A Nature-based Framework for Sustainable Product Design and Development
Joe A. Bradley and Roberto G. Aldunate
Applied Research Associates, 100 Trade Centre Dr., Suite 200, Champaign, Illinois, U.S.A.
Keywords: Sustainability, Product Development, Engineering Systems, Biology, Ecology, Industry, Design,
Environment, Eco-friendly.
Abstract: Nature-based systems are efficiently designed and are able to respond to many system requirements such as
scalability, adaptability, self-organization, resilience, robustness, durability, reliability, self-monitoring, self-
repair, and many others. Using nature’s examples as guidepost, there is a unique platform for developing
more environmentally sustainable products and systems. This position paper makes a case for an
interdisciplinary approach to sustainable design and development. This paper suggests that the design
should not only mimic natural behaviours but should benefit from natural phenomenon (e.g, wind turbines).
The paper proposes a conceptual modeling system framework, whereby physical products and systems are
designed and modeled with the added benefit of how similar systems work in nature. Developing such a
system in nontrivial and requires an interdisciplinary approach. To realize this system will require a merging
of analytical and computational models of nature systems and human-made systems into a single
information system. In this position paper, we discuss the framework at a birds-eye view.
There has been a recent growth of research in
network design and analysis with the desire to apply
newly developed ideas and frameworks to many
different disciplines. Sources of these ideas and
frameworks have been the results of observing
natural complex systems such as ecological and
biological systems. These systems are efficiently
designed and are able to respond too many network
requirements such as scalability, adaptability, self-
organization, resilience, robustness, durability,
reliability, self-monitoring, self-repair, and many
others. Using nature’s examples as guidepost, there
is a unique opportunity and fit between
environmental sustainability and using natural
systems as a platform for future innovation in
sustainable design. To fully benefit from using
natural models, the concepts as well as research
endeavours must be extended to incorporate the
complete natural ecosystem. When we typically
think of using nature as a model, it implies
mimicking a feature of an organism when designing
a product. However to create transformational
results, it is important to consider what aspect of the
product design supports the environment and what
aspects of the environmental design supports the
product. This can enable designs that not only utilize
nature’s resources but also give back to the
environment. Many of these issues are being
addressed within the industrial ecology field (Frosch
and Gallopoulos, 1989). It is important that all
stakeholders (society, researchers, government)
understand the benefits and the unique knowledge
that can be gained by applying nature-based
concepts to complex-engineered system design.
Standing in the way of more efficient designs is the
knowledge gap between stakeholders that are
attempting to address the issues. Figure 1 shows a
simple conceptual description of the system. The
system consists of analytical or computation models
of natural and synthetic phenomenon. The models
are merged into a Computer-Aided Design (CAD)
system that incorporate details from both models
during a product or system detail design phase.
A. Bradley J. and G. Aldunate R. (2010).
COMPLEX NETWORKS AND COMPLEX SYSTEMS FOR SUSTAINABILITY - A Nature-based Framework for Sustainable Product Design and
In Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems - Information Systems Analysis and Specification, pages
DOI: 10.5220/0003018305300533
Figure 1: Conceptual Description of New Modeling
Information System for Shock-absorber design.
Sustainability is an important topic with lots of
discussion and debate. Some of the key areas of
concern are global warming, renewable energy,
recycling, biodiversity, pollution, and alternative
fuels. The United Nations released a report that
attempts to quantify environmental damage done by
the world’s 3000 largest companies (Jowitt, 2010).
The value of damage was estimated at ~$2.2 trillion.
Their findings and results farther highlight the
importance of sustainable design.
Why should we attack this problem from a
design perspective? Historically there has been a
close correlation between economic growth and
environmental degradation: as communities grow
the environment declines. This trend is due to the
increase in production and use of new technologies,
products and services. There is concern that, unless
resource use is properly managed, modern global
civilization will follow the path of ancient
civilizations that collapsed through overexploitation
of their resources. While conventional economics is
concerned largely with economic growth and the
efficient allocation of resources, ecological
economics has the explicit goal of sustainable scale
(rather than continual growth), fair distribution and
efficient allocation, in that order (Herman and
Farley, 2003; Costanza and Farley, 2007).
Sustainability studies analyze ways to reduce
(decouple) the amount of resource (e.g. water,
energy, or materials) needed for the production,
consumption and disposal of a unit of good or
service whether this be achieved from improved
economic management, product design, new
technology, etc (Daly, 1996). It is necessary that
future product design and development puts into
practice the principles outlined in industrial ecology
and seek to develop and design products and
services that work symbiotically with nature. It is
necessary that additional funding and research be
directed toward solving these problems which will
require the collaboration of varies domains and
Environmental sustainability issues are typically
deeply embedded in the societal structure.
Furthermore, there is no one accepted description of
sustainability for which an organization can assess
itself (Chen, 2001). Oftentimes, a sustainability
effort of a product development organization might
be the optimization of a production line. Although
this is a great benefit, we should take full advantage
of the opportunity to innovate along all dimensions
(production, design, supply chain, etc). However,
there is lots of opportunity to create new innovations
as an organization develops more sustainable
products and technology. Unfortunately, some
organizations have made the erroneous assumption
that they could command a price premium for
“environment-friendly” products. When such
products or projects failed to meet financial growth
requirements they may have been subsequently cut.
Also, some “eco-” products have trade-offs that
were or are not acceptable. For example, although
the electric car produces a lower level of pollutant, it
does so at the expense of duration and speed (de
Neufville et al., 1996). Consequently, the needs and
the desire of many consumers are not successfully
met. Environmental sustainability is a critical need
that requires action that must lead to
transformational results and improvements in
product development. This need is continually
echoed via many global policies and goals. There are
environmental requirements that many organizations
must adhere to in the future. Meeting these
requirements will require new and innovative
solutions to product development and design.
