Living Systems Theory and Eco-mimicry

We all intuitively understand that water is the foundation of life and the medium tying all life together; yet, conventional engineering and economic analyses treat water as a mere commodity. The inadequacy of this narrow analytical context is demonstrated by unprecedented, converging natural and human-caused threats to water resources. A much broader understanding of water is essential to secure our survival, and that of other living beings.

Restoring abundant natural systems and designing a lasting water infrastructure requires an understanding that humanity is a part of nature, not separate from it. Water is the essential common substance uniting and supporting natural and human ecosystems.

Every ecosystem, from the microbial to the planetary, is physically based on water. It seamlessly cycles within and among these ecosystems, forming one integrated living system. What happens at one level or location within the system can have significant effects in other parts of the system.

According to James Grier Miller’s Living Systems Theory (1978), “All nature is a continuum”, from a sub-cellular level to the whole system. The theory provides a conceptual basis for understanding and analyzing the value of water across a broad range of situations, according to consistent physical principles.
This interaction of systems within systems is greater than the sum of its parts. Human society cannot exist without strong, healthy ecosystems, and wise human involvement in ecosystems can boost their productivity and staying power beyond what is possible if left alone.*

Water technologies designed to promote such a mutually beneficial relationship are the key to productive, healthy human and natural communities.

Such technologies recognize that water is not only an economic commodity, but also:

  • The basis of the food chain
  • Intimately tied to climate issues
  • A basis of human health
  • A source of beauty and inspiration
  • And much more.

The Living Technology Institute has been established to bring this broader context to the advancement of analytical approaches and infrastructure technologies. The Institute will focus primarily on human communities. Not only are the technologies most needed in this context, but also these communities are often the source of the most significant impacts to nature.

LTI will maintain the holistic perspective by focusing on technologies that are based in the concepts of “eco-mimicry”. Eco-mimicry can be defined as the application to technology design of principles and processes from large-scale natural systems (ecosystems). Water systems offer one of the most fruitful applications of this design concept, due to the essential role of water as the medium tying all life together.

Specific ecosystem principles are significant in considering the redesign of water infrastructure. These principles include the facts that ecosystems:

  • Are decentralized – Activities are carried out at a small scale in close proximity to the need.
  • Are fractal – There are a large number of similar components performing similar roles at different scales and locations.
  • Are interdependent – The components of an ecosystem depend on the continuous interchange of material, energy, and information among a myriad of entities.
  • Close cycles locally – Even though there is some transport of nutrients and materials over long distances, the vast majority of cycling in an ecosystem (even for water) occurs in micro-cycles, as water, nutrients, and other components are used and reused over and over in a small area.
  • Use waste as a resource – Any waste produced in nature creates an opportunity for other organisms to develop a food source and habitat. Human pollution has overwhelmed this natural recycling by the quantity of waste and the new chemical compounds released. Ecological water technology can apply enhanced natural processes that allow significant quantities of wastewater and excess nutrients to be harvested for use.
  • Use the least energy path – As with nutrients, energy is used and reused many times in a small area. In addition, natural systems have evolved to use the most effective energy conversion and biological processes.
  • Aggregate these decentralized, local functions into large, integrated regional systems – Implementing this concept in human water systems means that the watershed scale is usually the smallest context within which to apply the eco-mimicry principles.

Applying these and other ecosystem principles to our water systems will guide the new conceptual approach that LTI brings to water infrastructure technology. To this understanding of ecological science, we will add, the knowledge of 21st Century environmental engineering and information technology. It is this tripartite foundation that allows the creation of Living Technology, and its application to begin reintegrating human and natural ecosystems.

Solving our water challenges requires understanding these consistent physical principles of water at multiple levels and building ecological infrastructure that reflects that understanding. Our goal at LTI is to find and advance these practical, cost-effective ecological water treatment and reuse technologies.

*These concepts have been developed at length by generations of ecologists, notably Howard T. Odum, one of the originators of the discipline of ecological engineering.