Industrial Ecology – an Idea Whose Time Has Come

By G. Venkatesh & Helge Brattebø
March 2011

The Authors are a Post-Doctoral Researcher and the Programme Director at the Department of Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), in Trondheim, Norway.

Victor Hugo wrote, ‘There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.’ Industrial ecology is one such idea, and the Masters Course in Industrial Ecology offered in English, at the Department of Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (abbreviated as NTNU when the Norwegian name is considered) in Trondheim (central Norway), is what one may think of as the implementation of this idea.

Table 1 summarizes the contents of the course referred to in the Introduction, and at once indicates the journey from theory to practice, concepts to application which students undertake over the course of a semester – five months from August to December. It is this logically-chalked out structure which is the main attraction of the course. To use an analogy with networks, if this course is a national highway, it effectively branches out into a set of state-highways (in subsequent semesters), enabling students to venture out on the ones of their choice. In this, it has a strong link to the Masters Programme in Industrial Ecology. Note that the Masters Course we are writing about is just one component of the Masters Programme referred to in the previous line.

Table 1 · Contents of the Masters Course in Industrial Ecology in a nutshell
Part AIndustrial ecology, Material and Energy turnover in society
Part BSystems theory, thermodynamics, biology/ecology, Design principles
Part CQuantitative analytical methods: Material Flows Analysis, Life Cycle Analysis, Risk Assessment, Energy/Exergy Analysis, Input-Output Analysis, Cost-Benefit Analysis, Eco-efficiency Analysis
Part DApplication and implementation in society, and public and private sectors of industry

Fig 1 · Students opting for the Masters Course in Industrial Ecology
over the seven years of its history
(data courtesy: Sven Erik Sivertsen, NTNU)

The multi-disciplinary nature of the course (and the programme of course) is evident from Table 1, and one would discern the flow from economics to natural sciences & engineering to mathematics & statistics to humanities, law and political science. While it is attractive to students from a wide variety of disciplines – all of whom are sure to find something promising in the course for them – it also enables them to widen their vistas, expand their horizons and understand how the fields they specialize in are influenced by (and influence, in turn) the others. Figure 1 charts, so to say, the growing interest which this course has triggered in the minds and hearts of both Norwegian and visiting foreign students. From 25 in year-2004 – when the course debuted in the University, the class strength shot up to over 103 in year-2010, with both male and female students showing equal interest in honing up their industrial ecology skills. Overall, in the seven-year period 2004-2010, 225 male students and 193 female students opted for this course. The nationalities have been so very diverse – Indonesian, Malaysian, Chilean, Indian, Chinese, Russian, Filipino, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Cameroonian, Canadian, Mexican, American, Algerian, Israelite, and over two dozen European countries. This speaks as much for the usefulness of the course to students from different parts of the world, as it does for industrial ecology and its prospects for the future.

Vox populi

In Venkatesh (May 2008), the second author of this piece – Prof Dr Helge Brattebø – had spoken thus: ‘In the late 1970s and early 1980s when I completed my post graduation and PhD, environmental engineering was entirely associated and identified with end-of-pipe treatment. But increasingly, with new fields like industrial ecology emerging, environmental concerns are influencing the entire life cycle of a product and thereby are being applied not just to end-of-pipe as before, but practically every operation right from raw material extraction through to the manufacturing / production process to maintenance during end-use and finally recycling at end-of-life. This, then, is the backdrop in which students are very likely to opt for environmental engineering studies in the future. ’

Ryan Bright, who hails from the USA and has a formal education in Natural Resources Management, opted for this course in year-2006. In Venkatesh (January 2007), he had told this author that his personal ideologies and firm belief in Industrial Ecology as the best available science for promoting sustainable growth will assist him in tiding over any temporary obstacles that may arise en route to a promising career. Ryan is now on the verge of completing his PhD in Industrial Ecology at NTNU. In the same article, Ryan ’s classmate from year-2006 – mechanical engineer Michal Gryczon (of Polish background) – never felt that opting for Industrial Ecology would be dubbed as an unconventional move.

Matthieu Vachon is French and he opted for this course in 2010. He had first decided to study Environmental Engineering in Germany, but now is happy that he eventually chose to pursue this course in Trondheim. He would recommend the course as a logical next step for engineers, and believes that it adopts a highly logical approach to sustainability. Guillaume Georgeton, one of Matthieu ’s classmates says that this course was recommended to him by his seniors who had opted for it in 2009; and adds that he would surely recommend it to his juniors in his university back home in France.

Prof Kjell Øren, who has been associated with this course, right from its genesis, has this to say – ‘My experience is that students in the beginning are asking more for the operational “how to” tools than concepts and strategic issues. Being young, and without practical job experience, concepts and business models seems to be too “fuzzy” and difficult to grasp. I therefore expect that the practical tool part will be given even more space in this course, and illustrated with examples from different business sectors. The general “tool box” from TVM4162 provides an excellent basis for further studies, including international collaboration on concepts and strategic issues. ’

Valuable outputs

NTNU ’s Masters Course in Industrial Ecology has been sending out enthusiastic and determined individuals into the world, buoyed up by their stint in this quaint Norwegian university town and equipped with the dedication, drive and desire to contribute to sustainable development. It will continue to do so.

Sine qua non, readers will agree… for this century and beyond.


To Sven Erik Sivertsen of the Student Service Department, and Elisabeth Giil in the Industrial Ecology Department of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim. To Matthieu Vachon and Guillaume Georgeton, exchange students, 2010-2011, NTNU. To Prof Kjell Øren, Adjunct Professor, NTNU.
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