The need for nature-based sustainable product
design and development is not only a national but
global in scope. As new environmental policies are
adopted around the world the competitiveness of
products and technologies are at risks. It is necessary
that new products interact in a more symbiotic
relationship with nature. The need is critical because
of the continuing increase in the nation’s population
resulting in the increase usage and disposal of
products and technologies. As the number of people
Sustainable Product Design and Development
using technologies increase, the amount of waste
and by-products of the usage increase as well. It is
important to minimize the negative impacts of
technological advancements on the environment.
Creating environmentally sustainable designs is a
multi-disciplinary endeavour, requiring the
understanding of complex systems that are
interacting. There are currently no test-bed or
platform that provides real-time comparison between
natural systems and human-made engineered
systems during the design/development phases.
Access to this information is only available if a team
member is knowledgeable in applying nature-based
ideas to product design and development. In order to
have transformational results in sustainable designs,
it is important to not only understand the artefact,
but how the artefact functions in its environment as
One concept that has been gaining attention in
regards to nature-based designs is Biomimicry.
Biomimicry is the science and art of emulating
nature’s best biological ideas to solve human
problems (Benyus, 1997). In general this concept
has been used when suggesting to mimic specific
features of a natural organism, but if we consider
both the biological entity ( e.g., fish, gecko, etc) as
well as the environment (e.g., lake, pond, rain forest,
etc.) conjointly there is the opportunity to develop
and design new systems that are both innovative and
sustainable. Supporting more research efforts in this
area is critical to developing new knowledge in
order to solve many key environmental issues
(pollution, biodiversity/conservation, recycling,
global-warming, etc.) facing the world.
Much of the work in biological and nature-
inspired systems have been focused on designing a
product with the features of the biological model; for
example, understanding the design of the lateral line
a fish and then using this information to design
better sensors that mimics the functionality (Yang et
al., 2010; Chen et al., 2007;). This could/should be
extended to encompass the understanding of the
habitat and the sustained environment where the fish
resides and grows in population. It is necessary to
understand what aspect of the fish design supports
the environment and what aspects of the
environmental design supports the fish population.
This can enable designs that not only utilize nature’s
resources but also give back to the environment. The
idea of using nature as a model is not new, but to
advance this idea will require system-level thinking
and not focusing only on mimicking the features of a
natural system (product-design-focused industrial
Oftentimes product development engineers and
designers have significant knowledge gaps regarding
the complex behaviour of some ecological and
biological systems. Tasked with designing
environmentally sustainable systems results in trying
to optimize current designs or use new tools from
the same engineering bag. Unfortunately, the
knowledge gap does not typically lead the engineer
or the designer down the road to studying biological
systems which could lead to innovated solution.
However, the inter-disciplinary nature of complex
systems – biological and man-engineered - creates
the opportunity for collaboration.
The desired output of the research is a
comprehensive, implementable, and usable set of
analytical and computational models and analysis
tools covering both micro and macro dimensions.
Such a system would allow product
designers/developers to compare natural ecosystem
ecology to complex-engineered product ecology
systems during the design and development phases.
This toolkit will consist of a number of nature-based
and engineered primitive models. These primitive
models will be the building blocks for future product
development and design. Additionally, it is expected
that the analysis tools would also provide an
assessment of emergent behaviour (i.e., impact on
environment, etc.) given the design of the product
and system.
There are current efforts to develop a database
documenting various features of natural entities and
how they may be adopted for design components in
engineered-systems. This approach provides great
benefits and opportunities from a purely design
perspective, but to move toward sustainability; the
products must be design with an understanding of
the natural systems in which it will exist as well as
interact. In addition to analytical and computational
tools, overflow from this research will lead to new
theories and understanding of the coexistence
between human-made technologies and natural
systems (industrial ecology). The desire is that the
knowledge gaps between the stakeholders will be
minimized during the collaborative research efforts.
The results of this research will be instrumental in
ICEIS 2010 - 12th International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems
helping decision-makers with long range
conservation, environmental, and industrial policies.
To create the transformational results needed,
this research endeavour will span across a diverse
range of disciplines. The expertise of entomologist,
ecologist, sociologists, biologists, engineers, and
designers will be crucial in realizing a set of robust
tools. Typically funding is dedicated to anyone of
these disciplines alone. However, it is important for
funding to address the highly inter-disciplinary
nature of this endeavour. Ideally, this research
endeavour will support the collaboration of many
institutions, both private and public in industry and
The research theme discussed in this position paper
is focused on developing and designing
environmentally sustainable products and systems.
Sustainability is a critical global initiative. Future
products and systems must be designed in such a
way that works-with and supports the environment.
To effectively address sustainability issues requires
the collaboration of many different disciplines. In
this whitepaper, we discuss biomimicry as a driving
concept within this design philosophy. It is crucial
that funding directed toward this theme is inter-
disciplinary so that the greatest benefits can be
gained. The vision for this research is:
To develop new analytical and computational
tools and techniques that will enable product
development engineer and designers to create
environmental sustainable products that work in
harmony with nature.
To aid decision-makers in policy making.
To promote collaboration amongst many distinct
disciplines. This can lead to revolutionary,
transformational results and capabilities.
To minimize the knowledge gaps between
stakeholders involved in developing solution to
problems in environmentally sustainable product
design and development.
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Sustainable Product Design and Development