green infrastructure

How biomimicry can help redesign civilization

Matt Grocoff's comparison of structure of a leaf and the structure of self-organizing, pre-industrial cities like Venice, Italy.

Matt Grocoff's comparison of structure of a leaf and the structure of self-organizing, pre-industrial cities like Venice, Italy.

Essay and interview originally published on The Next Idea

If the first Industrial Revolution was characterized by centralization of our water, energy, food and organizational infrastructures, then the next Industrial Revolution will be characterized by the decentralization of these human-designed systems. Biomimicry, innovation inspired by nature, will be our framework for sustainable solutions to human challenges.

Michigan’s energy, water, agricultural and political infrastructures are linear, top-down grid systems. They are oversimplified design schemes that create an illusion of control that deny uncertainty. They lack diversity, resilience and innovation and are therefore weak.

In nature, over-simplicity is an indicator of disease and decline. Successful systems have a pattern of healthy variation and diversity. If we wish to sustain the climate to which we and all living things have adapted, then we need to design systems more like old growth forests and less like tree farms.

The Next Idea is to transition away from centralized infrastructure and create distributed systems that mimic nature. Nature depends on underlying decentralized networks. Nature doesn't do grids or straight pipes. Complex problems demand complex design.

The rules couldn’t be clearer. Biodiversity and complexity thrive. Radically simple solutions fail.

The future is local. Typically, when we think ‘local,’ we think food or shopping. But in nature, everything is based on adjacency. Local knowledge overrules distant command and control. What if our policies rewarded adjacency and encouraged local interaction in the way that nature demands?

Michigan, like all other states, has challenges that can’t wait.

Our aging centralized water infrastructure has reached the end of its useful life and threatens our rivers, lakes, aquifers and people. Our 20th-century energy grid is in need of modernization and is controlled by centralized monopolies. These unnatural monopolies no longer make sense with 21st-century technology that enables distributed production and ownership. Michigan’s diverse local & craft food system is threatened by disproportionate support for conventional linear commodity production. Our state government has increasingly centralized authority which has virtually eliminated innovation at the local level.

For systems to be sustainable and to thrive they need to assemble from the bottom up--they need to create conditions that are conducive to life. When we ignore the rules of nature we ignore the catastrophic risk posed by our centralized systems. By definition, thriving must promote thriving.

All these systems rely on top-down approaches that are nowhere to be found in nature. When they fail, they fail big. Alternatively, complex systems emerge from the bottom up. They grow and iterate, they are distributed but interconnected, and when they fail, they fail gracefully.

Imagine if Michigan innovators consulted with nature and sought solutions from its 3.8 billion-year-old design encyclopedia. Swarms, watersheds, flocks, neurons, whirlpools, nautilus shells or the cochlea of your ear all contain self-similar mathematical patterns that can inform and help us solve some of our greatest design challenges. Harvard astronomer Dr. Avi Loeb recently told the New York Times, “Nature teaches us that its imagination is better than ours.”

We need more biologists and diversity at our planning and policy tables. We need to find a way for our infrastructures to return more ecosystem services than they extract. “Can a city be generous?” author and innovation consultant Janine Benyus asks. “It has to be!” It is essential that we ask whether our water, energy, food and political systems are generous. Do they follow nature’s rules for thriving?

For systems to be sustainable and to thrive they need to assemble from the bottom up--they need to create conditions that are conducive to life. When we ignore the rules of nature we ignore the catastrophic risk posed by our centralized systems.  By definition, thriving must promote thriving.

We are drawn to certain types of nature. We have an affinity for things that enhance life. Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson calls this innate desire “biophilia.” Wilson asks, “Where would we go if given a completely free choice?” Describing a basic principle of ecology he notes that “the crucial first step to survival in all organisms is habitat selection.  If you get to the right place, everything else is going to be easier.”

As humans, we not only select our own habitat, we also design and build it. We have the ability to consider the past, and to project into the future. We can alter environments, extract and move materials, and hyper-engineer in ways no other species can, and in ways even our human ancestors couldn't fathom.

By embracing policies that encourage distributed design, Michigan will be staking out a prosperous and healthy future. The costs of failing to address our outdated water, food, and energy systems are getting worse with time and neglect.  Globally, decentralized systems that mimic nature’s brilliance are gaining acceptance. Nature has proven this to be the only sustainable path.

Matt Grocoff is principal of the THRIVE Collaborative and an advisor to the University of Michigan BLUElab Living Building Challenge Team. You can read the first essay in Matt's series HERE.

Can Flint crisis inspire better water systems?

Matt Grocoff tells us what a decentralized water system could look like on "Stateside with Cynthia Canty"
BLUElab Living Building Challenge Team design review for Net Positive Water home.

BLUElab Living Building Challenge Team design review for Net Positive Water home.

Essay originally published on The Next Idea

There are lingering fears that nothing will be the same in Flint. But maybe things shouldn’t be the same. What if there is a better way for Flint and other cities to harvest and deliver life-enhancing water?

People across the nation are judging Flint as an epic failure of leadership and poor choices. There is no doubt that Flint’s water crisis is an unqualified failure of democracy, but it is also a century-old failure of design and systems thinking.     

Providing safe, sustainable and equitable access to drinking water is a fundamental role of a democratic society and a basic human right. The moment has arrived for transformational thinking and profound policy changes, not a costly and bureaucratic rearranging of the deck chairs.

