NOTE: Make sure you read the first three posts (in order!) before tackling the rest, or it could be confusing: Post 1 is Designing the future, Post 2 is Setting up the problem, and Post 3 is Estimating basic requirements.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

Setting up the problem

A Systems Engineering solution begins by accurately identifying the needs, goals, and objectives of your project. These items can be as broad or narrow as required, but they are strictly used to define the problem, not imply any sort of design solution – that comes later.

In engineering terms, a need is driving force behind a project. No numbers are allowed in need statements, only concepts. It is not uncommon for a project team to spend a week debating the best need statement, and its importance can’t be understated. Without it, everyone involved has a different idea (or no idea) about what they’re doing and might develop either incompatible or completely wrong designs. It’s also useful just for organizing thoughts.

I’ve introduced a very broad target need for this blog, which is the need for designing sustainable communities. But what does that mean? Are you starting a community from scratch on a barren patch of land? Are you reshaping an entire existing city? Are you constructing a home for only one family? The answers are different for every project, which makes the job of forming an engineering methodology all the more difficult.

For me, the best way to learn a concept is by case study: applying the theory to a real-world example problem. For the sake of argument, let’s pick an example and use it to illustrate the concepts every community designer needs to understand.

Say you have a 40-acre piece of land, half-woods and half-arable land, with no existing structures. This may be a dream situation for many, but remember this is only an example and you should have no problem applying these ideas even if you have a half-acre plot in the city—you’re just starting with a different set of resources. So what are our needs? One possibility is “There is a need to have a sustainable community on the existing land.” That’s accurate but very loosely defined – what do you mean by ‘community’ and what is meant by ‘sustainable’?

To keep things from quickly spiraling into complexity, suppose you have a family of four (two adults, two pre-adolescent children) defined as your initial community. Suppose further that you are beginning your project pre-peak (transport costs are low, all devices and materials we desire are within reach), you want your community completely self-sufficient, and you wish to retain a comfortable existence with electricity and indoor plumbing. These are the ‘non-negotiable’ facts.

With this new information in hand, we can write an even better need statement: “There is a need to have a homestead for our family that is completely self-sufficient and allows for a comfortable standard of living.” Great! That’s enough for us to continue on towards defining our goals and objectives for the project.

A goal is a statement describing how you will meet your needs and an objective provides a measurable method for meeting the goals. Like needs, goals do not contain numbers.

For our project we can define several goals:

Goal 1: The community will have electricity.
Goal 2: The community will have indoor plumbing.
Goal 3: The community will grow its own food.
Goal 4: The community will be safe for children.

You might be able to pick out a couple more yourself for the given example. Notice that while the goals are more specific than the need statement, they are still very broad statements.

Each goal must have at least one objective attached to it. The objectives may contain numbers, but remember we are not yet designing anything here, only defining the problem. For the goal statements above we may specify some objectives:

Goal 1: The community will have electricity.
Objective 1.1: The community will provide enough electricity for four people.
Objective 1.2: The community will use modern electrical appliances.

Goal 2: The community will have indoor plumbing.
Objective 2.1: The community will provide indoor plumbing adequate for four people.

Goal 3: The community will grow its own food.
Objective 3.1: The community will produce enough food for four people.

Goal 4: The community will be safe for children.
Objective 4.1: The community will be designed to minimize the danger to children.

As you can see, each objective is measurable and some include numbers. However, none of them point to any particular design solution.

Alright, so what have we gained with all this work? Let’s put the entire problem definition together (notice the organization – 90% of engineering is staying organized):

Need: There is a need to have a homestead for our family that is completely self-sufficient and allows for a comfortable standard of living.

Goal 1: The community will have electricity.
Objective 1.1: The community will provide enough electricity for four people.
Objective 1.2: The community will use modern electrical appliances.
Goal 2: The community will have indoor plumbing.
Objective 2.1: The community will provide indoor plumbing adequate for four people.
Goal 3: The community will grow its own food.
Objective 3.1: The community will produce enough food for four people.
Goal 4: The community will be safe for children.
Objective 4.1: The community will be designed to minimize the danger to children.

Wow. It seems like we just did a whole lot of work for nothing but a half-page of text. Why bother with all this Systems Engineering garbage? Why not just jump right into designing and building? If you run into any problems during the process, you’ll just fix them and move on. What’s the big deal?

The truth is the vast majority of projects that do not apply Systems Engineering principles are doomed to failure from the beginning—either by spiraling costs or schedule, designing into a corner, or outright disaster. You must put in the time to carefully plan your community because you literally can not afford for this project to fail. The lives of you, your family, or even your neighbors might depend on your community’s success. Consider everything, ignore nothing, and keep your design flexible. Don’t be intimidated by the scope of this design problem, even if you have no engineering experience: I and every other reader of this blog will help guide you through what you need in order to design a robust and sustainable post-peak oil community.

