The Natural Edge Project The Natural Advantage of Nations Whole System Design Factor 5 Cents and Sustainability Higher Education and Sustainable Development

"The mindless burning of fossil fuels, which I call "burning diamonds", is having a disastrous effect on the planet's natural, social and economical environment. We should instead be using the vast resource of fossil remains for higher-state energy transfer processes to produce hydrocarbon materials... while at the same time moving towards using the renewable energy which will give rise to a new solar age."
Mick Pearce, architect

Introduction to Sustainable Development for Engineering and Built Environment Professionals

Unit 2 - Learning the Language

Lecture 6: Role of ‘Systems’ for Sustainable Development

Take an integrated systems approach or an overall holistic approach to considering all stakeholders and the effect on the environment when attempting to solve problems. Rather than focusing solely on the technology aspects, and solving one problem at the expense of another, aim for a co-ordinated overall solution. Base problem solutions primarily focus on existing or new human needs, rather than on finding a use for newly-available technological means. Approaches that are multi-faceted and synergistic are preferable to single issue approaches.

IPENZ, Sustainability Report, 2006[1]

Educational Aim

To introduce the main concepts of Whole System Design (WSD) and show how WSD builds on from and complements design for environment and design for sustainability strategies. To introduce a ten step operational checklist for implementing WSD into engineering practice.


Textbook Readings

Hargroves, K. and Smith, M.H. (2005) The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London:

  1. Introduction: Insurmountable Opportunities (4 pages), pp 1-4.

  2. Chapter 1: Natural Advantage of Nations, Progress, Competitiveness and Sustainability (5 pages), pp 7-11.

Learning Points

* 1. Engineering greater efficiency is a valuable first step to cost effectively helping business, government, and households reduce their resource consumption and negative impact on the environment. The reality is that sustainability will not be achieved overnight, it will involve a significant transition time period. All organisations face financial constraints. For these reasons efficiency is important because it allows any organisation – home, business etc. – to achieve rapid rates of return on investment while reducing environmental impacts. However, reducing humanity’s impact by 10-40 percent through efficiencies is not going to be enough to achieve ecological sustainability. How then can larger Factor X, where X = 4-50 (75-98 percent) reductions in environmental pressure be achieved?


* 2. Efficiency strategies can achieve greater results if a systems engineering approach is taken. The key step of systems engineering is to ask what need or service is required? Energy and materials are not used for their own sake. They are inputs into a system that produces an output that is considered useful or valuable to society. Taking this systems approach helps ensure that designers and engineers examine the many choices that are available to meet a specific need, each with its own unique energy and material needs and environmental impacts. Taking this whole of systems approach facilitates the consideration of options that lie ‘outside the square’.

* 3. Systems engineering, done well, can achieve factor X, where X = 4-20 (75-95 percent) reductions in environmental impact because in the past engineers have sometimes failed to see large potential efficiency savings because they have been encouraged to only optimise parts of the system - be it a pumping system, a car or a building. Engineers have often been encouraged to find efficiency improvements in only part of a plant or a building but rarely encouraged to seek to re-optimise the whole system. ‘Incremental product refinement’ has been traditionally undertaken by isolating one component of the technology and optimising the performance or efficiency of that component. Though this method has its merits with the traditional form of manufacturing and management of engineering solutions, it prevents engineers and designers from achieving more significant energy and resource efficiency savings, which can also be at less cost.

* 4. Most energy using technologies are sub-optimally designed so that components are optimised in isolation, and optimised for single rather than multiple benefits. For example, most technologies are designed sub-optimally in three ways, which are so pervasive both often go unnoticed:[2]

  • Components are optimised in isolation (thus ‘pessimising’ the systems of which they are a part),

  • Optimisation typically considers single rather than multiple benefits, and

  • The right steps are not always taken at the right time and in the right sequence.

* 5. Taking a systems engineering approach ensures that efficiency opportunities which could lead to reductions in resource consumption and reductions in pollution (such as greenhouse gas emissions) are not missed. Through considering the whole system, the full potential of efficiency savings can be realised. Example: consider a system with six energy-consuming components in series. Improving the efficiency of each component by 10 percent results in 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 = 0.53, i.e. 47 percent in energy-efficiency savings.

* 6. Hitchins’ list of Systems Engineering Tenets serves as a general guide for systems engineering. His list of tenets is as follows:

  1. Approach an engineering problem with the highest level of abstraction for as long as practicable.

  2. Apply ‘disciplined anarchy’, that is, explore all options and question all assumptions.

  3. Analyse the whole problem breadth-wise before exploring parts of the solution in detail. Understand the primary system level before exploring the sub-system.

