Aha! Sustainable Solutions are Right in Front of Our Eyes #3pVOTE

This post is part of our year-end “year in review” sustainable business writing contest. We’ve asked 3p readers to submit their own thoughts about the state of sustainable business in 2010. More information about the contest is available here. All submitted articles will be available on this page. Voting will happen in January!

By Amy Bond Sokoloff, LEED AP

As an insatiable reader, I’m always looking for a great book. My taste is diverse but my preference has always been historical fiction. So when the Guilty Pleasures feature on NPR suggested “Time and Again” by Jack Finney my curiosity was aroused.

The novel was described as a Harlequin Romance for geeks. But it’s also an historical account of New York City in 1882. The story follows struggling artist Simon Morley who is recruited by the U.S. government for a top secret time travel project. Our protagonist journeys back in time to observe the city and report his findings. But he soon becomes enamored with all things Victorian; including the kerosene powered street lamps, horse drawn carriages, and the proverbial damsel in distress.

His portal is his apartment building, an architectural gem called The Dakota, built between 1880 and 1884, which remains one of the city’s most revered addresses. The apartment complex is rumored to have been given its name because the upper west side of Manhattan seemed, at that time, as remote as the Dakota Territory, and above the 72nd Street entrance, the figure of a Dakota Indian keeps watch.

Recently I visited family in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The trip offered ample time to get lost in Finney’s tale and relax in the summer house that has been in my family for three decades. One evening guests were discussing the mural that dominates the family room. The faded painting captures a summer day with 19th century pedestrians strolling beside a fountain. Our hostess explained that the scene depicted Central Park in the late 1800’s and that the building shown in the upper, left hand corner was … The Dakota.

I’ve been to this lakeside retreat a dozen times, and the mural has been an unmoving fixture. But the building illustrated in the painting had meant nothing to me until I had another frame of reference. That’s how “aha” moments happen, and it got me thinking: What would it be like to have that kind of synchronistic experience in the sustainability community?  I believe cutting edge architects and engineers exploring the re-discovered field of biomimicry have some idea.

Biomimicry is the science and art of emulating Nature’s best biological ideas to solve human problems. Perhaps the most famous example was the invention of Velcro brand fasteners. Created in 1941 by Swiss engineer George de Mestral, who took the idea from the burr that stuck tenaciously to his dog’s hair, the two-part fastener system uses hooks and loops woven out of nylon, similar to the inspirational, though offending, burr. No doubt its coolest application is Championship Velcro Jumping, first made popular in 1984 by David Letterman.

This natural design strategy is revolutionizing how we invent, compute, harness energy, and repair the environment. Answers to our current energy and climate challenges are right in front of us. The impediment to change is that we need to be prepared to really see the information in context. These solutions have no agenda. They are waiting just like The Dakota in the mural. Consider that in just the past 130 years we’ve gone from messenger boys running across town thru the cobble stoned streets of our infant cities, to VoIP hands free 24/7 communication. Can there be any question that solutions to today’s challenges are within at least our peripheral vision? I have no doubt that citizens of the Victorian era longed for a cleaner alternative to the horse-drawn carriage (talk about dirty emissions!). We have every reason to anticipate the next mode of clean technology will be beyond our time constrained imagination.

Amy Bond Sokoloff works as a sustainability program manager for Sprint at their Overland Park, KS headquarters.

Leave a Reply