Introduction to Sustainable Development for Engineering and Built Environment Professionals
Unit 2 - Learning the Language
6: Role of ‘Systems’ for Sustainable
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.
Sustainability Report, 2006
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
Hargroves, K. and Smith, M.H. (2005) The Natural
Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation
and Governance in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London:
Introduction: Insurmountable Opportunities (4
pages), pp 1-4.
Chapter 1: Natural Advantage of Nations, Progress,
Competitiveness and Sustainability (5 pages),
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
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
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:
Approach an engineering problem with the highest
level of abstraction for as long as practicable.
Apply ‘disciplined anarchy’, that
is, explore all options and question all assumptions.
Analyse the whole problem breadth-wise before
exploring parts of the solution in detail. Understand
the primary system level before exploring the
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,
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.
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.
Changing one part of the system will ultimately
have an effect on the performance of other system
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
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.
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)
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.
is 47 percent savings are achieved.
Study: How Whole System Design enabled the first
industrial revolution to occur
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
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
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
Birkeland, J. (2005) Building
Assessment Systems Reversing Environmental Impacts,
Australian University Sustainability Science Team,
Website Discussion Paper Version 1. Accessed 26
- Birkeland, J. (ed) (2002) Design for Sustainability:
A Sourcebook of Ecological Design Solutions,
- Hawken, P., Lovins, A. and Lovins, L.H. (1999)
Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial
Revolution, Earthscan, London. Available online
Accessed 6 June 2006.
- Chapter 2: ‘Reinventing the Wheels’
- Chapter 6: ‘Tunnelling Through the Cost
- 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 www.iied.org/mmsd/finalreport/.
Accessed 6 June 2006.
- Lovins, A.B. (2005) ‘More Profit with Less
Carbon’, Scientific American, September
- Lyle, J. (1999) Design for Human Ecosystems,
Island Press, Washington D.C.
- Scheer, H. (2004) The Solar Economy,
- van der Ryn, S. and Calthorpe, P. (1986) Sustainable
Communities: A New Design Synthesis for Cities,
Suburbs and Towns, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.
Words for Searching Online
through the Cost Barrier, Rocky Mountain Institute,
Efficient Pump Systems, Design for Sustainability,
net positive development.
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 www.ipenz.org.nz/ipenz/media_comm/documents/SustainabilityDoc_000.pdf.
Accessed 3 January 2007.
Hawken, P., Lovins, A.B. and Lovins, L.H. (1999) Natural
Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution, Earthscan,
Hitchins, D. (2003) Advanced Systems Thinking,
Engineering and Management, Artech House, UK.
Ibid, pp 115-117. (Back)
Hitchins, D.K. (2003) Advanced Systems Thinking,
Engineering, and Management, Artech House, Boston,
Chapter 1: The Need for, and Value of, Systems, p
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.