  4. Understand the functionality of the whole system before developing a physical prototype.

* 7. Such an approach has a key role to play to help achieve sustainable development, especially if it is used at the design phase to optimise the whole system, e.g. built environment, buildings, products, industrial plants. As Hawken et al wrote in Natural Capitalism,[4]

By the time the design for most human artifacts is completed but before they have actually been built, about 80–90 percent of their life-cycle economic and ecological costs have already been made inevitable…as the design adage has it, ‘All the really important mistakes are made on the first day’.

* 8. Over the last twenty years engineers using Whole System Design techniques have found that they can achieve Factor 4–10 (75-90 percent) resource and energy efficiency improvements which profitably reduce our load on the environment. Such results have now been achieved for many typical engineering systems from pipes and pumps, to buildings, to HVAC systems, to cars. This is because in the past many engineered systems did not take into account the multiple benefits that can be achieved by considering the whole system.

* 9. Large Factor X results can be achieved through Whole System Design partly because in most organisations (whether they be business or in the home) there is insufficient measurement of the energy and material flows used. Further, rarely are those responsible aware of what is possible. Hence often many inefficiencies have been left unaddressed for some time.

* 10. Case study: by applying whole system engineering design, Jan Schilham cut the pumping power of a pipes and pumps system by 92 percent while reducing its capital cost and improving its performance in every respect.


Brief Background Information

Defining Terms: What is a system?
A system can be defined as an open set of complementary, interacting parts with properties, capabilities, and behaviours emerging both from the parts and from their interactions.[6]
Changing one part of the system will ultimately have an effect on the performance of other system parts.

Analysing the above definition, focus on the key words and phrases:

  • Open - implies hierarchy and architecture open to interchanges with other systems.

  • Set - the parts have something in common.

  • Complementary - implies order, structure, mutual contribution and completeness.

  • Interacting - implying dynamic behaviour.

  • Parts - which are also systems themselves (and could be called ‘subsystems’).

  • Emerging from parts and interactions - properties that are characteristic of both the individual parts and the result of the interactions between these parts.

Understanding causal relationships (i.e. cause and effect) and identifying patterns in system behaviour (such as feedback loops and coupling effects), makes it possible to look for opportunities for improvement.

As engineering has become more specialised many engineering designs have been typically implemented using ‘partial systems engineering’ which leads to incremental improvements through optimisation of the components in isolation of the greater system. A whole of systems engineering approach is about asking the right questions by considering the whole system in which the problem (e.g. product or service) is embodied.

Whole of system engineering is a process through which the inter-connections between sub-systems and systems are actively considered, and solutions are sought that address multiple problems via one and the same solution.

Such an approach has a key role to play in achieving sustainable development. This is because most efficiency projects deal with only some elements of an energy/material-consuming system, not the whole system. That is one reason why they fail to capture the full savings potential. Consider a simplified example of an electric motor driving a pump that circulates a liquid around an industrial site. This system includes the following elements:

  • electric motor (sizing and efficiency rating)

  • motor controls (switching, speed or torque control)

  • motor drive system (belts, gearboxes etc)

  • pump

  • pipework

  • demand for the fluid (or in many cases the heat or coolth it carries)

The efficiencies of these elements interact in complex ways that, ideally, should be modelled. But consider a simplistic situation where the overall efficiency of the motor is improved by 10 percent (by a combination of appropriate sizing and selection of a high efficiency model). Then overall energy efficiency is improved by 10 percent. But if every element in the chain is improved in efficiency by 10 percent, then the overall level of energy use is:

0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 = 0.53.

That is 47 percent savings are achieved.

Case Study: How Whole System Design enabled the first industrial revolution to occur

One of the central learning points here is that many technological systems have been sub-optimally designed. This is because engineers have optimised parts of the system without looking at how to optimise the whole system. Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has said that such Whole System Design was common amongst Victorian period 19th century engineering. In fact such Whole System Design goes right back to the start of the industrial revolution. Capitalism and the first industrial revolution may not have been possible without engineer James Watt practising Whole System Design to achieve major resource productivity gains on the steam engine in 1769. The first industrial revolution was accelerated by the significant improvement in the steam engine’s conversion efficiency, achieved by James Watt.

The steam engine was invented in 1710 to pump water out of coal mines. Watt achieved both resource productivity improvement in terms of how the steam engine converted fossil fuel energy into motor energy, and also a redesign of the gearing system that converted the engine’s reciprocating motion into a rotary motion, making it possible for the steam engine to drive other machines. It was this ingenious highly efficient Whole System re-Design that dramatically increased resource productivity.

