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Letter from the CEO

Seeing the forest and the trees
By Michael Potts

One of the most powerful ways to gain leverage over a big, thorny challenge is to break it down into components and to tackle those components one by one. This divides the work into “bite-sized chunks” and paves the way for expert practitioners to bring specific expertise and experience to chosen aspects of the challenge.

The downside of this approach comes when it’s time to bring those bite-sized chunks back together. Quite often, the practitioners working on each aspect have been optimizing their solutions for different and possibly conflicting benefits and outcomes. They may also be influenced by financial incentives that make sense for their segments, but not for all segments.

These conscientious practitioners can see quite clearly when mixed signals and disparate objectives spin out of control. However, they are often constrained by their initial commitments and usually have no context or forum in which to raise integration issues as they emerge. That’s one way to end up with bad decisions and poor designs that can result in vehicles, buildings, products, and environments that please no one.

The principle of integrative design offers practitioners a new way to think and a new way to collaborate. At the core is a commitment to design a whole system for multiple benefits rather than designing each component for individual optimization. More time is invested up front in modeling the possible outcomes, thinking through implications and possible conflicts, and building a shared vision. And then each practitioner stays connected to the others to share insights and discoveries on the way to completion.

This process of constant contact can feel strange at first to an expert who is accustomed to pushing forward on his or her own without having to check back with colleagues and collaborators. But in time they see things differently. And it’s thrilling to see the “aha moment” when they realize that the increased interaction actually speeds up the process overall and results in a better outcome. They come to value the suggestions of others and enjoy the opportunity to offer suggestions in areas that were previously “dark” to them. It’s almost a religious experience! (Check out our recently completed video showing integrated design examples and interviews.)

As RMI’s Amory Lovins likes to say, “We dig wholes.” And much of our work at RMI involves helping skilled practitioners take a wider, more integrated perspective of their work.

This issue of Solutions Journal presents a number of examples of this integrated perspective in action. Our work at the Smithsonian and Democracy Now! show “whole-system” thinking as applied to individual buildings. Our "Solar PV Balance of System Design Charrette" convened many practitioners from inside and outside the solar photovoltaic industry to explore new and different innovations addressing a complex cost issue. And “feebates” represent an intriguing policy innovation that emerged from a whole-system perspective of the light-vehicle industry.

Thanks for reading Solutions Journal—and thanks for your support of our work.

Michael Potts is the president and CEO of RMI

--Published August 2010