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The Complexity of Designing Sustainable Production Systems

This article discusses why it can be so hard to design sustainable production systems.

You have gotten far in the course now. What are your feelings so far? Do you feel that it would be easy to design sustainable production system? If you feel that this seems like a very complex task, many would agree with you. We, the teachers, also feel that this is something quite difficult.

Think about it. In this course we have talked about production systems that are supposed to be economically strong, have low environmental impact, and be good for people. We have seen some example where this has been possible. But most companies that you’ll find struggle with some aspect of this.

What is it that makes this subject so hard? We could point to many things. Maybe we lack the right technology. Maybe we have to wrong incentives. Maybe it is too expensive.

This might all be true. But we think that one of the core problems is that sustainability has three dimensions. And many times, improvements in one dimension will come at the cost of another dimension. In fact, if we only had to work with one dimension, the problem looks much easier. But when we realise that we also have to balance the other aspects, it is hard to find one best solution. We often find that someone loses in the end.

Let’s look at some examples.

Wood is a renewable resource. Of course, today when we cut wood we use machines that use diesel. If we only cared about not releasing CO2 during production (that is, if we focus on the environmental dimension of sustainability), we could suggest that we should cut wood by hand. That way, we release almost no CO2.

But is this a sustainable solution? No.

Cutting wood manually is very hard labour. It was mechanised for a reason. Also, it probably would not be very economically feasible.

Perhaps if we powered our machines with batteries. This is a development we see today in many sectors. True, battery-powered machines do not release CO2. But the source of electricity for the batteries might, if electricity is generated using coal or natural gas. Batteries also require many rare metals. And they are quite expensive.

We do not know what the solution is. What we do know is that there are no perfect solutions. For every solution, some will be happy, other will not.

So what should we do?

One thing we should do is keep thinking of new ways of producing. These problems are hard today. And maybe they will always be hard. But if we keep trying to think of how do things differently, we may find ways that makes all of this easier.

We have already seen how you can use the Framework and Design Thinking to help in this.

In these processes we are encouraged to talk to those who will be affected by our production systems and those who will use it. While we will perhaps always have to balance between different interests, this does not mean that negative effects will never be accepted. The key is making sure that the negative effects can be accepted. This means making sure it happens on the conditions of those who are affected.

Second, we need to know more. Yes, the problems we have discussed are difficult. But many times, we see unsustainable production systems because people have not thought through things in the first place.

If we deepen our understanding of the effects our production systems have on social, ecological and economic dimensions, we can better design production systems that take them into consideration. This is the purpose of this activity: To show you some tools to better understand the sustainability of production systems.

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Exploring Sustainable Production Systems

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