What if companies and their buildings actually enhanced ecosystems?

What if companies and their buildings actually enhanced ecosystems?

The melding of ecosystem services and green building was a hot topic at the recent Living Future unConference in Seattle.

What if building codes actually required new projects to enhance a certain number of ecosystem services — such as sequestering carbon, building topsoil, enhancing pollination, increasing biodiversity or purifying water and air?

Is it possible that a city could be functionally indistinguishable from the wild landscape around it? And what if companies ultimately built factories that truly enhanced ecosystem services?

These were the big questions that biologist and biomimicry expert Janine Benyus posed during her keynote presentation at the recent International Living Future Institute’s 2015 unConference in Seattle.

To help unlock the potential answers to such questions, Benyus introduced the phrase “the adjacent possible,” or the evolutionary process that causes species to adapt to changes while allowing adjacent evolutions to become possible.

“Don't try to figure out what you did today, but what you made possible today,” Benyus said.

Sarah Bergmann
A before and after shot of a component of the Pollinator Pathway One project.
That high-level guidance followed a more concrete example of the potential to bridge urban design projects and ecosystem services: Sarah Bergmann’s description of creating the Pollinator Pathway — a plan to strengthen and reconnect fragmented landscapes, merging ecology, design and planning.

The first project, Pollinator Pathway One in Seattle, connects two distant units of landscape with new native ecosystems, boosting pollinators in the “connector gardens” from four species to over 1,000. Importantly, the project also encouraged communities in–between to begin a conversation about bigger scale issues.

This project  “made the adjacent possible” by connecting a fragmented landscape in the city, re-introducing pollinator species and involving people in creating and witnessing ecosystems in action.

A new design mentality

Imagine the unexpected benefits of providing nature in the city where the “nature deficit” is a silent but insidious drain on all of our well-being, and children’s well-being in particular. 

Benyus referred to a University of California, Berkeley, study where students recorded their emotions throughout the day. The study found those students who felt “awe” more than three times a day had healthier levels of inflammatory proteins. (Unhealthy levels are correlated to autoimmune diseases and depression).

Nature is inherently awe-inspiring: soaring redwood forests, cascading waterfalls, emerald green hills after spring rains. But we also can be inspired by other people, and this, too, can make the adjacent possible.

Think of Interface carpet founder Ray Anderson reading Paul Hawken’s book "The Ecology of Commerce" and then transforming his company to become a global leader in sustainability. 

But how do those of us honing green designs make the adjacent possible? How can our building projects, cities and companies provide "positive externalities" or, to use a friendlier phrase, side benefits? 

Amory Lovins likes to say, “We know it’s possible, because it exists.” But sometimes people need to really be introduced to what is possible.

In considering these larger questions, I thought back on one example from my days at Rocky Mountain Institute, when I brought my current colleague at Point Energy Innovations, green buildings engineer Peter Rumsey (then leader of Rumsey Engineers), to a data center design charrette for EDS.

EDS had a capacity problem and was planning to invest huge assets in building new data centers, while existing data centers were gulping energy. We knew that retrofitting the fleet of existing data centers would be the big energy-savings “prize,” but the company wasn’t paying attention until we showed them what was possible in the design for a new data center they had planned for Wynyard, England.

Our design concept could function without chillers, making use of the favorable climate in Great Britain, with a combination of huge intake of outside air and cooling towers when needed.

When EDS saw that energy-slashing design, they hired us to create a global environmental strategy to retrofit the entire fleet of data centers and office buildings, which, it turned out, would save enough capacity to eliminate the imminent need to build all the new data centers.

Coincidentally, Hewlett-Packard acquired EDS at this time and we weren’t involved in implementing the strategy. Still, years later, former EDS client Dale Hoenshell told me that our design process had “changed the mentality of the whole company.”

Hewlett-Packard absorbed the new thinking and celebrated the stunning efficiency of the new Wynyard Data Center. It changed its industry status from a company targeted by environmentalists to a green leader.

Perhaps this, too, exemplifies what Benyus meant with the evolutionary metaphor; it took a sequence of design steps, engagement, inspiration and the hard work of people who followed through and carried the torch. But all of that made the “adjacent possible.”