Systems Design: Because everything* is systems
The Warning of the Doorknob
All good product and service design begins with systems analysis. We are tasked with understanding not just one system that the product will be composed of (e.g. electrical, information, mechanical, hydraulic, etc.) or is designed for (transportation, manufacturing, social, natural, etc.) but many. Systems are fascinating but also a great source of anxiety, because they are uncertain, full of complex interpersonal relationships, indefinite, and difficult.
This anxiety is rooted in the hierarchical nature of systems and moves in two directions, infinite escalation and regression.
John P. Eberhard, a neuroscientist who studies brain and how it experiences built environments, named this dichotomy of complexities “the warning of the doorknob”, described by Ed Yourdon in his book ‘Just Enough Structured Analysis’:
This has been my experience in Washington when I had money to give away. If I gave a contract to a designer and said, “The doorknob to my office doesn’t have much imagination, much design content. Will you design me a new doorknob?” He would say “Yes,” and after we establish a price he goes away. A week later he comes back and says, “Mr. Eberhard, I’ve been thinking about that doorknob. First, we ought to ask ourselves whether a doorknob is the best way of opening and closing a door.” I say, “Fine, I believe in imagination, go to it.” He comes back later and says, “You know, I’ve been thinking about your problem, and the only reason you want a doorknob is you presume you want a door to your office. Are you sure that a door is the best way of controlling egress, exit, and privacy?”
“No, I’m not sure at all.” “Well I want to worry about that problem.” He comes back a week later and says, “The only reason we have to worry about the aperture problem is that you insist on having four walls around your office. Are you sure that is the best way of organizing this space for the kind of work you do as a bureaucrat?” I say, “No, I’m not sure at all.” Well, this escalates until (and this has literally happened in two contracts, although not through this exact process) our physical designer comes back with a very serious face. “Mr. Eberhard, we have to decide whether capitalistic democracy is the best way to organize our country before I can possibly attack your problem.”
On the other hand is the problem of infinite regression. If this man faced with the design of the doorknob had say, “Wait. Before I worry about the doorknob, I want to study the shape of man’s hand and what man is capable of doing with it,” I would say, “Fine.” He would come back and say, “The more I thought about it, there’s a fit problem. What I want to study first is how metal is formed, what the technologies are for making things with metal in order that I can know what the real parameters are for fitting the hand.” “Fine.” But then he says, “You know I’ve been looking at metal-forming and it all depends on metallurgical properties. I really want to spend three or four months looking at metallurgy so that I can understand the problem better.” “Fine.” After three months, he’ll come back and say, “Mr. Eberhard, the more I look at metallurgy, the more I realize that it is atomic structure that’s really at the heart of this problem.” And so, our physical designer is in atomic physics from the doorknob.
That is one of our anxieties, the hierarchical nature of complexity.
Now we must not forget that Dr. Eberhard had his own complexity to deal with. From the perspective of escalation, he moves from being an H. sapiens in an urban habitat to a temperate climate zone of New York to our planet’s biosphere. And in another direction, Dr. Eberhard is composed of …
All these systems talk to each other. While Dr. Eberhard is dealing with his door handle, environmental agencies are trying to figure out how to revert the harmful effects of out-of-control manufacturing systems on Earth’s biosphere. And atoms of a door handle are peacefully swerving in the void along with the atoms of Dr. Eberhard’s hand.
Bridging the Distance Between Fundamental Rules and Final Phenomena
Years ago, still a design student, I peeked into John Buschek’s cozy office on the grounds of a project I was working on and ended up in one of his remarkably comfortable chairs, being questioned about the entire purpose of my project. He concluded:
“Designers often jump to a solution before ever asking a question of why the solution is needed in the first place. Don’t worry, scientists do it too.”
And he isn’t talking about a product or service, but more about the fundamental question of systems surrounding it. As a chemist, John engaged in many well funded endeavours of “creating chemistry for the sake of creating chemistry”. He called it ‘mundane science’. There is an excellent paper by Daniel Kammen and Michael Dove titled The Virtues of Mundane Science:
The prejudice against research on mundane topics has created a conceptual “cordon sanitaire” within many disciplines. In energy and development research, it appears as a disproportionate focus on advanced combustion systems, commercial fuels, and large centralized power facilities, even though more than 3 billion people rely on wood, charcoal, and other biomass fuels for the bulk of their energy needs.
Major obstacles to developing sound environmental practices are not principally technological. Instead, the primary stumbling block is the lack of integrative approaches to complex systems and problems. A mundane example — efforts to improve wood and charcoal burning cookstoves — illustrates the important advances that are possible from integrating scientific, engineering, and social science research with very practical implementation programs.
Here it is: lack of integrative approaches to complex systems and problems. There is a great video narrated by Richard Feynman, titled Curiosity:
My favourite phrase from the video:
“So much distance between fundamental rules and final phenomena.”
We all know about emergent behaviour, spontaneous organization, and collective decisions. But what do we really know about the rich web of interactions within all these phenomena?
John Holland once elegantly compared economic system to a natural one:
There is no master neuron in the brain nor is there a master cell within a developing embryo. If there is to be any coherent behaviour in the system, it has to arise from competition and cooperation among the agents themselves.
This is quite true in the economy as well: regardless of how much CEOs of companies are trying to cope with a stubborn recession, the overall behaviour of the economy is still the result of myriad economic decisions made every day by millions of individual people.
More importantly, it’s all about never-ending reshuffling and rearrangement of the said neurons and cells to ensure the resiliency of the system. Thus, an integrative approach and continuous questioning might open a designer’s mind to the world of heavy, complex problems that need solving; beyond safe, easily-accessible, peddled, and ubiquitous challenges that are so tempting to quickly tackle.
And the best part, the more you dive into a complex problem the more you start connecting the dots, branching out, and converging again. This brings about a whole array of inspirations and allows a designer to truly understand the space they are designing for, instead of generalizing and assuming its purpose and function. And, of course, the more we learn, the more humble we become. And isn’t that what designer should strive to be? As Richard Dawkins put it:
The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful does it appear. It is an immensely exciting experience to be born in the world, born in the universe, and look around you and realize that before you die you have the opportunity of understanding an immense amount about that world and about that universe and about life and about why we’re here.
We have the opportunity of understanding far, far more than any of our predecessors ever. That is such an exciting possibility, it would be such a shame to blow it and end your life not having understood what there is to understand.
After publishing this article, Timi Olotu wrote a thoughtful comment that turned out to be an eloquent summary to my often serpentine thoughts. So, I’m adding it here:
Your discussion of the anxiety attached with the concepts of infinite regression and escalation is basically a physical exploration of the metaphysical concept of an “existential crisis”.
An existential crisis, in other words, is a self-aware “system” attempting to identify which part of the existential spectrum it uniquely occupies… but failing and getting lost in either infinite regression or escalation.We identify systems as occupying a unique part of the existential spectrum based on where one system (or series of systems) ends and where another begins — i.e. part of knowing that a rock is a rock comes from knowing that it is not the same as sand (or some other thing).
This logic (in small doses) is also essential when solving complex problems of any kind […]. It’s a reminder for designers to neither live in blissful ignorance nor suffer a “design existential crisis” — to be aware of the complexity of systems but not get lost in them.
Finally, the art of murmuration to illustrate the difference between non-system and a system!
The best part about systems is, despite their complexity, they can be understood. Stay tuned for the follow-up article that will introduce methods of systems analysis and design.