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Dialogue and Ecological Engineering

The ways in which we envision or understand systems determine much about the ways in which we attempt to affect them. The industrial era created a concept of organizations which mirrored the machines on which it was built. An efficient organization was to run like “ a well-oiled machine.” A clear division of labor improved efficiency and productivity. Frederick Taylor’s program of Scientific Management further optimized each task through isolation and measurement. In work with human organizations and institutions, it appeared that this debate might have been resolved with the shift from a mechanistic to an organismic metaphor view. In reality it only seems to have created additional confusion. Very few professionals would argue today that human organizations could be viewed simply as machines. In practice, though, many still rely on approaches based in this underlying assumption.

Allen, et al., (2003) have drawn a distinction between environmental engineering and ecological engineering. Environmental engineering, as they describe it, is essentially the use of biological material as machines, or incorporated into machines. (Note the similarity with the concept of mechanistic human organizations.) This includes everything from horse-drawn farm equipment to the use of yeast in making cheese or beer, to much more complex genetic engineering.

“Environmental engineering is a branch of civil and sometimes industrial engineering. As such it remains within the purview of standard engineering protocol as it imposes an external design on material that is the passive recipient of engineered limits. Not so for ecological engineers, whose engineered material offers no such constancy (Allen, et al., 2003, p. 391).”

Ecological engineering, on the other hand, does not deal with controlled environments and has to contend with the unpredictability of ongoing interactions and evolutions. As they explain the difference:

“The theory to which we refer introduces a clear distinction between: (i) a process of design and fabrication of machines driven by human purpose, i.e. environmental engineering as described above and (ii) the processes of autopoiesis (self-definition) and self-organization (emergence or order) typical of life and ecological systems (Maturana and Varela, 1980, 1998) i.e. ecological engineering (Allen, et al., 2003, p. 390).”

In teaching entrepreneurs how to establish a new business, the most common process involves the production of a business plan. In most cases this only reaches the level of what is (hoped) to be done, with very little focus on how it is to be achieved. As we continue to track the distinctions made by Allen, et al. (2003), it becomes clear how our usual processes of planning mimic more mechanical approaches to engineering.

“An abstract description of engineering starts by recognizing the existence of a given set of goals at the outset. Often the goal can be a general statement coming from a client at some level. Engineers commonly require those goals to be explicit and settled before the actual engineering starts… The real engineering does not start until the planners have made their final decisions (p. 394).”

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