faced by the global leaders who met to plan the post-war economy in 1944 i… The emphasis on GDP in developed countries now fuels social and environmental instability. It also blinds developing countries to possibilities for more-sustainable models of development.” Yes!

This is a must read! Those of us working to build sustainable manufacturing systems … in support a sustainable world … can only gain when the terms are clear, the metrics are logical and well defined and the impacts of our actions “fit” the environment we are working in.

Finally, speaking of “terms,” GreenBiz.com had a short piece by Anna Clark posted on  January 15, 2014 titled “Should ‘sustainability’ still be a buzzword in 2014”? Many don’t think it should ever have become a buzzword … but stuff happens.

And this question, of course, is posed by some of the same folks whose coverage has made the word overused and, sometimes unfortunately, linked to things or actions that are marginally sustainable or, at best, green. In fact, the first line of this short piece reads “Every New Year brings fresh jargon to the sustainability field. The practice of coining new phrases can breathe vitality into old ideas, but marketers also can overuse the tactic in their quest to sell books and training seminars. (I am guilty, too.)” She admits that our goal is a sustainable economy but the word sustainable is poorly defined and “squishy”. Her new year’s resolution is to “do a better job at communicating sustainability. Not just the concept, but also the word.” Yes!

That’s what we aim to do too! So, that’s one resolution I can keep.

David Dornfeld is the Will C. Hall Family Chair in Engineering in Mechanical Engineering at University of California Berkeley. He leads the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability (LMAS), and he writes the Green Manufacturing blog. This article was republished with permission by David Dornfeld.

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