The Virtual Ecology of Industry

Citation: Journal of Industrial Ecology 1 (1): 10–11 1997

Keywords: Industrial ecology

Areas of Research: Technology & Human Environment

We now forecast storms from virtual weather, recessions in virtual economies, and victories on virtual battlefields. Software companies have scored popular successes with simulations of cities, Earth history, and ant colonies. Jet pilots and nuclear power plant operators train on video displays before their hands wield the actual controls. Numerical models form the basis of all these simulations.

What are the prospects for a virtual ecology of industry that can help us toward the goal of a micro-emissions economy? The editors of The Journal of Industrial Ecology asked me to speculate about this question in what we hope will become a regular column on modeling and simulation. My judgment is that many precedents offer encouragement.

Continuous process industries, such as petrochemicals, have long sought to channel every input into profitable output. Chemical engineers already design and test refineries in detail on computers before companies buy the first length of pipe. Energy engineers have extended the concept of a petrochemical complex to a virtual “integrated energy system” which transforms crude oil and other energy materials, air, water, and other inputs into liquid fuels, electricity, heat, fertilizer, and other outputs with potentially zero emissions.i

In the many industries which produce in batches rather than in continuous flows, design and analysis of integrated manufacturing systems have also advanced markedly.ii Weighing the wastes industries now create, opportunities must abound to handle materials better, reduce wastes, and design “custom” wastes that can re-enter the economy or be safely filed away.iii Modest extensions of the simulatory arts in sectors from automotive to pulp and paper may identify quickly and effectively the leverage for lifting plants toward these goals.

Leverage is a key word. One major reason to formalize the flows and relations within a plant into equations and computer code founded on sound data is to assess numerically the power to achieve outcomes with practical effort. In a virtual plant we want to discover the levers connected to the task and resting on a fulcrum near the task.

Above the level of the plant, fewer precedents for simulation exist. Nevertheless, Peter Ince’s chart of the materials flowing from the forest into lumber, paper, and fuel invites simulation of the industrial ecology of wood products.iv Surely worthwhile occasions exist for researchers, consultants, and managers to build dynamic simulations of materials (and energy) flows at the level of an industrial sector. The vast yet overlooked services industries appear to be virtual virgins.

And then the challenge looms to capture the actual and potential flows across diverse sectors or enterprises at a useful level of detail. Surely we could simulate the touted collection of symbiotic industries in Kalundborg, Denmark, as well as imaginary Eco-Parks.

Some of the experiments industrial ecologists might wish to undertake will be excessively costly or risky unless we can build expert and public confidence through simulations. For strawberries, albeit modified with modern genetic means, field tests are hard enough. Before any material existence, the factory, firm, or landfill of the future may well be required to operate vividly and convincingly in our virtual goggles.

We know life holds incidents and interactions no simulation will ever capture. Had we modeled the ecology of medieval industry, would we have seen that low-cost linens effected by the spinning wheel would lead to abundant rags that could become cheap paper that would permit a printing industry? Perhaps not. But today we have a lot more waste to remodel. Let’s begin. SimFactory and CyberEcoPark may help.

26 August 1996

End notes

  1. See pp. 129-135 in Thomas H. Lee, Advanced Fossil Fuel Systems and Beyond, pp. 114-136 in Jesse H. Ausubel and Hedy E. Sladovich, eds., Technology and Environment, National Academy Press, Washington DC, 1989.
  2. W. Dale Compton and Joseph A. Heim, eds., Manufacturing Systems: Foundations of World-Class Practice, National Academy Press, Washington DC, 1992.
  3. Robert A. Frosch, Toward the End of Waste: Reflections on a New Ecology of IndustryDaedalus 125(3):199-212, 1996.
  4. Peter J. Ince, Recycling of Wood and Paper Products in the United States, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Forest Service, paper delivered at United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Timber Committee Team of Specialists on New Products, Recycling, Markets, and Applications for Forest Products, June 1994. Copies available from USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory, Madison Wisconsin, 53705, USA.