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Recherche et développement régional durable

Corinne Larrue

Session 3. L'innovation institutionnelle pour le développement régional durable / Needs for social and institutional innovation in relation to spatial planning

Industrial ecology. A tool for integrated spatial management


Suren Erkman

Texte intégral

  • 1 Director, Institut pour la Communication et l'Analyse des Sciences et des Technologies (ICAST), Ge (...)

1Note portant sur l’auteur1

2The hypothesis that it is possible to find industrial production methods which would considerably reduce the impact on the environment, has led to the idea of the industrial ecosystem. An industrial ecosystem works like a biological one. Naturally it will never be possible to create a perfect industrial ecosystem but industrialists and consumers could change their habits to preserve and improve their standard of living without causing environmental degradation.

3The three following elements make up the concept of industrial ecology:

  • a global, integrated view of all parts of the industrial system and their relationship with the Biosphere;
  • the biophysical substratum of the industrial system, i.e. all the movement and stocks of material and energy linked to human activity, represents the field of study of industrial ecology;
  • technological dynamics i.e. the long term development of clusters of key technologies.

4The basic methodology of industrial ecology is called ‘industrial metabolism’. It consists of an essentially analytical and descriptive approach, which aims at understanding the dynamics of the flow and stocks of material and energy linked to human activity. A good understanding of industrial metabolism thus makes up an indispensable prerequisite to industrial ecology.

5Industrial ecology differs significantly from the traditional idea, which considers the industrial system and the Biosphere as two separate entities: on one hand the factories and towns, and on the other nature - ‘the environment’. The basic intuition of industrial ecology is to explore the opposite hypothesis: the industrial system considered as a particular type of ecosystem.

6Can the concept of industrial ecology go beyond the stage of being an abstract idea? The answer is yes, with the example of the industrial Symbiosis of Kalunborg, an industrial ecosystem which functions on a sound economic basis. It is an experimental situation involving five principal partners, all within a few hundred metres of each other and linked to each other by an ad hoc pipeline network.

7Three major conclusions can be drawn from the Kalunbourg symbiosis experience: firstly it consists of a spontaneous process that has gradually been set up on a commercial basis, with all the companies involved benefiting. Secondly the success of the system is largely based on the mutual confidence between the different partners. Thirdly the Kalunborg symbiosis is characterised by the proximity of several large companies which are different but complementary.

8For several years the Kalunborg experience has been attracting increasing interest. However, one should beware of over-idealisation, because the system also presents a number of disadvantages. However, the Kalunbourg symbiosis provides above all a valuable example.

9In fact when thinking about the industrial ecosystem concept, one of the first analogies that comes to mind is that of an ‘industrial food chain’. As in natural ecosystems where certain species feed on the waste or organisms of other species, a similar process could be imagined in which different economic agents make use of each other’s waste. This is how the concept of an ‘eco-industrial estate’ emerged.

10The idea of ‘estate’ should not be understood in terms of a restricted geographical area. An eco-industrial estate may very well include a neighbouring built-up area, or a company a great distance away, if that is the only one able to make use of a scarce waste product that cannot be treated on site. Hence the term ‘eco-industrial network’ is becoming more widely used. The idea of eco-industrial estates (or networks) can be distinguished from traditional waste treatment because it aims at systematic recovery of all the resources in a given region and is not limited to simply recycling waste on an ad hoc basis. In certain terms the idea of eco-industrial networks can be considered as having similarities with theories found in regional economic, or practices such as local exchange schemes.

11It must be recognised that if the principle behind the idea of eco-industrial networks is very simple, putting it into practice is not an easy task. Eco-industrial networks will therefore not appear and become operational overnight, but the idea is making headway. The reason for this interest can easily be understood; these large companies already supply water and energy, as well as offering environmental services. The next step would logically be to offer integrated services to companies and local authorities.

12For local authorities, economic development is also at stake. Recovering all material and energy flows in a given area can encourage new companies to set up or take advantage of resources up to then unused. It can also be observed that ideas such as eco-industrial networks and biocenosis can call into question the traditional idea of zoning. Instead of a traditional division into zones, in which production activities, housing, leisure areas etc. are strictly separated, industrial ecology suggests a mixture of complementary activities allowing a better use of resources, including that of land.

13What is involved is therefore an in-depth restructuring of the industrial system, which is sometimes called 'eco-restructuring', moving towards a viable long-term way of working which is compatible with the Biosphere.

14Practically speaking, from an industrial ecology perspective there is a four-fold challenge:

  • Firstly to recover waste systematically: networks for use of resources and waste must be created in industrial eco-systems, so that all residual matter becomes a resource for another company or another economic agent.
  • Secondly to minimise waste: currently, industrialised countries often pollute more by consuming and using than by manufacturing.
  • Then to dematerialize the economy: this involves minimising the total flow of material, while at the same time guaranteeing at least equivalent services. Technical progress enables more services to be produced with less material. However dematerialization is not as simple as it seems, because products which are less robust can have a reduced life-span and so ultimately consume more resources and generate more waste.
  • Finally to decarbonize energy: the consumption of hydrocarbons must be made less harmful and the transition to energy sources less rich in fossil carbon be encouraged.

15The term ‘dematerialization’ recently became fashionable in discussions about the impact of new information and communication technologies (NICT). These technologies give rise to growth that is favourable to the environment, since they produce greater value while consuming proportionately less energy and raw material. Phenomena such as the ‘rebound effect’ should also be taken into account. In relation to land use it is obvious that development of a knowledge-based economy will lead to a change in spatial distribution of economic activities. It thus seems fair to admit that for the moment nobody has a clear view of the environmental impact of the massive spread of NICT.

16Industrial ecology is concerned with the development of the industrial system as a whole on a long term basis. It can be said that we are witnessing the birth of a new scientific and technical field bringing together engineering, ecology, bio-economy and many other subjects. Although it is still new, industrial ecology has already gained a certain academic reputation.

17This convergence of interests between the academic and business sectors probably results from the two-fold aim of industrial ecology to lead a strong front on both theoretical and operational levels. Environmental problems are therefore only one aspect of industrial ecology which is working towards the advent of a more elegant industrial system, i.e. one capable of generating more wealth and well-being with less impact on the Biosphere.


1 Director, Institut pour la Communication et l'Analyse des Sciences et des Technologies (ICAST), Genève, Suisse.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2002

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