James Watt grew up working in his father’s nautical instrument workshop where he became a master craftsman. Later on he was appointed as mathematical instrument maker to the University of Glasgow. It was during his time there that he was asked to repair a model of the Newcomen engine (the original steam engine). Watt realised that the machine was extremely inefficient. Though the jet of water condensed the steam in the cylinder very quickly, it had the undesirable effect of cooling the cylinder down, resulting in premature condensation on the next stroke. In effect the cylinder had to perform two contradictory functions at once: it had to be boiling hot in order to prevent the steam from condensing too early but also be cold in order to condense the steam at just the right time.

Watt re-designed the engine by adding a separate condenser, allowing one of the cylinders to remain hot by jacketing it in water supplied by the boiler. This cylinder ensured that the water was turned into steam and then another condenser was kept at the right temperature to ensure the steam would condense at just the right time. The result was an immensely more powerful machine than the Newcomen ‘steam’ engine, which was essentially little more than a giant pump.

Watt’s initial successful Whole System Design was followed by further remarkable improvements of his own making. The most important of these was the sun-and-planet gearing system which translated the engine’s reciprocating motion into rotary motion. In simple terms, the new machine could be used to drive other machines. Watt alone had used Whole System Design optimisation techniques to turn a steam pump into a machine that had vastly improved resource productivity. Watt’s machine significantly improved the conversion efficiency of energy into power. This invention both spurred and drove the industrial revolution.

This case study of James Watt is featured here to illustrate that the understanding that large resource productivity gains are possible from optimising the whole system is not new. This case study is also featured to show that optimising an engineered system to make it more efficient is a valuable first step, but just that, a first step. The efficiency achieved by James Watt allowed the acceleration of the first industrial revolution, but the first industrial revolution was overall unsustainable and based on burning fossil fuels - a non-renewable resource. Today, a systems approach needs to take into account the whole system including the environment and seek to design solutions that meet humanity’s needs, but in a way, that is also environmentally sustainable. In seeking to achieve sustainability, practitioners need to learn from the best of the engineering tradition and also investigate how they can improve on past designs to achieve a result that is truly environmentally sustainable and not simply more efficient. The following modules seek to assist engineers to achieve this goal.


Key References

- Birkeland, J. (2005) Building Assessment Systems Reversing Environmental Impacts, Australian University Sustainability Science Team, Website Discussion Paper Version 1. Accessed 26 November 2006.

- Birkeland, J. (ed) (2002) Design for Sustainability: A Sourcebook of Ecological Design Solutions, Earthscan, London.

- Hawken, P., Lovins, A. and Lovins, L.H. (1999) Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Earthscan, London. Available online at Accessed 6 June 2006.

- Chapter 2: ‘Reinventing the Wheels’

- Chapter 6: ‘Tunnelling Through the Cost Barrier’

- International Institute for Environment and Development (2002) Breaking new ground: mining, minerals and sustainable development: the report of the MMSD Project, Earthscan, London. Available at Accessed 6 June 2006.

- Lovins, A.B. (2005) ‘More Profit with Less Carbon’, Scientific American, September 2005.

- Lyle, J. (1999) Design for Human Ecosystems, Island Press, Washington D.C.

- Scheer, H. (2004) The Solar Economy, Earthscan, London.

- van der Ryn, S. and Calthorpe, P. (1986) Sustainable Communities: A New Design Synthesis for Cities, Suburbs and Towns, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.

Key Words for Searching Online

Tunnelling through the Cost Barrier, Rocky Mountain Institute, Efficient Pump Systems, Design for Sustainability, net positive development.


[1] Boyle, C., Te Kapa Coates, G., Macbeth, A., Shearer, I. and Wakim, N. (2006) Sustainability and Engineering in New Zealand Practical Guidelines for Engineers. Available at Accessed 3 January 2007. (Back)

[2] Hawken, P., Lovins, A.B. and Lovins, L.H. (1999) Natural Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution, Earthscan, London. (Back)

[3] Hitchins, D. (2003) Advanced Systems Thinking, Engineering and Management, Artech House, UK. (Back)

[4] Ibid. (Back)

[5] Ibid, pp 115-117. (Back)

[6] Hitchins, D.K. (2003) Advanced Systems Thinking, Engineering, and Management, Artech House, Boston, Chapter 1: The Need for, and Value of, Systems, p 26. (Back)

The Natural Edge Project Engineering Sustainable Solutions
Program is supported by the Australian National Commission
for UNESCO through the International Relations Grants
Program of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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