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From the Design Quarterly: How systems thinking is good for our changing world

February 13, 2020

By Andrew Irvine

Today’s urban communities are challenged by crumbling infrastructure. As our cities densify, exploring systems thinking is critical to a resilient future.

This article first appeared as “Good for change” in the Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 07.

Change is everywhere. And despite our access to tools that enable us to be more predictive, we don’t always know where it’s going. Who knows what new forms of energy, generational mobility, or communication tools we’re going to be using in the next 10 or 15 years? Yet the role of planning and design is focused on imagining or predicting this future.

So, what does that mean for our design profession? I believe systems thinking offers some answers.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking is not a new idea; it has been embedded in our work at Stantec for the past decade. And it’s a great way to rethink the way that you approach urban systems, particularly in terms of new development and building communities from the ground up.

But when it comes to looking at our existing cities, it’s much more difficult to break out of our existing approaches. Across North America, city infrastructure is crumbling and there’s a lot of talk about the need for major reinvestment. But that infrastructure is tied into large interdependent networks for data, transport, power, water, etc. It’s incredibly difficult to tactically and incrementally repair and update. This makes executing change expensive. This also means, because of the expense and interconnectedness, once we commit, we’re all in. And that makes it hard to experiment or adopt new technologies and more sustainable strategies.

Changxing Island master plan in Dalian, China.

But outside North America, we have applied systems-thinking approaches to the built environment. In our master planning work in the Middle East or China, for example, we’ve been able to take a fresh look at how we might approach the different layers of thinking necessary to work within the land and fast-growing urban systems.

When we apply systems thinking, we look at the ecology, the land systems, social systems, demographic trends, community fundamentals, and what changes are likely. Considering these elements holistically allows us to be more adept at thinking about how we service that community, whether it’s health and wellness or education or socialization or employment. That helps us understand how to accommodate today’s needs and meet those of tomorrow.

Then we look at infrastructure. We need to break it down from that broader network into something that is more district-oriented to find a better solution, something more resilient, more flexible, and more responsive to an uncertain future.

Incremental strategies to build resilience

Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills. It lacks industrial-era infrastructure, but it’s embracing the technical revolution of digital and cellular technologies. 

I participated in a project in Rwanda that concentrated density at the top of the hills and lower density and ecological and agricultural uses at the bottom of the hills, then used gravity to channel waste to environmental treatment zones and convert it to energy. Using waste-to-energy technologies in the system, rather than a big sewage treatment plant on an existing network, generates methane as a fuel with minimal environmental footprint.

Systems thinking seeks a more resilient, flexible, and more responsive solution to an uncertain future.

We applied the same strategy in India and used biogas digesters at a district level to harvest energy from the waste from local cooking stoves to use in a 5 million square foot commercial office development. Approaching things at the district level allowed us to think differently and incrementally roll out infrastructure systems to change the community and make it more independent, sustainable, and resilient.

In 2013, Stantec was part of a team developing a master plan to accommodate 1.2 million people for a growing industrial area on a chain of islands in China near the Bohai Sea. There were water-supply issues, so we looked at land area and rainfall and determined how much natural water we could harvest, store, and use to support that population. We repurposed losses within the system for either industrial or agriculture use. We did the same with the mobility and energy systems. Since this was a new community, we were able to take a district-based approach and try closed-loop, local solutions rather than connecting to the larger networked energy supply, water supply, or waste management.

Now, we’re applying that kind of thinking to resilience. We explored some of these ideas in our recent Houston 2020 workshop, for instance. There, we looked at networked emergency systems, social systems, schools, health centers, fire stations, the community safe havens during an emergency, as well as the land system. By understanding the land system’s vulnerability, we can begin to identify community level interventions that will best serve the local population in extreme situations.

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Embracing urban life

To solve today’s challenges within existing communities, we’re going to need to employ systems thinking. A groundswell of interest in urban living is densifying downtown areas across North America.

This increasing urban population, combined with disruptive changes in mobility, puts greater pressure on the public realm and the open space network to satisfy the needs of a growing urban population. In growing cities like Denver, we can’t create new land to provide recreation amenities, putting us at risk of losing connection to nature through parks and recreation and the associated benefits to health and wellness. This means we need to be more creative in rethinking recreation, open space, and food production.

But there are opportunities.

We’re exploring innovative ideas such as vertical open space, adopting biophilia as a design generator, and repurposing parking structures and former industrial buildings to help meet those important community amenity needs.

The Lakehouse in Denver is both a highly sustainable building and a pilot project for the WELL Building program. It will be the first WELL certified multifamily building—setting a new bar for urban redevelopments.

The building layout promotes access to natural light with apartments oriented toward city, lake, and or mountain views. Close attention was paid by designers to air quality through material selection. Social spaces are situated throughout the building. One of the exciting innovations was the incorporation of a community garden on the podium amenity deck alongside the pool and other recreation amenities. The garden, which had its first abundant harvest of vegetables and herbs last year, is connected to a community kitchen and dining area where the residents can come together to cook, learn how to cook, and share their harvest together, reinforcing a resilient social system.

Urban centers are increasingly challenged by traffic congestion and mobility issues. But rather than simply building more roads to address congestion, we’re seeing a shift toward new ways of moving people—from electric scooters to public-private mass transit. Systems thinking will help us find fresh approaches for solving mobility and addressing the changes in cities brought on by the shared economy, autonomous vehicles, and new forms of mobility.

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Lakehouse in Denver, Colorado, where a focus on the WELL Building program is critical to the project.


When we can start from scratch, apply our big ideas and understanding of different systems-based approaches, we can chart a smarter and more resilient direction for growth and development. To repurpose networks within the US, we must overcome entrenched government, agency, disparate ownership, and economic models. In some cases, we are locked into the existing large urban infrastructure systems. But perhaps there are other, equally impactful interventions that can be applied where we are unable to change the existing broadscale network.

By drilling down to the building level or block scale, intervention in cities is suddenly more realistic. New interventions occur within our urban fabric at the building level—think about the possibilities brought about by photovoltaic roof or cladding tiles, coupled with new advances in battery and smart-grid technologies. Consider the new communities we are designing around a sustainable lifestyle and urban farming such as Adams Crossing.

We can design buildings that are more resilient with their own closed-loop networks for energy, water, waste, and food. We have the design and technological capabilities to make smart buildings happen right now.

By applying creative thinking at the district, block, and building scale, we can reshape our cities to promote more resilient and sustainable approaches, and more responsible management of our limited resources. But to do this, we’ll have to think more broadly and across the silos of disciplines. Only then will we make rapid change—a change for good.

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  • Andrew  Irvine

    Andrew is an energetic, creative, hands-on professional with a passion for design and is known by his clients as someone who delivers exceptional quality.

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