Apply System thinking as an approach to sustainable design. Part one


Apply System thinking as an approach to sustainable design. Part one

Since early spring a series of post on how to approach sustainable fashion design and development been published and discussed on the blog. The most well-known sustainable experts and framework such as the natural step, cradle to cradle, design with nature and biomimicry has been presented with personal views on strength and weaknesses within each framework. None of the tools presented has fully covered every aspect or issue of sustainable development, nevertheless, naïve to believe such a solution existed.  Even so, gaining insight into other frameworks can be a valuable experience or maybe the right solution.

Gaia science

Albert Einstein once said; “If at first  the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”. The idea of an Earth system science, a self-regulating Earth with the community of living organisms in control is, in my opinion, such an idea. The idea was born in September 1965 when James Lovelock while working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. However, the idea of Gaia science was not accepted then. It was too revolutionary an idea born in the end of the flower-power decade of the twenty-century. It was just “new age,” and it took almost 40 years, in 2001 that the concept received partial public recognition (sources “The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock, 2009). It happened not without trouble and started in 1979 when the Canadian biologist Ford Doolittle wrote his lively and well-written critique of Gaia. Nevertheless, Lovelock did not easily give up, instead of fighting an impossible battle in the dark ages for hippie shit and new-age talks of the 1980’s. Instead of wasting his energy on negativity and critic’s Lovelock composed in 1981 a computer program and run it  on a 9845 Hewlett-Packard desktop computer to test the idea of Gaia hypothesis. The program describes in mathematical terms a self-regulating system made up from the climate of a simple, flat planet, glowing by a star like the sun, and on which there was an infinite ecosystem of two daisy species evolving. He called it Daisyworld. I find the work of James Lovelock amazing; the fact that he held onto a name and absurd idea that by many of the colleagues thought of as a result of uncritical acid thinking. The fact is that Gaia as a name of a concept is something most people can relate to,  particularly if think in  terms of building an audience. Gaia has greater acceptance than names such as “biogeochemistry” (a name mentioned by Lovelock in the book The vanishing face of Gaia today Earth System Science). Gaia feels like a sister, a friend and family. The Gaia story reminds me of a few important factors never to forget:

  • Embrace absurd ideas
  • TTT (things take time)
  • TB (think big)
  • Great concepts deserve the greatest names (Gaia)

It’s time to think

Over the last 50 years or more has our modern society obsessed focus on economic growth as a pre-condition for improved quality of life and escalated wealth, created the humanities largest challenges in the twenty-first century. The uncontrolled growth has, first of all, eradicated earth´s carrying capacity, it’s balance and secondly created a new barrier between a smaller group of people that can be considered well-off and a rather big  group of people that are extremely poor; That is the true result of uneven distribution the benefits of economic growth.

Few thoughts have been given to the important difference in attention to quality vs. quantity. The economic growth is the result of  technological progress coming out of rich country’s large investment in research,  whereof science been paid to invent by the name of capitalism; just to feed more resource demanding, low price consumer products into circular consumption, when instead science should invent for the best of Earth mankind. Today, the same inventions that once gave us tremendous progress and increased human wellbeing are now threatening life and ecosystems on Earth. It’s naïve to believe science and technological progress can save Earth, then the reason to invent and develop new technology should for the good of mankind, and not in the interest of a small group of people and their addiction to “more money”.  Albert Einstein once said, “you cannot solve a problem with the thinking that created it.”

Complexity, increased volume and speed

Paid research and clever marketing has created a consumer culture with its own language, belief-system and communication. Since the age of industrialization the way we make, buy and consumer products and service are recognized by factors such as increased complexity, volume and speed in every step. We experience poor build systems daily, life-cycle costs of products we consume are mostly not environmentally sustainable or cost effective compared their utilization, operational and support wise. Seldom people realize or wonder about what it takes of energy and resources living in the fast lane. Seen with the eyes of nature, the consumer culture cost to the environment is astronomical. Products such as the iconic t-shirt have a nature capital cost  of almost $2 ( research Danish apparel sector natural capital account) drinking a cup of coffee takes around 140 litres of water. Our lifestyle leaves ecological footprints like a Bulldozer. We consume more than Earth possibly can sustain. Therefore, to educate consumers in the fine art of reduction is one of the issues that can gain the biggest ecological savings.


Why system thinking?

The system we live with today is optimized without considering  the environmental cost. Nearly every product and service is made to maximize profit and give the shareholders the highest ROI. Capitalism is a highly effective economic model for making money. The fundamental rule is to keep the lowest cost in all parts of production to be competitive (minimize cost/maximize profit. Therefore, a company producing goods in a global market will seek to where labour cost, price of raw materials is lowest, this way of producing, marketing and operate has proven forceful. It delivers low price, high quantity products so many can afford them. This has led to an explosive growth in population, urbanization, technological progress, etc. We are 7 billion people living on Earth and fast moving towards 9 by the middle of this century. Since we all want  to conduct a decent life, material wealth, food, water, shelter and basic minimum of services, we take for granted a new way of living, and thinking is required. Most systems work poorly today because they are not thought through a bigger view, how systems interact and work together, how everything is connected, changing and not lasting.  Therefore, products and services in the future must be made with a systematic approach considering  a much larger and total view than now. The different designs systems presented earlier are not complete as they do not deliver all these aspects or address multiple problems in one identical solution, therefore, improvements, adjustment or combination with more than one approach require whole system approach to sustainable design whereof every step in a process through which the interconnections between sub-systems and systems are actively considered.

What is a system?

