Natural Capital and Engineering

Welcome back to Mia talks Ecological Engineering! This week I’m here to talk to you about how “environmental (otherwise known as natural) and/or social capital can contribute to enhancing engineering design”. I think that both natural and social capital can contribute to enhancing engineering design and both present an enormous number of opportunities to improve engineering design practice as well as business decision making. For now I’m going to focus on natural capital but I also think that the value of social capital is not yet fully understood and going forward it will become increasingly important. In my opinion social capital will transform the way we approach engineering design and I think it will facilitate increased interdisciplinary design projects and the formation of more varied teams. I found this article  about how social capital can assist community resilience after catastrophes and disasters a very interesting read. Anyway back to natural capital…

Natural capital has always supported engineering designs and business practices yet little has been done do acknowledge this fact and take action to incorporate it into the engineering design process. Natural capital is a fundamental part of society, which allows for human existence and prosperity. In my view there needs to be a greater realisation globally of the intrinsic link between natural capital and business/engineering, which will present significant challenges. Before we delve too deeply I suggest you read this or just watch this video to get a bit more of an idea about what I’m talking about when I say natural capital.

In the video he refers to the cost to nature of making a pair of shoes but his concept can be taken and applied to anything. Even beer as shown in this infographic from Natural Capital Ireland.


Natural capital is a direct input into many engineering projects and links indirectly with all engineering projects. We are just not wired to think this way currently and see a great disconnect between nature and engineering. In the past engineers didn’t realise the true importance of nature, believing that development could continue on forever without affecting nature – “that it is possible to have infinite economic growth on a finite planet” People just didn’t realise the extent to which we require nature.

“Both society and finance are critically dependent on the natural world. If the global financial system collapsed tomorrow, there would certainly be much suffering and turmoil, but this would be nothing compared to even a single key component of nature, say fresh water or fertile soil, collapsing”

Then there’s also the viewpoint that nature is sacred, invaluable and that taking a natural capital approach to engineering and business is destroying the pristine environment (this article is a great example). In reality the environment is a key part of our world and as much as we might want to view it as a sacred element without nature we would not be where we are as a society today. So we need to focus on learning how to exploit nature in the best way possible to ensure economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Tony Juniper is a campaigner, writer, sustainability advisor and leading British environmentalist and has said

“‘the idea that nature is an obstacle to progress is embedded, cultural.”

Which I think is a very interesting quote. Reading more about natural capital made me realised that people aren’t going out of their way to avoid natural capital but at the same time they aren’t currently working to include natural capital. I think this creates a huge challenge to change the global attitude towards natural capital, however, there is a growing number of the population realizing that this isn’t the case and that if we continue to design systems without considering the impact on the environment or how the environment can become a sustainable input that our future will be compromised. This isn’t true only for disciplines like ecological engineering which directly deal with nature, this goes for all engineering and business operations. We are beginning to see greater acceptance of these ideas as the world shifts to a more environmentally aware society and the need to preserve natural capital is being recognized. Businesses are becoming increasingly aware of how natural capital can help them to “mitigate risk, reduce negative environmental impacts and create value”

For example NAB understand that

“We need to manage our natural capital with the same diligence that we manage our financial capital. This means accounting for the availability of clean water, investing in biodiversity and putting a value on soil conservation.”

They’re taking the first steps towards making natural capital a part of day to day business. Starting with agribusiness – an area where utilizing a natural capital approach can lead to significant improvements.

And EY who call natural capital “the elephant in the board room”. This article by  the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, Ernst & Young LLP, International Federation of Accountants and Natural Capital Coalition provides a in-depth discussion of the importance of natural capital and how soon business will have to either adapt or fail with regard to natural capital. In the paper they give examples of companies like Puma, Coca Cola and Dow Chemical Company who have started accounting for natural capital. This ties in with enhancing engineering design because  companies like these using natural capital to develop design solutions which minimize water usage, reduce emissions during manufacturing and reduce waste and they have been able to become more sustainable and create value. Interestingly Coca Cola has set a target to replenish as much water as they use by 2020, which is something that can only be achieved through the valuation of natural capital.

If you’re interested to see how natural capital impacts business decisions have a go at this online game.

To take natural capital from being a consideration or an add on that must be copied and pasted into document after document it needs to be quantified and addressed more specifically than it currently is. Once individual projects can determine the natural capital cost I think we will begin to see real change in preserving natural capital. So valuation is an extremely important decision making and communication tool which I will be discussing a bit more in this weeks vlog. This is going to be crucial if we are to use natural capital in projects.

“It must become part of how we make all of our decisions, and therefore it must become a social norm. The only way to achieve this is if all parts of the system are involved in developing the solution; where conservation bodies provide the way, science and academia the how, business the engine for change, and the financial system the fuel. How we share and standardize the approach, and our success in influencing policy at local, national and international levels, will ultimately create the enabling environment that we need to support a more balanced and healthy world.”

I think that in the future think about the ecosystem services which natures provides will be common practice and we will automatically think about what we get from trees not wood as shown in this infographic from the Natural Capital Forum.


