Designing For Life

What can we learn from coral reefs, marshes, and forests? Could we find answers in their elegance and complexity? John Todd designs systems that do mundane things - like purify water - using natural systems as his guide.
markus spiske designing for life.jpg

Image by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

The very fabric of the Earth is changing at our hands. During my lifetime, more of the world's resources have been consumed than in all of the rest of human history before I was born. E-commerce is making this even worse. Also during my lifetime, we've double-glazed the atmosphere with poisons, to use a phrase from Paul Hawken.

The challenge of the 21st century is to right the wrongs of the 20th century. This will require, at a minimum, a design revolution. Where do we go to get instructions for this design revolution? I think we need to turn to the 3.5-billion-year experiment that produced life. We need to return to the forest, the meadow, the pond, the stream, the marsh, the desert with fresh eyes and decode the information within these systems; we need to learn how they work and apply this information to design.

Coral reefs, for example, are ecosystems awash in a sea almost devoid of nutrients, and these delicate creatures have to withstand pounding waves and violent storms. These extraordinary creatures have developed an architecture that breaks up the brute force of the waves. The plants and animals are so coordinated that minuscule amounts of nutrients are exchanged in a sort of cosmic dance. The systems are designed with exquisite complexity, elegance, and diversity, are and powered by the sun. These are true models for design.

I've had the good fortune to spend time in many different kinds of environments around the world and to learn principles around which one can design. Wherever I go – whether it's a rainforest or a desert or a coral reef in the middle of the Indian Ocean – I find great similarities in the ability of nature to self-organize, to self-repair, to create symbiotic relationships. There seems to be a meta-pattern in nature that provides the foundation for what I call ecological design.

Ecological design enables us to invent symbiotic technologies involving humans and the natural world in which the boundaries between the two come together quite seamlessly. It is now possible, without destroying wild systems, to carry out the work of society in partnership with living systems.

An example of ecological design is the living machine. Living machines, like ordinary machines, are designed to generate fuels, grow foods, transform wastes, and regulate climates in buildings. But the difference between the living machine and the inert machine is that the living machine is made up of hundreds, more often thousands, of species, ranging from microorganisms to mollusks to trees. All of these organisms are integrated together, as they are in nature.

As a consequence of this integration, living machines have attributes that most machines do not have. They have the ability to self-design and self-organize and self-repair, and if the human guide is clever enough, they also have the ability to self-replicate. A living machine can, in theory, last for hundreds or possibly thousands of years. It can behave like a forest.

In order for the living machine to do what you ask of it – to grow foods or generate fuels or transform wastes or purify air – the design must include at least three different ecological types interacting with each other. In other words, if we ask a pond-like system to be a living machine by itself, it won't work. If we ask a marsh alone to do the job, it won't work. If we ask a three-dimensional solar environment, it won't work. But when we link the three ecological types, they acquire a kind of intelligence that is phenomenal. They are then able to self-design, self-organize, and self-repair.

Clean effluent

What can living machines do? Here's one example. The people of Burlington, Vermont, and those on the
opposite side of the lake in the Adirondacks are anxious to protect Lake Champlain, a gorgeous lake, from the effects of sewage and industrial runoff. We decided to create a living technology that would purify sewage to very high standards, therefore putting back into the lake water that is as pure as possible. In that cold climate, this task requires a greenhouse to keep the biological activity going during the darkest, coldest times of year.

When you walk inside the greenhouse, you see over 400 species of plants, all of which are being studied for their ability to contribute to the purification of water. Each does something that others can't do. Some kill human pathogens. Others take up heavy metals. Others sequester or break up nutrients in concert with other organisms.

The building contains a whole series of cells. There are actually three waste treatment plants operating in parallel. The wastes go from cell to cell, from being raw sewage at one end to ultra-pure water at the other end in a little over two days. Along the way, the water is exposed to a wide variety of organisms.