There is so much more to come…

References: Customer-Centered Products by Hooks and Farry
Systems Engineering Principles and Practices by Kossiakoff and Sweet


At 1:26 AM, Blogger James Samuel said...

OK, I'm with you so far. I wanted to let you know there is another reader(who is highly active in his local community) keenly watching where this goes.

At 3:15 PM, Blogger PeakEngineer said...

With your experience, I could definitely use your help sharing what works and what doesn't. What is your background?

At 5:29 PM, Blogger inculcated said...

An interesting undertaking you have going. You should consider reading about Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language. I use the book as a constant reference in my pursuits....

At 11:57 PM, Blogger Todd King, Doomsayer said...

This is fantastic! I can't tell you how pleased I am to read about what we can do as individuals to prepare for peak oil from such a tactical yet comprehensive perspective.

At 1:05 AM, Blogger jerry mandarin said...

You seem to have glossed over the 'sustainable' part, or perhaps there is some confusion over the difference between 'sustainable' and 'self-sufficient'. The goals as stated so far, when scaled up to the size of a city or a nation (or an empire), really only get us to the situation we are already in: unsustainable use of natural resources and sinks to provide a relatively high standard of living for 'the community'.

The best definition of 'sustainable' I personally have found to date is in the book 'Limits to Growth: the 30 year update' by Meadows, et al.

"In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development put the idea of sustainablity into memorable words:

"A sustainable society is one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."


"To be materially and energetically sustainable, [the community's] throughputs would have to meet Herman Daly's three conditions:

"1. Its rates of use of renewable resources do not exceed their rates of regeneration.

"2. Its rates of use of nonrenewable resources do not exceed the rate at which sustainable renewable substitutes are developed.

"3. Its rates of pollution emission do not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment."

Regardless of whether we are engineering a family farm or a global economy these goals should be explicitly stated or we will only end up in the same predicament we have now.

At 1:34 PM, Blogger Johan said...

I must agree with Jerry Mandarin.
You really need to get Sustainability Requirements in there.

Also, the Limits to Growth - 30 year update is a MUST READ.
It really ties everything together. After reading it, you actually UNDERSTAND the news you get every day - from a big picture perspective.

Furthermore, I think the requirement that your family must be self-sufficient is wrong.

There is an awful lot of added value in "specialisation" and "collaboration" : when different people with complementary skills and professions work together, trade (buy/sell) the product of their talent, the overall added value is much bigger than if everybody does everything himself.

Are you going to be your own doctor or dentist? I hope not.

But I think you are VERY RIGHT not to jump to conclusions with regard to solutions; let's understand the NEED first, look at the possibilities and boundary conditions, and design the solution from there - out of the box if needs be.

At 1:54 PM, Blogger Johan said...

Another thought while re-reading my comment :

If we need to have people collaborating, this collaboration will need to be sustainable.

"Sustainable collaboration" is probably more to do with "Social Capital" (good relations, trust, mutual care) than with the physical aspects of collaboration, i.e. : materials, energy, clean environment, etc.

Although hard to quantify, there is no doubt a big amount of value is Social Capital; the alternative is spending a lot of effort in protective measures (doors, locks, arms, armies, etc) - money and effort of which could also be more constructively and positively spent.

In a world of scarecity, not having to worry about defence can mean a big difference in the quality of life you can get out of limited resources.

So there must also be a Requirement for Social/Cultural rules to be followed, in order to foster and sustain good relationships with your neighbours.

I'm not a religious guy myself, but I guess someone once wrote seven sins and virtues.
(And more too...)

It now strikes me those probably were pretty sane rules for sustaining good relationships and living sustainably (socially and physically) within a limited world.

So I think we shouldn't loose sight of ethics when designing our brave new world.

At 2:06 PM, Blogger Johan said...

Oh by the way - anyone read Richard Heinberg's "the Party's over"?

There's a reference in there to some researcher that figured out that with organic agriculture (nothing added) the world can carry about 7 billion people, provided :
- we all eat vegetables (animals require too many calories to grow)
- we eat 'em cold
- we don't heat ourselves
- we compost human remains post mortem, to recover the calories and materials.

So, people, YES let's make a design for the post-oil era.

But let's make it sufficiently high-tech that we don't have to kill each other over cold veggies.

There has to be a way...

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Johan said...

Good news for sustainable fertilizers... is this for real?

Also, this does not look like something you'll invent, design, build and run just within your family.

Hence the value of collaborating (and sharing ideas and techniques) with other.

