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

21st centuries seek restorative solutions for the planet

The sustainable design process needs to seek to be restorative of the planet rather than destructive, reverse impacts, eliminate externalities and increase natural capital by supporting the biophysical functions provided for by nature. Taking a Whole System Approach to Sustainable Design is not simply about reducing harm, but about restoring the environment, health of the soil, air, water, biota, and ecosystems. Sustainable Design in the twenty-first century is about designing systems, which bring forth a greater exposure of choices and possibilities for next generations.

One of the leading proponents of Sustainable Design, Bill McDonough the co-writer of the successful book  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things developed a new upholstery fabric; the story can illustrate benefits of a restorative perspective to design and the endless possibilities to do make things differently. In 1993 the Company Design Tex Approached Bill and his team to assist a create an aesthetically special fabric that was also ecologically intelligent, despite the client did not at that stage was diffused about what this would mean. The work during that time helped the company, themselves and those involved understand the clear difference between superficial responses such as reduction and recycling and significantly changes required by the next industrial revolution a systematic approach to problem-solving.

During the first stage, the company presented a product thought of as an environmental safe fabric; it was the hybrid fiber of natural cotton and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) from recycled bottles, at first the solution sounds perfect combining two eco buzzwords. The fabric solutions were available, durable, inexpensive and market-tested. Nevertheless, the team inspected carefully what the implication of a hybrid fabric might be over-time some not so good fact was exposed. The main one of the products the fabric was meant to be used for was office chairs, they discovered that when a person was sitting in the chair and moving around the fabric spread out small particles, some got inhaled in the user environment. However, the PET was not designed to be inhaled. Furthermore, PET could not be re-processed back into the soil safely, and the cotton would prevent it from re-entering an industrial cycle.

What sounded like an excellent idea and from many different, the view was good instead of added junk to the landfill. Equally important, could be unhealthy. The team decided to start over again and agreed upon a new design that should be 100% clean environmentally. At the same time, another challenge appeared at the textile production mill; the government regulators had put pressure about reducing levels of dangerous emissions and just defined the trimmings of the mill’s fabrics as hazardous waste, even the chosen mill was a relatively clean alternative.

Eliminate chemicals

They found a safe solution for the waste problem: a mixture of non-toxic pesticide-free plant and animal fibers (ramie and wool) for fabrics and trimmings made a natural decomposing process without any waste. However, the hardest work ahead was unsolved; the dyes and textile finishing process required processing chemicals. The fabric needs to go back into the soil safely, free from heavy metals, toxic substances, mutagens, etc. This process became difficult as they approached 60 chemical companies to join the project, all declined except one, afraid to expose their chemistry more than necessary. The European company Ciba-Geigy agreed to join and with their help, more than 8000 chemicals used in the textile industry were mapped, considered and eliminated

The project team found only necessary to use 38 chemicals for not only one fabric but designed an entire line. The line of fabrics became incredibly successful in the marketplace, gold medals for design, etc. Later, after the new production started at the mill, regulators came to measure and test the effluent. They thought their measurement was incorrect and checked the instruments for errors. However, the equipment was correct. The water coming out of the factory was cleaner than entering, in fact, their brand-new design of manufacturing process naturally filtered the water and bypassed all environmental problems, even eliminated the need for regulation.

    • The need the Definition phase goal is to develop an understanding of the system, its purpose and the features that will make it sustainable
    • service specification
    • operating condition’s specification
    • genuine target’s specification
    • The aim of the Conceptual Design phase is to entirely investigate the solution space for all possible options that address the Need Definition and to then generate a set of conceptual systems for additional development
    • research
    • generate conceptual systems
    • testing
    • selection
    • Preliminary Design phase goal is to develop the set of conceptual systems into a set of preliminary systems by designing their subsystems much the same so that the system as a whole best meet the need definition
    • research
    • design system
    • testing
    • selection
    • review
    • Detail Design phase goal is to develop the selected preliminary system into the detail system by optimizing its subsystems much the same so that the whole system best meet the updated need definition.
    • research
    • optimize system
    • testing

Recommended elements of a whole system approach

Element 1: Ask the right questions
What is the required service? How can the service be provided optimally? Are there other possible approaches?
Element 2: Benchmark against the optimal System
It is often useful to develop a simple functional model of the system, which assists the designer in thinking about the interacting components and to evaluate potential improvements to existing systems. The model is used to benchmark against both the theoretically and practically optimal systems.
Element 3: Design and optimize the whole system
In order to develop a system that meets the Need Definition with optimal resource use (energy, material and water inputs and outputs) and biological impact, it is important to consider all subsystems and their synergies, rather than single subsystems in isolation: Optimizing an entire system takes ingenuity, intuition and close attention to the way technical systems really work. Think big!
Element 4: Account for all measurable Impacts
Don’t get fixated at just one and forget another way to optimize modifications at the subsystem level can influence behavior at the system level and achieve multiple benefits for single expenditures: This might seem obvious, but the trick is properly counting all the benefits. It’s easy to get fixated on optimizing for energy savings, for example, and fail to take into account reduced capital costs, maintenance, risk or other attributes
Element 5: Design and optimize subsystems in the right sequence
Large improvements in resource use are, in many cases, a process of multiplying small savings in the right sequence. There is an optimal sequence for designing and optimizing the components of a system. The steps that yield the greatest impacts generally, the system should be performed first.
Element 6: Design and optimize subsystems to achieve compounding resource savings
Lifecycle analysis shows that end-user resource efficiency is the most cost-effective way to achieve large improvements in resource use, because of less resource demand at the end, use creates opportunities to reduce resource demand throughout the whole supply chain:
Element 7: Review the system for potential Improvements
It is important to identify potential resource use improvements and eliminates true waste (unrecoverable resources) in each subsystem and at each stage of the lifecycle.
Element 8: Model the system
Mathematical, computer and physical models are valuable for addressing relatively complex engineering systems.
Element 9: Track technology innovation
A key reason that there are still significant resource use improvements available through a Whole System Approach is that the rate of innovation in basic sciences and technologies has increased dramatically in the last few decades. Innovations in material’s science in such things as insulation, lighting, super-windows, ultra-light metals and distributed energy options are creating new ways to re-optimize the design of old technologies. Innovation is so rapid that six months is now a long time in the world of technology.
Element 10: Design to create future options
A basic tenet of sustainability is that future generations should have the same level of life quality, environmental amenities and range of options as ‘developed’ societies enjoy today. It is also important to consider going beyond best practice and helps create more options for future generations
Observe and measure changes in a system
By observing and measuring changes, we mean that we use the systems concept to study complex problems. This might mean observing what happens in a natural system under changing conditions, such as what happens in a wetland during a drought, or what happens to a dead organism as it decays on a forest floor, or what happens when magma rises in a volcano until it erupts. Or it might mean imposing changes on an artificial system in a laboratory, such as heating up a rock in a special crucible so that we can observe what happens as it melts.

  • Constraint-A limit to what a system can accomplish.
  • Interface-Point of contact where a system meets its environment or where subsystems meet each other.
  • Environment-Everything external to a system that interacts with the system.
  • Purpose-The main goal or function of a system.
  • Boundary-The line that marks the inside and outside of a system and that sets off the system from its environment.
  • Interrelated-Dependence of one part of the system on one or more other system parts.
  • Component-An irreducible part or aggregation of parts that make up a system; also called a subsystem

Sources and useful information
  • 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 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.
  • Systems thinking: Coping with 21st-century problems John Boardman and Brian Sauser. published 2008 by CRC Press Taylor Francis Group
  • Website water footprint org

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