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Whole-System Thinking and Integrative Design

Engineering DesignDesigners tend to disassemble design problems into their individual pieces. This reductionism, common in Western science, can be useful for developing topical expertise, but optimizing individual parts with little thought to their interactions yields inferior results. As Amory Lovins wrote in Natural Capitalism (1999), “Designing a window without the building, a light without the room, or a motor without the machine it drives works as badly as designing a pelican without the fish. Optimizing components in isolation tends to pessimize the whole system—and hence the bottom line. You can actually make a system less efficient while making each of its parts more efficient, simply by not properly linking up those components. If they’re not designed to work with one another, they’ll tend to work against one another.”

In contrast, whole-system thinking reveals and exploits connections between parts. Whole-system designers optimize the performance of buildings, vehicles, machines, and processes by collaborating in diverse teams to understand how the parts work together as a system, then turning those links into synergies. These engineered systems similarly interact with larger systems (e.g., communities, economies, industries, and ecosystems), which also interact with each other. The more complete the design integration, the better the result.

Whole-system thinking underpins integrative design that can yield radical resource efficiency. Integrative design optimizes an entire system as a whole, rather than its parts in isolation. This can solve many problems at once, create multiple benefits from single expenditures, and yield more diverse and widely distributed benefits that help attract broader support for implementation.

Examples of Integrative Design

A lighter-weight vehicle can accelerate as fast with a smaller engine while saving fuel, emissions, and (with proper design) lives. The smaller engine’s lower cost can offset the cost of the lighter materials.

Superinsulating a house provides better comfort and health with less energy. Shrinking or eliminating the heating system can pay for the superinsulation and superwindows—as demonstrated in more than 20,000 European “passive houses,” some of which even cost less than usual to build.

This text is an excerpt from Factor Ten Design Principles — Version 1.0. Download