Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Self-Organization and Sustainability: The Emergence of a Regional Industrial Ecology

Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Self-Organization and Sustainability: The Emergence of a Regional Industrial Ecology

Article excerpt

Industrial ecology is a rapidly developing field of research and practice in which the sustainability of industrial systems is thought to be improved through closing of material and energy loops among firms. In this paper, I look at the developing practice around this concept from a self-organization perspective. A central question is the extent to which closing of material loops has to be planned and guided by governmental agencies. Based on a longitudinal case study of industrial ecology development in the Rotterdam harbor area (the Netherlands), the interplay between self-organization, external control, and vision development is analyzed.

Industrial ecology as a laboratory for self-organization

The field of Industrial Ecology developed from the notion that industrial systems can be fruitfully analyzed through the metaphor of biological ecosystems. Central in this application is the (somewhat mistaken) idea that in biological ecosystems, nothing goes to waste: each output of an animal or plant is used as food by another organism. The metaphor thus provides a normative goal for industrial systems that is thought to contribute to sustainable development: closing as much as possible the material and energy flows within the boundaries of the industrial system. In this, Industrial Ecology differs from the concept of business ecosystems (Peltoniemi, 2006), which does not share this normative dimension.

Although there were some antecedents (Erkman, 1997), the concept of Industrial Ecology was first presented by Frosch and Gallopoulos (1989). Since then, it has spread rapidly, both in academic terms (dedicated yearly conferences, two academic journals; see Cohen & Howard (2006) for a history of the institutionalization of the field) and in practice, especially at the regional level (Gibbs, 2003).

An important issue related to Industrial Ecology is the extent to which it requires external guidance/management in order to occur. Economic systems consist of complex chains of raw material extractors, producers of intermediate products, end producers, consumers, and waste treatment companies. Such economic systems self-organize to a great extent through the market mechanism within constraints set by legislation. The normative goal of Industrial ecology requires linkages that close material and energy loops to reduce ecological impact. Although such impact is partly the result of the quantity of by-products that are treated as waste, to a great extent it is their quality, in terms of toxicity or their contribution to specific problems (such as CO2 contributing to global warming). Thus, for a producer to take the waste product from another company and make it into a marketable product is not necessarily contributing to this goal. In order to process the waste into a product, additional material and energy is needed, which increases ecological impact. Also, the new product may, when it is discarded, pose more serious ecological problems than the original waste. Thus, linkages that are preferred under the definition of Industrial Ecology demand that additional criteria are met, such as not using a substance like chlorine. A major question is if this can be achieved through market coordination. Many proponents have argued that industrial ecology requires a vision on what linkages contribute to reducing ecological impact, and some form of regulation, as this quality is not taken into account in the prices on firm-to-firm markets (Graedel & Allenby, 1995).

In this paper, I address this issue from a self-organization perspective. More specifically, I will develop the argument that Industrial Ecology can emerge in an interaction between external control and self-organization, resulting in a multi-level system as described by Simon (1962). Industrial Ecology is in that sense a laboratory in which ideas about selforganization can be tested.

I first present the concept of self-organization. I then analyze a case study of an emerging regional industrial ecology in the Rotterdam harbour area (the Netherlands). …

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