Again, "self-sufficient" is a wrong Requirement.

At 2:30 PM, Blogger Johan said...

But in case you started doubting, I am still very much in favour of your approach.

Just don't use "a family" as a "self sufficient" unit.

Maybe don't even consider "self sufficient". Because, what is that? To produce everything yourself, without interaction with the outside world?
Boy, I think you can forget those electrical appliances...

But let's do the exercise.

Wouldn't it be better to consider a medium sized city (a million inhabitants or abouts) with its surrounding country-side (and existing suburbs), while still allowing for trade of goods and services, and exchange of ideas with other cities?

Cities represent civilisation (after all, words like "civilian", "civil" rights, and "civilisation" are derived fom "civitas" - city).

And I like civilization.
I want to keep it.
There is no way I'm going to consider moving back to caves and bashing each other with wooden clubs.

Try googeling "civitas" and you'll quickly find this European Union supported sustainable cities initiative :

I'm sure this could help people in the US too.

At 5:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read where it is impossible for a community to be 100% sustainable. We can however break down our goals/objectives to reduce our emissions to some number, waste to some number, etc. So we can live more sustainably (reduce our footprint).

I do think we can live a self-sufficient life and be part of a self-sufficient community. In order to be self-sufficient we have to employ sustainable practices. Maybe that is the confusion in terms here. My two-cents such as it is.

PeakEngineer's example was a family of four -- two adults, two pre-adolescent children. I think it is a good idea to start with an average family as an example. More people are likely to relate to it, and I believe it is where all communities will have to start anyway. I'm eager to hear more.

At 3:08 AM, Blogger Johan said...

Hello Anonymous,

Here's what I think, with regard to your points :

"I've read where it is impossible for a community to be 100% sustainable."

I don't see why not.

There are examples of societies that did live sustainably in the past. Think of the American Native Tribes, before European migration to the US. I don't know an awful lot about them, but I get the impression that their way of life would have been sustainable indefinately.

There are also examples of past communities with less technology and machinery than we have today, that did not live sustainably. So it's not that being less technologically advanced is a good thing per se.
I think in the books of Richard Heinberg (Party's Over, Powerdown), you'll find some more info on this.
Think of the Maya, or the Roman empire, which both collapsed. A lot of empires have collapsed in the course of history - for many different reasons. But lack of sustainability is probably an important reason. Read "the Limits to Growth" to understand about "overshoot and collpase".

For a Theoretical Physics point of view, learn something about "Thermodynamics".
What I believe is important to understand from Thermodynamics, is that the universe is in constant and irreversible decay. That is called "entropy". Now that doesn't mean that every part of the universe needs to be in decay. Locally, you can build order and structure and beautiful things.
In the process, it does require us to let energy decay from a high-value form to a low value form. E.g., we convert the chemical energy that is stored in hydrocarbons into heat, which is a lower form of energy (you can't convert it back into the original amount of chemical energy without adding energy from outside.)

So what does that mean for us?

Keeping our civilization structured, creating value and beauty, based on a finite amount of fossil fuel is bound not to be sustainable.

Also, in the process, we change the chemical equilibrium of the atmosphere, putting more CO2 up there, which is causing greenhouse effect.
This created a "new equilibrium" (in chemics, there always is an equilibrium) but one which may not be viable for life-forms like us. So it's not sustainable.

Using depletable resources and also continuously converting freshly mined materials (finite amount!) into waste which is dumped in landfills, indeed is not sustainable.

Now if you keep doing that, at a lower pace, you might be able to hold off chaos and decay for a while, but not forever.

Don't get me whrong : that doesn't mean you shouldn't get more efficient. Why waste things that could be valuable to you or other people, now or in the future?

The way to break the unsustainability loops is more likely to use energy from a continuous non depletable (from our time perspective) source : the sun.
You can capture this energy through solar, wind, tidal, etc techniques.

Renewable energy is the key to being sustainable.

Then there is materials : in stead of continuously mining, using and landfilling them, why not close the loop, and re-use them indefinately?

So make durable goods, re-use, and re-cycle.

A great book on that is "Natural Capitalism" from Hawken, Lovins & Lovins

The important thing of course is to understand about sustainability, to measure it, and to act in due time.

I would argue that a high-tech community is far better equipped to keep within sustainability limits, than a primitive society, where families live in a "self sufficient" way : it becomes possible to monitor where you are, as well as get a maximum of value out of the environment, whilst not damaging it - even restoring.

BUT then people need to listen to scientists.

AND it is important to have sustainable ethics.
Just as an exercise : look up the 7 deadly sins and 7 virtues, and check how well you're doing against each of them.