Natural capital will enhance engineering design by making designs more sustainable, and having a more informed view of how designs affect the environment. Examples include using mangroves for flood protection, creating modified shorelines that mimic nature (as you learnt about in my last blog) and companion planting. A natural capital approach was taken to coastal development in Belize. Previously they had struggled without a scientific method to show the different outcomes that would result from different management options. They came up with a solution for improving for coastal protection tourism, lobster revenues, while also reducing human impact on coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass beds. By valuing natural capital they found that “coastal systems currently protect the shore from about $5 billion BZD in damage each year; tourists spend two million days in the coastal zone and lobster catches total 520,000 pounds annually”. Using this information allowed them to make informed designs and better engineer solutions to the problems they face. It also allows them to monitor the success of projects.

Natural capital can inform engineering designs and enhance them by utilizing natural processes to guide design. Using natural capital in road design, a very traditional civil engineering area can have amazing results as shown in this document.  By analyzing the natural capital of the area and that will be affected by the design modifications can be made to minimize the negative impact on the design and to ensure that natural processes such as floods will not damage the design. If you look at this paper it gives a structured approach to use when applying natural capital to engineering projects which I think is very transferrable and could applied to almost any engineering design in order to enhance and improve it. They begin by determining the ecosystem services of importance to road projects which include flood regulation, coastal storm protection, erosion control, landslide protection, water quality regulation, air quality regulation and carbon sequestration and storage for climate regulation. Pretty incredible right? I never would have thought a road was so linked to the environment. You can probably already see how using natural capital during the road design phase can help alleviate negative impacts on ecosystem services (e.g. degraded water quality or increased flood risk). By understanding the natural capital of the area we can design to align the road with natural processes of the area. The steps below can be used to help integrate ecosystem service information into road planning, design, construction and can also be applied to other engineering projects.

The type of questions which might be asked include:

  • How do ecosystem services affect a road project?
  • Which route will maximize economic return on investment with minimum ecosystem risk?
  • Which road segment are most sensitive to degradation of ecosystem service in the surrounding landscape?
  • How might climate change affect the ecosystem service precision and alter risk exposure?

I think that this approach to road design provides a very fresh perspective and really enhance the design to make it more sustainable and work better with nature.

This image shows how roads depend on the surrounding landscape to control flooding and erosion. Different sections will depend on different parts of the landscape for different services.


This kind of image would never be developed had natural capital not been considered and in my opinion considering natural capital would greatly affect the design outputs in this scenario. So I’m slightly worried to find to what else we have been missing from engineering design since natural capital hasn’t been incorporated for so many years! It’s also exciting to learn about and has made me realise that in the future we have the potential to transform the engineering design process and take it to new levels by enhancing it through the incorporation of natural capital.

Overall incorporating natural capital into the design process can enhance the projects economic returns and sustainability. Specially by improving the identification of which design alternatives are best to pursue in light of contributions from ecosystem services, informing where new economic activities will be most compatible in the landscape and enabling proactive identification of region that are most sensitive to ecosystem degradation where activities would compromise ecosystem services provided to a road. If you are interested in how we can use natural capital to enhance engineering design I would highly recommend you read this document as it give a very detailed approach of how to go about the design process of a road by considering natural capital which could be applied to many other engineering projects.

Lastly natural capital can contribute to engineering design through valuation. This can improve design decision making and can help the development of more substantial measurement practices. It can reduce the risk involved with the design by analyzing the likelihood of success and how much it will cost. This article on marine coastal restoration used natural capital to examine the coast and feasibility of restoration projects in marine coastal ecosystems. Overall they found that project success was unrelated to the cost  Using natural capital to understand more about the feasibility of projects and their costs can help engineers to enhance the design of the project to increase feasibility and reduce costs to the natural environment. In this case further research could be done using a natural capital approach to see what type of restoration projects are most successful and using these to develop new designs.

So in summary natural capital enhances engineering in a number of ways and it always has. But now we need to start taking action to utilize natural capital to the greatest extent possible to make our designs more sustainable and cost effective while ensure that we do not lose natural capital, and in doing so will improve economic returns. This will require worldwide changes in how we approach engineering design and see the environment becoming a key design input. Where to next? In my opinion now we need to educate people more about natural capital and valuing natural capital as once awareness is raised we will begin to see real change. Check out my vlog for my idea on how we can do this.

Thanks for reading!

P.S.Here are some links to where I got values for my vlog on Irish woodlands, the Great Barrier Reef and Bee pollination




8 thoughts on “Natural Capital and Engineering

  1. Such a great blog and a really cool idea in your vlog (and a great way of describing it via illustrations)! I’m also new to twitter, but since joining (after peer pressure from Anas), I’ve also found that it’s such a great platform for sharing ideas and knowledge.


  2. Your Natural Capital Directory would be a great way to culminate all the research that is and has been done in valuing environmental services. Your blog is so gooooooooood I can’t deal.


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