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Exploring Whole System Design

By F. J. S. Coley


The emergence of increasingly complex problems, combined with growing concerns for the environment, is fuelling the demand for more innovative and sustainable products, services and systems. Whole system design is one approach that aims to integrate social, economic and environmental phenomena into a comprehensive design solution. The approach encourages the development of partnerships between actors from a variety of different backgrounds, disciplines and sectors to develop an innovative, sustainable and optimised solution at a whole system level. However, there is limited research concerning the integrative process that actors are required to follow in order to reach such a solution. The aim of this study was to gain improved knowledge and understanding surrounding the process of whole system design and to identify those factors that influence its success. This was achieved in two phases; firstly a longitudinal case study was undertaken which followed the process of whole system design from beginning to end. 22 design and progress meetings were observed, 18 interviews were carried out and a multitude of relevant documentation was analysed. This resulted in the identification of 10 themes. The second phase of the research aimed to validate initial findings by conducting 5 smaller cases and interviewing 11 individually selected experts. The study ultimately produced 8 confirmed themes, 68 individual findings and 37 factors that enable and inhibit the process of whole system design. As a result of this study, an improved knowledge and understanding surrounding the process of whole system design has been presented. In particular, findings have been provided concerning: the development of partnerships, the pertinence of human and non-human interaction, the requirement of individual characteristics, enhanced understanding of purpose and process, the necessary alignment of individual and organisational motivation, the necessity of sense making activities, the role of a facilitator and the need for integration, each of these within the context of whole system design. The framework of these findings provides a novel contribution to knowledge within the context of whole system design

Publisher: Cranfield University
Year: 2008
OAI identifier:
Provided by: Cranfield CERES

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