Systems-thinking tools for sustainability

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Tirza “Moxie” Hollenhorst

I attended the session on The Portland Metro Eco-Districts and was impressed by the intelligence about systems expressed.  Clark Brockman of SERA Architectes, was speaking  on the design of eco-districts.  He cautioned us against trying to draw hard boundaries around a district.  Each system (water, energy, transportation) optimizes at a different scale, so if you get caught up in hard boundaries it’s going to be a challenge and a barrier.  This is a fundamental principle of systems:  if you attempt to optimize one aspect of a system, you do so to the detriment of the system as a whole.  In other words, if you try to set the boundary of an eco-district at the size where transportation is best optimized, you are going to do so to the detriment of the optimal use of energy. 

Clark suggests we think about an eco-district as having a center with various systems optimized around it.  Brilliant.  But in a border-obsessed culture of governance, I see a real need to teach citizen leaders about the principles of systems thinking.  We have been conditioned to think about governenance in a set of concentric circles with hard boundaries, neighborhood, city, county, state, country.  However, these boundaries are meaningless from a systems perspective.  If we are seeking to optimize our use of water, transportation, or simply fun, we need to think in systems that have porous boundaries and overlapping borders.

Linear, Newtonian thinking will not help us here.  We will need to embrace, teach, and use the tools of systems thinking.  Having just come from the Pegasus Thinking in Action conference, I have systems on the brain.  I bring a systems approach the the creation of relationship centric business systems and I was heartened to hear a professional embracing the language of systems subtley and perhaps even unconsciously.  Big cheers to Clark and SERA architects for embracing and visually presenting a systems approach to a new way of living together.

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