We need decentralized, integrated water management systems. Buildings, campuses and neighborhoods are all part of natural watersheds capable of harvesting water, managing stormwater and treating waste as a positive resource. Using simple, proven technologies and ecosystem sciences, Flint can become the world’s first Net Positive Water city.  

We have a collective responsibility to question the underlying assumptions about repairing our failing centralized water infrastructure. The conventional wisdom is that the only way to solve the problem is to replace all the existing pipes with new ones. But why would we rebuild a system designed over a century ago that resulted in such cataclysmic failure?  

Replacing every lead pipe or building a new pipeline from Lake Huron won’t solve the larger water problems faced by Flint.  

Our policies and systems designs have not kept pace with our knowledge and scientific understanding. We need a new water ethic and an honest examination of our relationship with water.  

Centralized water systems aren't natural

In nature, structurally diverse and complex systems are robust and healthy. Yet we continue to design our water systems with linear, oversimplified schemes not found anywhere in nature. In healthy watersheds there are no grids and no straight pipes.  

Michigan’s aging water infrastructure -- like that of the rest of the U.S. -- fails at achieving healthy complexity found in natural systems. Rather, it is an overly-complicated Rube Goldberg contraption that lacks diversity and the resilience of a natural system, which makes it prone to catastrophic failure.

At its most basic, our outdated water infrastructure is a centralized three-pipe system. One pipe delivers intensively treated, potable water from a central plant to buildings.  

We then take that clean water and pee in it, poop in it, bathe in it, water our lawns with it, wash our clothes with it, and put our tampons, industrial chemicals and prescription drugs in it.  

After we pollute it, we discharge all of that toxic water back into a second pipe where it is sent to a goliath sewage treatment plant. This sewer line is filled with methane, hydrogen sulfide (sewer gas), unimaginable disease-causing organisms, commercial waste, food waste, FOG (the industry term for Fat, Oil and Grease), and many more unmentionables. From the sewage treatment plant, the water is released into the environment -- usually, but not always -- after the solid wastes have been removed.  

In a tertiary pipe, we manage “stormwater,” but only after we mix it with toxic pollutants collected from our roofs, sidewalks, gutters and streets.  

We used to call this water “rain.” It is a natural gift that comes to us free of cost. Yet, as we have expanded and strained our centralized infrastructures, we recast rainfall in apocalyptic terms. Rather than considering rainwater harvesting as an opportunity to cut out the middle man, we talk instead of solving the “problem” of stormwater management.

What we have is not working. So let’s start envisioning what a better system would look like.  

So what's the Next Idea? 

What if Flint could harvest from the sky all the water it needs? What if rather than turning ounces of clean water into gallons of toxic waste, every building managed its waste as elegantly as nature does?  

We no longer need mega-projects to bring infrastructure to neighborhoods and buildings. The neighborhoods and buildings can be the infrastructure.   

The University of Michigan BLUElab (Better Living Using Engineering) is using my family’s 115-year-old Victorian home as a living demonstration of the future of Net Positive Water. Using the strict standards of the Living Building Challenge, 100% of our home’s water needs will be supplied with captured precipitation and by recycling used household water, which will then be purified through a small treatment system without the use of chemicals. The students hope to inspire the next generation of water treatment, water reuse and waste management.    

The Bullitt Center in Seattle is a six-story office building with an innovative approach to water. The building harvests rainwater to meet 100% of its water needs. Water is collected from the roof, stored in a 56,000 gallon cistern underground and then filtered and treated for potable use. The efficient use and reuse of water onsite allows the building to operate in a closed loop system, ensuring an endless supply of safe water.  

Bullitt Center, Seattle, WA is a class-A office building with a Net Positive Water system.

Bullitt Center, Seattle, WA is a class-A office building with a Net Positive Water system.

The Bullitt Center and my home are among many pioneering Living Buildings offering Flint examples of reasonable alternatives to centralized infrastructure. These buildings are harvesting and treating water right where it is needed, demonstrating what is possible with proven off-the-shelf technologies.  

One of the most inspiring Net Positive Water examples is the Omega Institute, in Rhinebeck, NY. A lush tropical garden of bananas and flowers grows in their Eco Machine treatment plant, which annually converts three million gallons of sewage into water clean enough to drink.  

We are in a new era of high quality water treatment. There have been huge breakthroughs in membrane and ultraviolet (UV) filtration capable of treating rainwater that exceed EPA standards for municipal water. 

Rain in Michigan is plentiful. It can be harvested, filtered, treated with UV light and provide all the fresh, clean water we need. Best of all, we don’t have to rely on centralized pipelines, treatment plants, or leaky and aging pipes (lead or otherwise) to deliver it to our homes. Rain can be harvested onsite or in our neighborhoods.

Building-scale systems can be installed in a few days. Neighborhood-scale systems could be installed in a matter of months or weeks. Site-based, human-centered design would allow Flint to bypass its broken grid of pipes. New technology created in drought-stricken regions would allow Flint to geo-spatially map its landscape to identify hidden hydrology to optimize capture, storage and treatment of rainwater. Armies of plumbers, volunteers and civil servants could install 10,000 systems in less than a year and immediately deliver permanent solutions to Flint families and business owners.

We must take a profound look into the design challenge of transitioning to a visible, bottom-up, complex adaptive water system. Flint has the chance to be the model for the next 100 years rather than repeating the mistakes of the last 100.   

Nature doesn’t build grids. It assembles perpetually improving networks. Flint’s water system should reflect this wisdom. We have all the knowledge we need. Now it’s about will.