Duane Elverum: Applying systems design to sustainability

Start with a vision, then invent the technology to achieve it.

Credit: Alan Smith

This Earth Day, April 22, professor Duane Elverum urges everyone to eat a tomato.

But then, after you’ve finished your salad, consider what happens: that tomato will turn into a fingernail.

This thought exercise illustrates Elverum’s approach to sustainable design. As assistant professor in design and sustainable systems at Emily Carr and Simon Fraser University, his teaching and research focus on the need for designers and architects to consider the world using a systems approach.

That movement has parallels in fields as divergent as physics and jazz. Just as Miles Davis composes music by focusing on the spaces between notes, architects design buildings based on spaces between streets, nature and other buildings. The conceptual focus is on systems and relationships, rather than products and materials.

Watch a video by Alan Smith explaining physicist/philosopher David Bohm’s theory of holism

Watch a TED Talk on the link to food

Elverum’s ideas entail two differences in thinking. First, he moves the focus of sustainability strategies from consumption to production.

Rather than consuming more new green technologies, like hybrid cars or steel coffee cups—which are helpful and important transition points—he also promotes addressing problems from the production side.

Paradigm shift: backcasting

Since the Industrial Revolution, our production and design practices have been rooted in an understanding that the earth had a relatively small population and an abundance of resources. But the context has since shifted: we’re using the same approach, but now with billions more people and fewer resources.

“Creating and buying more green products can’t solve all our problems… While that is an important bridging strategy, we need to focus on others, too,” says Elverum.

He advocates a production strategy that moves from forecasting to backcasting. The difference between these strategies can be explained, in part, through the way each conceives of technology.

Forecasting uses pre-existing technology to solve problems—leveraging existing capacity to fulfill a need. In contrast, backcasting works from the ground up. It recognizes that tools and solutions to problems are never pre-determined, and so starts with a stated vision and then invents technology to achieve that goal.

Read a summary of Kevin Kelly’s discussion of this idea, which is a critique of “technological determinism.”

Check out some projects that illustrate this design approach:

1. William McDonough and Cradle to Cradle Design

2. John Todd and Living Machines

3. Kim Rink and Solar Aquatics – a local application of Todd’s ideas.


Sustainable design in application

In his classes at Emily Carr and Simon Fraser University (with Janet Moore), Elverum works to apply these principles in practice. Students work to solve global warming; their vision—and their solutions to achieve it—become the focus of the semester.

Read a summary of this approach from the Vancouver Sun: “Students want universities to help them change the world”

Watch Elverum’s Pecha Kucha talk on the SFU Semester in Dialogue project


Solutions based on cooperation and integration

Elverum argues that during their training, professionals become predisposed to the methods and techniques of their discipline. The mark of an expert is her or his command of an esoteric (or jargon-filled) technical language. This, he says, needs to change.

“Our experts are separate from each other—like spokes on a wheel. But in order to solve the problems of sustainability, we need to be interdisciplinary, cooperative and systemic in our thinking,” says Elverum.

Join Elverum’s Facebook group, Ecological Perspectives in Design

Watch YouTube clips from the Ecological Perspectives on Design video assignments


Check it out: more links!


ECU student project: My Home, Your Home 

SFU Semester in Dialogue Spring 2009 student projects 

SFU Student Public Dialogue site: Audacious Visions of Vancouver

ECU Electric Vehicle Project