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in other words: Innovation and Design Thinking

Posted by Andrew Lutz  |  Date August 28, 2012  |  Comments 0

in other words is a regular feature of i.e. Every month, we take a closer look at current events and trends in energy, ground them in relevant data and context, and offer our insight about their potential impacts and implications. We look forward to your input and feedback.


The business and technology worlds make much of innovation and how it will power the future. One process that has become popular as a means to foster innovation in companies is design thinking. Tim Brown, the CEO and president of IDEO, defines design thinking as “a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered ethos.” The field of industrial design formalized and popularized the idea of design thinking as a process through the efforts of IDEO and the IIT Institute of Design. Today it has become an innovation model for businesses. As Brown clarifies, “by this I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.” We apply two principles from the design thinking trend to our work to improve energy efficiency in buildings: 1. systems thinking and 2. understanding the user.

During the late 80s and early 90s, the term “house as a system” pervaded the home energy field. Most often it was used as a clarion call reminding building practitioners that building envelope air-sealing could create moisture and indoor air quality concerns. As such it became a byword for unintended consequences. While it did lead the community to consider the interconnected systems of the building, it fell short of a systems thinking approach.

In 1990, Peter Senge published his bestselling business book The Fifth Discipline which applied the principles of systems thinking to businesses and promoted the idea of a learning organization. A disciple of Donella Meadows at MIT, Senge describes systems thinking as an approach to make clear the fuller patterns of a system and see how to change them effectively as opposed to “focus[ing] on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder[ing] why our deepest problems never seem to get solved.” When looking at Senge’s Laws of Systems Thinking:
 

  1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.

  2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

  3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse.

  4. The easy way out usually leads back in.

  5. The cure can be worse than the disease.

  6. Faster is slower.

  7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.

  8. Small changes can produce big results - but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

  9. You can have your cake and eat it too - but not at once.

  10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.

  11. There is no blame.

Many of these relate to today’s building science challenges. A fundamental aspect of systems thinking is “seeing circles of causality” rather than linear cause and effect. The approach helps define positive and negative feedback loops and organize interrelationships into patterns that simplify our understanding.


Yes, the house is a system, but we do not practice systems thinking until we understand and define the system patterns and consider the entire system, including its occupants.

During the late 90s when I was teaching at a design college, I used IDEO’s approach to teach systems thinking to my students. In the initial class of my studio course, I would show the Nightline Deep Dive video of IDEO’s redesign of the shopping cart. They found it both revelatory and inspiring. Back then, we called it user-centered design: a bottom to top approach rather than the designer-centered top to bottom approach. Gaining insights from the user-experience can inspire innovative approaches and design.

In building science, we would define the user as the building’s occupant. As engineers, we sometimes focus on the building envelope or the mechanical system to the point where we barely consider the occupants other than the fact that they consume energy, operate and maintain the building incorrectly, or are living, breathing IAQ sensors. So much for systems thinking. When we do consider the occupant, we take the top to bottom approach known as “client education.” In order to systems think, we need to learn to listen and not just lecture.

The influence of design thinking is becoming evident in the residential energy efficiency field. Opower has applied the principles of social psychology to gain energy savings from utility bill feedback. The Nest thermostat has used slick design and improved usability to help homeowners lower their energy bills. John Tooley at Advanced Energy is applying the principles of Lean and Training Within Industry to train the home energy workforce. We hold entire conferences focused on behavior and energy. We are training our auditors with sales and persuasion skills. We are creating programs based on community-based social marketing. Recently published whitepapers detail ways to create market transformations in home energy efficiency. Design thinking and innovative approaches can help us take advantage of many missed opportunities for energy savings.

Related CEE program:

Community Energy Services

Related posts:

A Pattern Language for Residential Energy Efficiency
$250 for a Thermostat?!
CEE’s Energy Label Hits the Streets

Photo credit:

 Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licenseby  Aaron Escobar 

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