Systems Thinking & The Design Universe

I have a relatively new fascination with lean design and construction and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), but during the past four years, several strands of interests and experiences have been weaving themselves together leading up to this.

The First Strand
The term “Systems Thinking” is vague enough to mean different things to different people, but I came across this concept in a book I read a couple of years ago: The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. As I have talked with people in various industries about systems thinking, I’ve discovered the concept is familiar to many, although often by different names. Essentially it is the process of understanding circumstances, problems or systems holistically. Complex challenges are difficult to wrap our minds around, so we’ve learned to break them down into manageable pieces. And in the process we sometimes neglect to consider how each of those pieces influences and is influenced by its relationship to the whole.

When a complex system dysfunctions, our fragmentation strategy cripples our capacity to address root causes. One small event or pattern may have an enormous effect that shows up in an indirectly related part of the system. Or that effect may show up in the same place, but only after enough time has passed so that we no longer associate it with the cause. Understanding the interrelationships within a system is the starting point for effectively addressing complex challenges.

The Second Strand
The Fifth Discipline, a business book geared to organizational improvement, does not reference the design and construction industry, however I quickly recognized the relevance of Senge’s work to the design process and the business of architecture. Several months later I read The Culture of Building by Howard Davis. By reviewing historical, contemporary and cross-cultural examples of architecture, he traces the relationships between the built environment, the institutions involved in producing the built environment and the larger cultural context. He also highlights how the deep fragmentation in the AEC industry (including regulatory and financial institutions) leads to many of the frustrations I hear about from my peers.

In this same period I also read a pair of books, by Judith Blau and Robert Gutman, that evaluate the practice of architecture from a sociological perspective. To my astonishment, many of the aspects of architectural practice that fuel professional dissatisfaction are part of trends more than two decades old. And of course these trends have a complex network of causes.

The Third Strand
Soon after I graduated and began working I had the opportunity to be responsible for a project from schematic design through construction. Although it was relatively small and simple, I was forced early on to deal with a much broader design universe than I had been exposed to as a student. Contract negotiations, accessibility requirements, client capital campaigns, lending institutions… they all impacted my work as a designer. Instead of resenting all of the inconveniences they imposed, I made an effort to understand the priorities and limitations that each party brought to the table. I realized that improving the process of architectural design and production requires a broader perspective, deeper empathy, and stronger communication skills.

My New Fascination
These three strands have gradually woven themselves together into a more focused interest in lean design and construction and IPD. For me, they have formed a launching point for future investigations into integrated practice. Considering the nature of the challenges (and opportunities) we face professionally, environmentally, and technologically, I’m persuaded that IPD, grounded in systems thinking, is a critical area for the design and construction industry to continue developing. I’m excited about discovering what other architects have already figured out, and I look forward to seeing how this trend shapes the future of our profession.


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