For three decades, RMI and its partners have used whole-system thinking and integrative design to create profitable factor-ten solutions. Now, in collaboration with academic and industrial partners, RMI has identified seventeen innovative principles that engineers, architects and their clients can apply to practical design, in three steps akin to the ready-set-go of starting a race:
1. Define shared and aggressive goals
Establish clear, shared, ambitious goals, understood by all, to give the team a unified vision and aspiration. Be transformational, not incremental, and make no little plans: to strive your utmost, choose an aggressive stretch goal. Inventor Edwin Land said, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”
2. Collaborate across disciplines
For three reasons, real-time collaboration among disciplines and organizations is essential to wholesystem thinking: First, collaboration cross-pollinates ideas and fosters creativity. Second, done effectively, it aligns the design team behind the resulting design solutions. And third, few individuals or single-discipline teams can fully grasp the rich complexity of a whole system. Therefore, convene a unified, transdisciplinary design team with diverse skills and experiences, and make its conversation intensive, iterative, and rewarding for all participants.
3. Design nonlinearly
Rather than a simple linear path through a prebaked design process, integrative design is iterative and
recursive. Each stage reveals new lessons that illuminate and inform earlier ideas, so the team’s focus loops back, weaving an ever richer tapestry from old and new threads.
4. Reward desired outcomes
Clients who want efficiency must vigorously demand and fairly reward it. Treating it as a commodity—or worse, an unimportant afterthought—makes it so. Smart owners invest strongly in efficient design to leverage enormously greater savings in capital and operating costs: front-end thinking is far cheaper and faster than redesigning or rebuilding later. Rewarding designers just for producing documents on-schedule and on-budget elicits relabeled old designs or minor variants. But rewarding designers for what they save, not what they spend, can powerfully motivate creativity, teamwork, and radical imagination.
5. Define the end-use
Designers often focus on the object to be designed, produced, and sold, not on why its users want it. But behind every artifact is a purpose—indeed, a stack of layered purposes. When you go to the hardware store to buy a drill, probably what you really want is a hole. But why do you want the hole? If you’re trying to hang a picture on the wall, there are many ways to do that; indeed, there are many ways to achieve the purpose for which you wanted the picture hung. Understanding what you’re really trying to do, and why, will help reveal how to do the right steps in the right order.
6. Seek systemic causes and ultimate purposes
To expand the design space, focus not on proximate means but on ultimate ends. Keep pushing past the layers of end-uses (like heating, lighting, drivepower, transportation), the resulting services (like comfort, visibility, torque, mobility or access), and the ultimate benefits (typically human happiness and satisfaction) until you understand the full range of ways to fulfill the purpose. When diagnosing the challenges involved in a system, use a similar mentality to get past simplistic questions with cut-and-dried design answers. In other words, keep asking “Why?” insistently, until you get to the root of the matter.
7. Optimize over time and space
Design choices have plumes of consequences, intended and unintended, obvious and surprising, across time and space. Most design processes are challenged to deal with the needs of the obvious stakeholders in the here and now. But for many situations, the more diverse are the actual and hidden “clients” (now and in the future) of whom you’re mindful, and the more you strive to achieve many winners and no losers, the more profound and harmonious your design will be—and the better it will serve different interests, helping attract support and avoid risk.
8. Establish baseline parametric values
Before starting design, calculate and prominently post the whole-system, lifecycle, end-to-end value of saving each relevant resource—a watt of electric power, a kilogram of mass, a liter of volume, a unit of airflow or vacuum or water or exhaust. Once you realize that the whole-system present value of, say, taking a watt out of a cleanroom is (say) $10–20, you’ll design its contents very differently. Reassess these benchmark values, though, as you make the cleanroom far more efficient!
9. Establish the minimum energy or resource theoretically required, then identify and minimize constraints to achieving that minimum in practice
Use physics, chemistry, or building science to determine the theoretical minimum amount of energy or resources needed to provide the chosen end-use or service. Then carefully consider how far each practical design constraint (e.g., cost, safety, performance, accessibility) moves you away from that theoretical minimum. Reduce the list of allowable constraints to the absolute minimum (e.g., safety, operability, and cost) and state them in the most generalized way possible to allow further explorations. Then systematically minimize or evade each constraint. That is, rather than taking accepted constraints for granted and later nibbling around their edges, carefully think through how to vault each constraint in order to yield far greater savings. To eliminate particular constraints, reframe or redefine how to achieve the ultimate purpose of each.
10. Start with a clean sheet
Designers often reproduce inefficient buildings, factories, and systems by starting with a previous or familiar design. To avoid catching “infectious repetitis,” cultivate “beginner’s mind” even when time, cost or other pressures abound. Set aside all conventional methods and assumptions, and jump to a completely new design space with no preconceptions.
11. Use measured data and explicit analysis, not assumptions and rules
Develop specifications from data carefully measured for the specific design problem. In God we trust; all others bring data. Data trump assumptions. Check how well previous designs’ actual performance matched initial assumptions, and understand any differences. Question all rules of thumb—often opaque stews of old assumptions, such as cheap energy and obsolete technologies.
12. Start downstream
As energy and resources flow from supply to enduse, losses compound through successive steps. Starting savings downstream, at the end-use, turns those compounding losses around backwards into compounding savings—not just of energy but also of capital, because the upstream devices will become progressively smaller, simpler, and cheaper.
13. Seek radical simplicity
Simple systems and components are easier to build, cheaper, use fewer parts, and have fewer failures and maintenance needs. Every part and system is a candidate for elimination. (Sandy Munro’s rule: any part that needn’t move and needn’t be of a basically different material shouldn’t be there.) A key path to simplicity is to use passive design and inherent control (homeostasis), using no energy or effort to maintain the desired state.
14. Tunnel through the cost barrier
Conventional designers invest in resource efficiency only until its gains no longer repay its costs. However, much larger savings can often be justified by other benefits. Such integrative design can even make very large savings cost less than small or no savings—creating expanding, not diminishing, returns to investments in efficiency.
15. Wring multiple benefits from single expenditures
Each part, subsystem, or system should provide many benefits. Having each component perform just one function is a mark of dis-integrated design. Superlative integrative design can achieve a dozen or more functions per component, weaving an intricate web of enhanced value.
16. Meet minimized peak demand; optimize over integrated demand
Systems that meet varying demands (e.g., manufacturing processes and building ventilation systems) are typically designed to run most efficiently at peak demand, a condition that may be rare. This makes them less efficient and costlier to run under typically smaller, varying loads. In contrast, optimized systems are most efficient when integrated over the whole year’s diverse conditions, and are often downsized by special efforts to minimize or shift the peak demand that determines their capacity.
17. Include feedback in the design
Transform dumb systems into intelligent ones by monitoring and, when appropriate, graphically displaying their performance. This can inform optimal operation (a bad building well run usually outperforms a good building poorly run), drive continuous recommissioning, trigger timely maintenance, and yield a rich harvest of design lessons to improve the next design.