Designers and decision-makers too often define problems narrowly, without identifying their causes or connections. This merely shifts or multiplies problems. Whole-systems design—the opposite of that dis-integrated approach—typically reveals lasting, elegantly frugal solutions with multiple benefits, which enable us to transcend ideological battles and unite all parties around shared goals.
Whole-System Design: Optimizing Not Just Parts, But Entire Systems
Our lives are embedded in systems: families, communities, industries, economies, ecosystems. The machines we rely on are also systems, which have increasingly profound effects on the human and biotic systems around them.
Understanding the dynamics of systems is integral to RMI's approach. Not only does systems thinking point the way to solutions to particular resource problems, but it also reveals interconnections between problems, which often permits one solution to be leveraged to create many more.
Take cars, for example. Cars are extremely complicated, so automotive engineers and designers specialize. Their job is to make a given component or subsystem the best it can be. This is how the modern automobile has evolved, through an incremental process of small improvements to individual components, without much change to the overall concept.
The trouble is, optimizing isolated parts often "pessimizes" the whole: integration and synergy are lost; complexity, oversizing, and inefficiency abound. What's lacking is a sense of the big picture, the whole system.
Whole-system design means optimizing not just parts but the entire system (in this case the car). Naturally, this is more difficult at first. It takes ingenuity, intuition, and teamwork. Everything must be considered simultaneously and teased apart to reveal mutually helpful interactions.
In the early 1990s, RMI's Hypercar did just that. Individually, none of its defining features offered overwhelming economic or technical attractions. Artfully integrated, though, they produced a vehicle that's three or more times more efficient and less polluting, works better, is cheaper to run, and may even be cheaper to make.