July 17, 2003

Our future: no time or resources to waste

  • New business alliances will help meet sustainable goals
    Living Systems Design Guild

    zero emissions chart
    Graphic courtesy of ZeroEmission

    A sustainable Washington in one generation. That is the bold vision of the Governor’s Sustainable Washington Advisory Panel portrayed in “A New Path Forward: Action Plan for a Sustainable Washington.”

    By 2030, the panel of civic, business and academic leaders assert that “Washington will embrace a new path forward in which our communities and the economy are steadily thriving and nature is no longer in peril. Our actions will ensure that following generations can flourish and bequeath to their children a place where they too can experience a rich and fulfilling life.”

    Their goals are:

    • Reliance on renewable energies.

    • Engaged communities.

    • No waste.

    • Costs paid in full.

    • An educated public.

    • Economic vitality through natural resource innovation.

    • Social justice.

    • Enduring natural resources.

    The panel also called for the creation of an Institute for Innovation and Sustainable Development to stimulate creative approaches to achieving these goals. Recently, I participated in an initial meeting of some 30 interdisciplinary leaders to do so. Participants were encouraged to think “out of the box” about how such an institute might actually emerge, function and grow.

    The atmosphere of the event was familiar to me, much like an assignment that I have given to my graduate students. In a “dream & scheme” exercise, the students seek and propose wildly creative and potentially powerful new alliances among public, commercial and non-profit organizations which, to the best of their knowledge, do not consider one another as allied resources. The students reveal interdependencies and common interests among the players for innovative new partnerships.

    Their proposals often generate extended conversations as students explore potential alliances. The result is an imaginative mosaic of partnerships whose systems and interests are intriguingly compatible.

    In the spirit of these visions, I too would like to dream and scheme in the interest of Washington’s sustainable future. Utilizing principles of zero emission strategies, I offer a few ideas toward new opportunities.

    Since the mid 1990s, faculty of the United Nations University and Gunter Pauli’s Zero Emissions Research Initiative, have pursued goals of efficient production of all the goods and services society needs without any waste. Many others around the world have since engaged communities to cluster industries into resource exchange networks that can fulfill basic needs of water, food, health care, shelter, energy and jobs, without ecological offense.

    We can do the same here. The scenarios below depict three industry clusters that show how individual businesses can form interactive partnerships.

    Scenario No. 1: The players include a regional family restaurant chain, a vermi-composting company and a fresh-water aquaculture company. The restaurant contracts with the composter to collect all organic refuse (kitchen refuse, spent coffee grounds, cardboard, burlap, etc.) in place of typical waste disposal routines. The composter contracts with the aquaculture company to deliver worms to be used as fish food supplement. The aquaculture company contracts with the restaurant company to provide fresh fish for its franchise network.

    Possible benefits are new revenue streams and financial stability, core business expansion and lower transportation costs.

    Scenario No. 2: The players are a brewery/pub, a lumber yard/saw mill, a mushroom grower and a bamboo grower. The brewery contracts with the mushroom grower to collect spent barley and hops. The mushroom grower also contracts with the lumber/saw mill to collect saw dust and by-products. The bamboo grower collects residual mushroom substrate to grow bamboo. The mushroom and bamboo growers provide gourmet mushrooms and bamboo shoots for the brewery/pub menu. The bamboo grower contracts with the lumber yard to manage its line of bamboo building materials.

    Possible benefits are buying locally and new job development in the emerging bamboo agroforestry industry.

    Scenario No. 3: The players include a public water and sewer utility, a biofuels company, a stormwater management design firm and a regional university. The public utility contracts with the biofuels company to design and install neighborhood cooperative biogas digesters to replace an aging centralized sewage treatment system.

    The utility also contracts with the stormwater management firm to design a low-impact stormwater management plan. The biofuels company contracts with the public utility to manage a system for handling and processing spent biogas slurry. The university contracts with the three players to provide training updates for the consortium, student internships, professional training programs and public education.

    The benefits would include lower cost of sewage and stormwater systems, a neighborhood cooperative biogas network, and entrepreneurial neighborhood councils that sell energy products to public and private sector clients.

    These scenarios offer a glimpse of innovative partnership types. As we set out on a path toward sustainable Washington, many public, commercial and non-profit networks of similar spirit and design could form and prosper. Transforming ideas of resource sharing alliances into actual ventures and markets seems a daunting challenge, but it is one that Washingtonians are well equipped to meet.

    Jonathan Scherch, Ph.D., is core faculty within the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University Seattle and co-principal of Living Systems Design Guild.

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