Product, Service & Design Innovation
Whole Systems Mapping:
How to Design for Innovation and Achieve Sustainability Goals

The room was buzzing during design strategist Jeremy Faludi’s Monday afternoon workshop, Whole Systems Mapping: Driving Innovation and Sustainability Through Prioritized Ideation and Value Chain Maps. Despite a sunny waterfront view, participants were engrossed in the activities in front of them as the interactive session guided them through various brainstorming and design processes.

Before the activity began, participants were introduced to the Whole Systems Mapping design method through a brief video from Autodesk. Whole Systems Mapping builds on life-cycle assessment (LCA) to provide designers, engineers, supply chain managers, and others an even more holistic perspective on the products they produce. From there, it helps them identify and tackle the most important problems within the product’s design, as well as innovate with each iteration of the design.

Step 1. Visually map the product’s whole system

The first step is to visually map the product’s whole system, from the materials it requires for its components and assembly through its life-cycle, how users interact with it, and what it is used with.

For example, a refrigerator needs materials for its components such as the compressor and heat exchanging pipes, as well as refrigerant liquids, casing and insulation. The design of the door will likely change how cool air escapes and how users interact with it, such as how much is put in it or how often people open it. The food that the fridge stores might also be considered; how does the fridge’s design influence food supply and consumption?

Step 2. Set design priorities based on LCA or other quantitative scorecard

Next, consider the impacts of these elements across the product’s lifecycle, whether through an LCA methodology or another framework such as one that incorporates cradle-to-cradle design requirements or more social aspects. (Faludi prefers the ReCiPe endpoint methodology.) Determine the environmental impacts of the product to identify where the biggest opportunities are for reducing the product’s impact overall. Energy consumption is likely the largest impact for large electric appliances, while the electronics materials and manufacturing are often more important for small electronics. Materials are a far more important consideration when designing a couch or non-energy-using housewares, as well as in apparel. Apparel’s impact, however, is not as clearly dominated by one stage of its life; energy use from washing and manufacturing factors must also be considered.

Step 3. Brainstorm more thoroughly by replacing all relevant nodes on the system map, and more radically by eliminating nodes on the system map

Step 3 is one of the most fun parts of the process! Without allowing the priorities set in Step 2 to dismiss ideas, go back to brainstorming about the product’s whole system. Continue brainstorming until you have ideas for each part of the system, and try to come up with ideas that skip over or eliminate parts of the system entirely. To return to the refrigerator example, canning food would be a way to skip over the need for a fridge at all. How would a refrigerator-as-a-service work? Remember you do not need to narrow down the ideas nor options yet – that is Step 4. Let your team’s imaginations run wild - this process is where a lot of radical innovation can happen!

Step 4. Choose winning ideas based on Step 2’s design priorities, as well as critical insights that emerge during the process.

“Because in real life you have to say no to almost everything,” Faludi joked, it’s time to narrow down your ideas using the priorities set out during Step 2 as well as insights from throughout the process. Some ideas will be easy to eliminate right off the bat, but others may be tricky to evaluate at a glance. Continue to apply a ‘whole systems’ approach when weighing options; certain ideas may add components to the system, and therefore have additional impacts or benefits.

For instance, perhaps you learn that a lot of energy is being lost from your refrigerator as people make their grocery lists standing in front of it with the door open. In this case, a refrigerator with a camera inside may allow users can see what’s inside while they’re at the grocery store via a corresponding app; in turn, it may not need to be opened as much as a conventional fridge and less cold air would escape. However, now the use of the app – presumably on a smartphone or other electronic device – is part of the system, and the impacts and implications of that should be considered as well. The addition of a camera and smartphone app may add more energy consumption than they saves by preventing cold air from escaping. At the same time, if you have included the food that the fridge stores in your Whole System Map, there are more things to consider: Does the addition of the camera reduce the amount of food wasted by the user? How does this influence the environmental impacts of the product? Your design priorities will ultimately lead you to determine whether the idea should be tested for viability – what is most important in your context? In this example, energy consumption versus overall environmental impact as a design priority may be the deciding factor.

Ideas from the workshop

The groups in the workshops came up with some really interesting ideas: The drywall group reimagined the materials and how it could be installed given the high rate of virgin material use and very low recycling rate of drywall; The refrigerator group prioritized energy consumption, materials and recovery, and affordability, resulting in a modular fridge idea. They explained that this would allow consumers to initially limit the size of their fridge and they could add to it as their families grew. The couch group also considered modular options, and ultimately decided that a couch-as-a-service would be the best balance pf their priorities to maintain comfort and style, accessible pricing, and reducing environmental impact.

Meanwhile, the smartphone group aimed to reduce the embodied energy and water use in manufacturing hardware, to improve social benefits, and improve the customer's experience, which resulted in a concept where people could order customized phones similar to how cars can be customized with different features. The salsa group envisioned local vertical farms to grow the ingredients, a low cost and low environmental impact option, as well as refillable jars that consumers would bring back to the store as needed. Finally, the group focused on a LUSH Cosmetics bath bomb wanted to maintain convenience for the user and encourage reduced water use, which led to the idea of a ‘Shower bomb,’ a product which would act similarly to a bath bomb but encourage shorter showers through timed release.

The workshop ended a bit early but the room continued to buzz as the groups continued to discuss their ideas, get each other's contact information, and take photos of each other and their creations.

Faludi is currently offering similar workshops for free in the San Francisco area, and elsewhere for the cost of travel. His website also includes an online course on Whole Systems Mapping, biomimicry, The Natural Step, and user-centered design that he is offering for free to professional designers and engineers in exchange for participation in his dissertation research (through the course) for his PhD in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley.

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