A system is a set of components that function together as a whole. It must  be thought and limited visually and consist of two-ways communicating parts. With assets, capabilities and behaviors originate both from the parts and from their interactions. Ergo changing one part of the system will ultimately affect  the performance of other parts in the system, however, does not necessarily  change interactions with outside systems.


Key system elements of a concept can be divided into the following:

  • A system can be open or closed
  • A System connect to other systems
  • A system usually interacts with other systems in cycles (carbon cycle, water cycle, etc.)
  • A System can be static or dynamic
  • A system can change status over time between static or dynamic
  • A system has a residence time it’s parts
  • Feedback, changes in output can affect the input of a system
  • A System has linear and nonlinear flows

Plan, do, check and act

The basic element of systems thinking  is the method of PDCA, sometimes the term is referred to as “continuous improvement, whereof, do, check and act is an on-going cycle and essentially, planning is thinking ahead.

Systems = Concept

Thinking in systems allows scientists to break down a large, complex problem into smaller, more easily studied pieces called concepts. A system is any portion of the universe that can be isolated from the rest for  observing and measuring changes. How to limit or define what the system is within a universe is to be decided by the observer. That is the reason why a system is a concept.  We can restrict ourselves  to limit the system through a study due to variable reasons; the knowledge, our time, money wise (budgets), importance, etc. It can be large or small, simple or complex.

System Concept example

  • A leaf is a system concept
  • A leaf is a part of a larger system “the tree”
  • A tree is a part of a larger system “the forest”

The most essential characteristic of a system is the nature of its boundaries. System boundaries differ in terms of what they will and won’t allow to pass through (move into or out of the system). The boundaries of a system define three basic status isolated, closed, and open system. What is:

Open system
In an open system, some energy or material (solid, liquid, or gas) moves into or out of the system. The ocean is an open system with regard to water because water moves across the ocean from the atmosphere and out of the ocean into the atmosphere. In a closed system, no such transfers take place.

Closed system
A materially closed system is one in which no matter moves in and out of the system, although energy and information can move across the system’s boundaries. Earth is a materially closed system (for all practical purposes).

Static system
A static system has a fixed condition and tends to remain in that exact condition. For example, a birthday balloon attached to a pole is a static system in terms of space.

Dynamic system
Dynamic system changes, often continually, over time. A hot-air balloon is a simple dynamic system. In terms of space—it moves in response to the winds, air density, and controls exerted by a pilot

Any system can have subsystems. A subsystem is a system that is part of another system, so subsystems might be one way to think about the components of a system. For example, a sales management system might be one subsystem of a customer relationship.

Applying science that invites innovates long-term thinking, openness & collaborative actions

Systems thinking and asking the right questions open up far more design options and solutions than we first expect. And some of those solutions bring the breakthrough improvements that go a long way beyond the incremental. Fashion Industry invites to think different and there are brilliant people doing great work, nevertheless, sadly most fashion companies drive designers into a crazy fast fashion circle without realizing the tremendous loss of creativity. Therefore, to make it happen demands a greater involvement, dedication, and large investment both from fashion brand as well governmental support.  We can only turn down the volume to be heard when its full. The next step is critical, inter-connecting ideas across science, education and industry, from low to high tech,  from cotton farmers, bio-scientists, textile developers, designers, store owners, sales-persons and finally the most important people the consumers into systems thinking and revolutionary new ways of working. Design tools and approaches to sustainable design such as  Cradle to cradle, Biomimicry, The Natural step, design from nature, product life-cycle approach has already proven each in its way effective.


Systems of the future

Systems in the future must be environmentally friendly, socially compatible and interoperable when interfacing with other systems in a higher-level hierarchical structure. Meeting these challenges in the future will require a more comprehensive sustainable design approach from the start, dealing with whole systems and in the context of their respective overall life cycles.

Cost on any design is completed before it’s made

Design makes a difference. Research shows that most cost is decided before it’s built, in the book Natural capitalism the author A. Loving wrote, “By the time the design for the most human artefacts is completed, but before they have actually been built.” Decisions made at the early stages of the development life cycle will have a significant impact on the overall life cycle, including the cost incurred and the effectiveness of the system.  As much as 80–90 per cent of their lives-cycle, economic and ecological costs have already been made inevitable.  Furthermore, whole system approach to design has enabled designers to achieve 75–95 per cent efficiency improvements.

Complexity requires models to simplify and increase efficiency of the design process.

Albert Einstein continuously claimed, “In the brain, thinking is doing.” Maybe his remark was and point of argument that doing is more important than thinking. System thinking is a holistic process, nevertheless, development of an abstract model to reduce complicity of the problem, is needed. A model where just cornerstone elements are included. Such modelling gain design process efficiency in activities following such as development, testing, deployment, operations, maintenance, and upgrading.

  • Whole System Design, An Integrated Approach to Sustainable Engineering by Peter Stasinopoulos, Michael H. Smith, Karlson ‘Charlie’ Hargroves and Cheryl Desha. Published 2009 by Earthscan
  • Sustainability in Science and Engineering: Defining Principles Vol. 1 by Martin A. Abraham (Editor), published 2006
  • Systems Approach to Engineering Design Peter H. Sydenham. Published Artech House, 2004
  • Lovelock, James, The vanishing face of gaia : a final warning Published 2008 by basic books.
  • Science for environmental protection: the road ahead Committee on Science for EPA’s Future Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology Division on Earth and Life Studies National Research Council. Published 2013 by the national academies press.
  • Website
  • Systems thinking : Coping with 21st century problems / John Boardman and Brian Sauser. published 2008 by CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group




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