The world has always been a complex place to navigate, but the global crisis in 2020 was the final straw and brought home the realisation that the world needed a new compass to determine which direction it should head in. “GDP is the wrong tool for measuring what matters,” explains Joseph Stiglitz, recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. “[It] fails to take account of inequality, the lack of resilience and the lack of sustainability,” he adds, while suggesting that the GDP – gross domestic product – should be replaced by greenhouse gas emissions.
The GDP was created back in 1934 to measure the effects of the Great Depression on the economy, so the current crisis clearly needs a new set of metrics to calculate its impact, since today's issues and challenges did not exist nearly 100 years ago.
The GDP is not the only indicator that is showing its age. At best, the price concept also has its limitations. At worst, it has become obsolete. For example, what are we to understand about the value of a plastic bottle simply by looking at its price tag?
Its price does not include the resources that were taken from the environment when it was produced, or the cost of its disposal after use. Including the cost of production, transport and recycling/reuse would enable users to understand which products are local, eco-friendly and sustainable. That is precisely the engineer's role. As a systems expert, an engineer alone is capable of assessing the actual amount of natural resources consumed when producing manufactured objects, operating machines and performing the most sophisticated services. Just like climate change, the energy cost of achieving technical progress is one of the main intangible entities that we are simply unable to define and measure. Are digital technologies a solution for addressing global warming or one of its main causes? Do electric mopeds live up to their eco-friendly claims? Do renewable energy sources have hidden energy costs? Before engineers learn how to build without destroying, they should first measure the impact of their designs on the world and potentially help the general public understand that impact.
Humans have been carrying out research and development for 2.5 million years (i.e. since the first homo sapiens) as they seek to progress and evolve in their environment. Nature has been doing it for 3.8 billion years, i.e. since the very first lifeforms appeared. How can we not be tempted to learn lessons from something with a thousand times more experience than us? Instead of tapping into its limited supply of consumables, why not tap into its endless fount of knowledge? Nowadays, engineers are expected to repair and improve existing systems with limited resources, rather than create new solutions. As such, biomimetics (a contraction of bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning imitation), which refers to any innovation or engineering process that draws its inspiration from nature and the living world, represents another tool in the engineer's arsenal. If we are going to respect the environment, then we might as well imitate it.
We are already surrounded by biomimetic solutions. Self-cleaning shower walls are inspired by rough, water-repellent lotus leaves, adhesive hanging systems from the burrs of burdock fruit, eco-housing air circulation systems from termite nests, the shape of the Japanese high-speed rail system from the beak of the kingfisher, certain types of complex architectural designs from the human skeleton, self-healing concrete featuring bacteria, the shape of wind turbine blades from whale fins, and certain swimsuits from shark skin. Their common denominator is that they produce a considerable effect for a minimum cost.