Towards an Ecological Paradigm in Engineering: The Adaptive Cycle as a Model of Transformation in Water Infrastructure

Thumbnail Image
Miller, Jamie, D.
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
University of Guelph

This thesis addresses the complexity of water infrastructure as a human and engineered system. It focuses on the philosophical assumptions that have led to the current conceptualization of storm, potable and sanitary water infrastructure. The thesis uses an ecological model, called the adaptive cycle, to reframe the complex challenges in water infrastructure and to identify strategies for transforming the system towards greater ecological resilience. The adaptive cycle is a model of nature’s resilience. It describes the way that ecosystems evolve semi-autonomously and at multiple scales. Through a theoretical application of the adaptive cycle, water infrastructure was identified as in a precarious state. Its evolution has been, and is being, restrained by a limited human capacity to manage uncertain environmental changes. The research also showed that an innate human desire to conserve the current system - including our philosophical assumptions of it - could potentially result in larger and more dramatic collapse. The adaptive cycle was used to reframe disruptive innovations and led to further research for transforming water infrastructure. Through participatory action research in three case studies and various interviews, key social and institutional barriers that contribute to the conservation of water infrastructure were identified. These included a limited capacity to experiment with water infrastructure in real-world contexts, the lack of public engagement in the design and evolution of water infrastructure, and a limited accessibility to resources that promote creativity in water infrastructure This research resulted in a framework for promoting safe-disruptions of the current paradigms in water infrastructure. The framework includes conditions, principles, and a systematic process. The conditions included a culture of experimentation, creative release from status quo approaches, and accessible pathways to resources. The principles included local focus, multiple feedbacks, and acknowledgment of power hierarchies. The systematic process was made up of two parts. The first part was an adapted biomimetic methodology that disrupted the traditional performance standards of water infrastructure and that reframed ‘plausible’ future interpretations of the system. The second part was an iterative scenario tool that leveraged the socio-ecological components of the system to create small-scale revolts in traditional approaches to water infrastructure.

Biomimicry, Water infrastructure, Design thinking, Adaptive cycle, Systems thinking, Urban resilience, Ecological resilience