Have you ever been in a group exercise at a design charrette where participants are asked to suggest a range of issues they feel are important for the project? The list goes on the wall, perhaps communicated by a bunch of post-its. The list contains individual wants, needs, visions, aspirations, environmental imperatives, LEED points, budget concerns, building or project programming issues, and so on. Then each person is given a selection of colored dots and asked to ‘vote’ on what they feel is most important. Pretty heavy responsibility for a colored dot.
What’s wrong with this process? It sounds like a reasonably fair way of making decisions. In fact, it’s an OK process if you want to get a read on what people are thinking. But it is not a way to achieve long-term agreement and integration – there will always be perspectives left unaddressed or unreconciled by a majority vote. And because it is a fundamentally fragmentary approach, it can completely fail to see or address the system as a whole.
This problem surfaced on a recent sustainability-oriented project. The greening expert ran through the voting process. Out of thirty or so items, ‘storm water management’ was voted to the 27th position. It turned out (no surprise) that the key to achieving a sustainable condition on this project required an integrated water system that depended on rain to supply the water for the toilets, irrigation, and potentially for drinking too. When the design team reported back at the next charrette and identified stormwater as an extremely important issue – the client balked, saying, “We didn’t vote for that!” It took some time and angst to convince the project team that their votes failed to really get at the important issues. Not only did the “dot” voting process contribute little or nothing to an integrated design solution, the misleading results it produced actually diminished the ability of the project team to think and work together.
This is because sustainability is ultimately about sustaining the web of life. Life is fundamentally interconnected—you can’t vote on pieces of it. The lesson: YOU CAN’T VOTE ON NATURE. Life is a whole system and cannot be fragmented into little pieces that we decide whether we like or not.
Living systems require an approach that integrates, identifying the unifying and intelligible patterns within complexity. Patterns are how scientists now characterize and work with complex systems. Although little packets of ideas resulting from reductionist thinking are useful in certain limited cases, they cannot provide any meaningful level of understanding of living systems. It’s time for us in the sustainability field to start working with patterns as the basis for understanding life in each unique place we are working. From these patterns we can extract principles; and from these principles we can derive indicators that we can measure. This puts the working of real places and real living systems at the center of our design work, rather than a voted-on distillation of our opinions and received knowledge. Living systems become the starting point, not an afterthought.