Koi and goldfish consume the dead and dying bacteria that normally produce sludge. Our society puts sludge on landfills or incinerates it, creating all sorts of problems. To an ecological designer, if you have heavy sludge it just means that your design is incomplete. The goal is to turn the sludge into feed, so the dead and dying bacteria produce thousands and thousands of fish. Then, instead of a waste problem, you have a biological by-product. As we build these living machines, we're learning that ecological design produces internal economies where none were visible before. In this case, the living machine also reduces to almost nothing organic emissions and ammonia.

A system like the South Burlington Living Machine can withstand perturbations. We occasionally have gasoline and other toxics poured down the sewers, and this system is somehow able to compensate for these violations.

At a rest stop on the interstate in Vermont we have another living machine. This living technology doesn't discharge anything into the natural environment at all. After the waste is purified, it's sterilized, and the water goes back into the toilets and comes around again. New water that runs through the taps and drinking fountains makes up for the water that is lost through evapotranspiration into the atmosphere. It's a closed cycle. These facilities are great for educating the public to the virtues of ecological design.

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These ecological design ideas can be applied in very, very difficult processes. We designed a living machine at a chocolate factory in Las Vegas. Chocolate waste is very difficult to deal with because it has lots of fats, oils, and greases that most organisms, except for human beings, have a hard time digesting.

This chocolate factory waste treatment system is incorporated into a desert botanical garden, which I hear is now the second most visited non-gaming place in Las Vegas. As you walk through the garden, you see dark, chocolatey water that gets cleaner and cleaner as it flows through the different ecological tanks. Out the end comes beautiful water, which is reused to irrigate the landscape and for other non-potable purposes at the factory. It is not discharged; the water is too precious.

Living technologies can also be integrated into our buildings. Children from Toronto's inner city neighborhoods spend a few weeks at a time at Boyne River School studying Native American culture and natural history. The school, which is about 74 miles north of Toronto, was designed to honor native and green ideas. In the center is a sacred fire, which the children keep alive by feeding it sticks. The school building captures and generates its own energy. It captures and recycles its own water. It heats and cools itself naturally.

When you walk in the south side, the first thing you're confronted with is a beautiful water garden with tall spires. Then you see little engineered marshes and ponds. The ponds in the center have gorgeous rock sculptures rising out of the water, and on these rock sculptures are mosses. There are fountains powered by a single photovoltaic panel on the roof, and when the sun shines, the water flows broadly. When it's cloudy, it runs more quietly, and at night, it stops running. So the children know the amount of energy striking the building at any given moment. It's interesting that this variation is the perfect set of flow combinations for mosses. If you've ever looked at mosses under a microscope, you've seen they're among the greatest filtering organisms on the face of the planet. They expand and contract depending on the amount of moisture. Their internal architecture is so beautiful it would make Buckminster Fuller blush. Now the children know why mosses are associated with some of the purest waters on the planet.

When bad places get good

One of the important things we can do is to do good things in bad places. Flax Pond on Cape Cod, receives almost 30 million gallons a year of toxic substances from a neighboring landfill. When we started, the pond was essentially dead. There was no oxygen and little alive on the bottom of the pond. The flow of poison into the pond will continue right on to the year 2025, even though the landfill will be capped by the end of the year.

So we created a technology that's part marsh, part pond, part mangrove and floated it on the pond.
We called it The Restorer. The Restorer is powered by the sun and wind. We put in various cells and various combinations of organisms.

Every day 100,000 gallons are lifted up from the bottom of the pond and through this system. It's infused with oxygen and air along the way. Within two years, over two feet of sediments on the bottom of
the pond were actually broken down and digested. Oxygen returned. The biological diversity increased many fold. The fish began to come back, and now there are very healthy populations of fish that show no sign of contamination. They are cleaner than the fishes living in the ocean nearby.

This is an example of the kind of partnership that can develop between humans and the natural world when we go to the natural world for instructions. And these examples can be layered like folds in a baklava, to create the design of a whole town – a process we are now undertaking.

I think we could see the end of a negative human footprint through intelligent design and the associated social changes that are necessary to make it happen. This work on ecological design has convinced me that it's possible to create a culture, as many cultures have before us, where wilderness permeates into every place and there's harmony with the natural world. We can create a culture in balance with nature.

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