Given the world's population today (and it's still continuing growth), I think it is doubtfull we could still live in the ways of Native Americans.

I would say we need a sustainable high-tech society to pull us through here.

At 3:31 AM, Blogger Johan said...

(why don't you pick a nickname; there's a enormous amount of anonymouses out here)

With regard to your second paragraph :

"I do think we can live a self-sufficient life and be part of a self-sufficient community."

Yes, so do I.
It seems we are arguing about the size. Where you seem to have a family or small rural vilage in mind, I would opt for a modern city, that trades with other cities. Very much as exists today, BUT improving on the design of our cities, economies, ethics, etc so that we become a sustainable society.

What I'm saying is that I believe there is a lot of synergies to be had from "scale" : a bigger amount of people can specialise themselves each in an area (as today!) and then help each other out (as today!).

What I'm saying is that we need this scale, because it allows more and better technologies and a higher standard of living.

A small self-sufficient rural village can no-doubt be self-suffiecient and sustainable; but you probably will have to do without dental care and radio. No internet, and maybe no books either.

Have you been in a developing country? I have. You don't want to live like that.

Furthermore, a lot of the developing countries, which are indeed emitting far less greenhouse gases per person, and have a much smaller ecological footprint per person, are not sustainable either!!!
Why not? Because their population keeps rising, their total footprint and need for resources also keeps going up.
Now this is normal; population rise has happened in every country and is closely related to poverty.

Again, read "the Limits to Growth".

This is probably why you should care about the standards of living and education in the developing countries - I would want them to be sustainable too (and offer a decent standard of living to their inhabitants).

"In order to be self-sufficient we have to employ sustainable practices."

Oh yes, if you want that self-sifficiency to be durable; to be sustainable for a long time.

But I would argue that it is possible to be sustainable without isolating yourself; without closing a small group of people off from the rest of the world.

What is "self-sufficiency"?
I would say it is that you produce enough value to support yourself (and your family).

Now when you trade some of the specific form of value that you create, for another form of value that some-one else created; does that mean you don't qualify for self-sufficient anymore?
I think it still does.

Breaking up the economy by each becoming an isolated rural family unit, in my opinion, will massively destroy value and make us all very poor, hungry, and hostile to each other.

Go see "Mad Max" again... :-)

At 6:21 AM, Blogger Johan said...

Hi there.

I see this blog has lost some of its dynamics...
I hope it wasn't something I wrote.

Becasue this was a good idea : understanding the people's Requirements, the Constraints, and finding the solution in the middle, by thinking out of the box.

So let's try to kick it a bit further.

The object of our design is a society. Let's focus on a city. Some things will need to be provided within the city ("isolated" self-sufficiency); other stuff will be traded with other cities worldwide ("no trade-deficit" kind of self-sufficientcy).

You could break up the requirements in several domains, like :

- food & water
- shelter
- Information Technology, Knowledge sharing (incl. education), communication.
- Production of goods
- Transport of goods
- Transport of people
- Recretation, fun, sports
- Health care
- ...

Then I suppose you would need to allocate available resources (energy, materials, human talent & effort) to each of these domains.

So there is the "demand" and the "supply" side, that need to be balanced.

For each of the domains above, you can define more specific requirements.
You can also prioritize them, for when you would be faced with resource shortages.

Furthermore, the process could be iterative; i.e., you might want to reconsider some points if it seems you can't get within budget.
It's not a linear top-down approach.

If you don't live in a climate where the climate coumd kill you without artificial heating or cooling, you might opt for a solution where people don't heat there houses but better insulate them, and wear thick sweaters if that's not enough.
But e.g., you keep the IT infrastructure intact, and put health care in a higher priority segment.

Indeed, there are choices to be made in the way of implementing things.

You may decide that recreation is important, but in stead of racing your car around the block, you could play Monopoly with the neighbours, exchange jokes, and have a beer/wine, right?

Instead of driving 5 miles to work and driving to the gym after, you could get a good bike, ask your employer to install showers, and bike to work and back, combining commute and excercise.

I think there's lots of reasonable stuff we can do to cut back on hydrocarbon dependency.

What do you think?

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At 6:35 AM, Blogger whirling mcdervish said...

perhaps we should be furthering the concept of sustainability. afterall, the very term implies solely attaining a balance with our environment. we should be thinking at all times how our interactions with the environment we live in aid in improving it beyond a merely sustainabe level: we have a lot of repair to do in his world, and additionally is their any ends to the level of "health" we can drive this planet to? i think that permaculture, for example, is a step beyond "sustainable development". Permaculture is about actively persuing a community structure that exists as far as is possible within an ecological "climax community", or at least pushing it in a way that encourages a thriving, biodiverse, hence robust system.

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