Design for Systems

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erhaps the most revolutionary approach to designing sustainably is to consider the systems view and context of the things we design. As we learned in Chapter 1, everything we develop lives within an eco­system of connected components, products, services, supply chains, and impacts. In fact, every solution lives within several ecosystems relating to environmental, sociocultural, and fi­nancial systems, as well as those for each of our stakeholders. Often, a re-examination of these systems reveals the most sustainable change possible, since it allows us to concentrate on the root of problems instead of merely on the symp­toms that are most visible. Returning to the idea of systems solutions, it appears that redesigning platforms and re-engineering infrastructures will not only lead to more sustainable solutions but also to more holistic contexts for future solutions.

However, this theory puts designers into new territory. Not only are we usually inexperi­enced with supply chains, financial systems, and many cultural impacts, but the last thing our clients and companies want to hear when they engage us is that “we need to back up here and examine whether the whole system needs to be readdressed,” or “this is really a cultural issue, and it’s not solvable by simply making a new product.”

Perhaps the most revolutionary ap­proach to designing sustainably is to consider the systems view and con­text of the things we design.

Systems design calls for us to reinvent more than solutions; we also need to reinvent the platforms and infrastructures those solutions rest upon. For example, issues of traffic and car use are integral to the design of suburbs. We can’t simply do away with cars or institute light rail because the interior structures of many communities don’t support a system appropri­ate for urban settings in rural or suburban ones. Instead, we need to rethink and reframe the challenge in order to see new solutions. These system interconnections come to mind when evaluating solutions. For example, in choosing the most sustainable car, should cars be com­pared only to other cars, or should they also be compared to public transportation, like buses and subways, as well as personal transporta­tion, like bicycles and scooters? A true systems view looks at the larger perspective in order to define needs and requirements at these higher levels before setting off to develop solutions that may only reinforce outdated systems.

… the last thing our clients and com­panies want to hear when they en­gage us is that “we need to back up here and examine whether the whole system needs to be readdressed” or “this is really a cultural issue, and it’s not solvable by simply making a new product.”

Designing a new car, for example, may do little to improve the situation even if it is small, light, fast, and efficient. A better solution might be to help more people move to other modes of transportation (such as bicycles if weather and distance permits, or casual and traditional

carpools, or car-sharing services). Dense light rail might work to alleviate some of the chal­lenge in combination with buses as well. If we think about this as a transportation challenge, rather than a car problem, we’re more likely to create innovative solutions that actually create change. However, these solutions almost al­ways require coordination among stakeholders and across larger systems in order to be built.

Curitiba, Brazil: An Example of Sustainable Innovation

Systems change is often the most difficult to affect since it involves so many goals and stakeholders. Often, the timing is critical for change to occur, and it always involves exemplary, and often visionary, leadership.

Such a time came to Curitiba, Brazil in 1972.

The city had just elected a new major, Jamie Lerner, a trained architect. Mr. Lerner had already helped produce a new urban plan to ease traffic and urban sprawl. Curitiba was suffering under inadequate transportation for a burgeoning population and endemic poverty and slums. The

Curitiba, Brazil: An Example of Sustainable Innovation (continued)

city had also become increasingly inhospitable to pedestrians and citizens, and the rich social fabric of Brazilian society was unraveling. Lastly, it wasn’t a rich city and, therefore, couldn’t afford the expensive solutions that other larges cities could afford and put into place (such as an underground subway system).

One of the first moves that Mayor Lerner called for in the plan was to announce the closure of November 15 Street[61] to automobiles, making it a pedestrian walking street. The outcry from drivers and delivery people was immediate, and they planned to ignore the closure on its first day and “take back” their street through force. Fortunately, Mayor Lerner was a step ahead. When the cars arrived, they found the street filled with children playing. Cars never drove along these streets again. November 15 Street has become the city’s favorite shopping and dining

Curitiba, Brazil: An Example of Sustainable Innovation (continued)

street. It’s a popular place to meet and socialize, and the shops and restaurants that initially claimed they would be ruined by the closure have seen their businesses skyrocket and their location become one of the most desired in all the city.

This is often the case with systemic change. Those who do not see new possibilities cannot see or understand new solutions to newly uncovered opportunities.

Another innovation in Curitiba is its bus system (see Figure 15.1). The city did not have the funding to dig underground tunnels for a subway system. Instead, it instituted an improvised system using long, articulated buses


FIGURE 15.1. http://www. flickr. com/photos/rosenfeldmedia/3264810923 The above-ground subway system.

Curitiba, Brazil: An Example of Sustainable Innovation (continued)

and dedicated street lanes. This above-ground subway functioned much like any other subway in the world. There were designated stations that required tickets, and you could only enter a bus through one such station. These stations were built as above-ground glass tubes next to the dedicated bus lanes. Now, this above-ground subway system is so effective that 85 percent of Curitiba’s population uses it. And it was built at a fraction of the cost other cities spend on subways. The system isn’t perfect, and it required radical changes by car and truck drivers, but the overall solution has been better for most involved, including the poorest citizens who had no way to move around the city economically before. Other cities are now following this model worldwide.

From a cultural perspective, this became an important innovation as well. As Mayor Lerner has said, “A city with ghettos—ghettos of poor or of rich—isn’t a city.” The new transportation system lined different parts of the city’s cultures

Curitiba, Brazil: An Example of Sustainable Innovation (continued)

and allowed them to interact in a new, healthier way.

This wasn’t the only innovation that Mayor Lerner’s administration started. They created small plots within the ghettos and subdivided city land to give to the poor, with a kit of building materials to self-build small homes, yards, and a tree. By no means were these large or luxurious, but it created homeowners out of squatters and engendered personal pride and ownership of vast portions of previous squalor. These plans converted areas prone to flooding into parks to boost the green belt and reduce financial and personal damage during bad weather. The city has since created free education centers (called “lighthouses of knowledge”) to help educate those who can’t afford it, train people for jobs, offer library services and Internet access, and help administer city welfare services.

www. curitiba. pr. gov. br

Updated: October 6, 2015 — 8:19 pm