Tag Archives: systems

Systems hate designers, even green ones.

The first time I read Natural Capitalism was several years ago in a yurt just outside of Yosemite with my dad and my brother. I was amazed at the possibilities out there, the book was a huge part of what put me on the path to Presidio. It provided answers and hope that I was desperately needed for. This time the booked raised more questions than it answered, and I found it more confounding than inspiring. 

The more I read, the more I felt like the book had two schools of thought on linear vs dynamic systems. The most obvious is that dynamic systems are good and linear ones are bad. Systemically intelligent factories are better than ones managed by linear hierarchy, interconnected industries that eat one another’s waste are better than isolated ones focused on linear production. 

But systems are also the problem. All of those factories wasting tons of energy and not eating one another’s waste are filled to the brim with smart, capable people, people who probably understand their day to day jobs a lot better than we do. They remain hopelessly inefficient not because the people in them are stupid, but because the people in them don’t have the inclination or inspiration to rearrange themselves efficiently. All of those smart people go into work every day, feverishly watch their pressure gauges and blueprints and balance sheets and go home without ever taking the system and it’s inefficiency into account. Change, according to Natural Capitalism, seemed to come when someone in a position of hierarchical power decided to step back, look at the whole system, and use their power to radically alter it. When it comes to making change complex systems are bad and linear hierarchy is good.

Any ideas on how to resolve this contradiction? To me it seems like redesigning systems to eliminate waste will only create new problems, because design is part of the problem. Designing a system implies that we have the power to create and control it, and we rarely understand complicated systems well enough to do either. Natural and other complicated systems aren’t designed, they’re self organized. Each component finds a way to maximize useful relationships with each other component without ever comprehending the whole. It seems like, as people seeking sustainable reform, we should be able to follow this model. We don’t need to understand systems from the top down so that we can eliminate muda, we need to understand how we relate to them so that we can help them self-organize.

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