Systems, Sites and Building (Sparkman)

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Research Proposal 10/19/2010

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Over the semester, I have blogged several times about Meadows’ visual representation of systems. Her simple diagrams lack the visual depth required of complex systems, interconnections, and loops. For my research project, I hope to create an parametric, virtual way of visualizing complex systems in a way that makes systems diagrams accessible, interactive, and dynamic.

Ultimately, I’d like to explore connections between Grasshopper, Excel, and GIS to create a dynamic map of the city that reveals systems interactions (between weather, urban form, circulation, etc.).[1] These maps might suggest the form of future developments as well as reveal potential secondary and tertiary flows at play.

After studying the precedents of this kind of work, I’d like to create my own map—perhaps of Les Halles in Paris—where I have done a lot of research on historic urban form. By critiquing and assessing Meadows’ way of representing systems, I will be able to introduce systems analysis into my own research and designs.


[1] Earlier in the semester, I scripted a bridge from Microsoft Excel to Grasshopper that can update data in real time. Since GIS can export data as an Excel file, Grasshopper can then process and manipulate the data to create form.

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October 19, 2010 at 5:04 pm

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Sun Diagram for Alderman Bus Stop 10/7/2010

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For the bus stop project, my group (with Nicole and Jack) picked the site near Alderman Library. I’ve inserted our sun diagram below. The site receives dappled light year-round, even in the winter when the deciduous tree loses its leaves (its branches are still dense enough to block the majority of light).

Instead of strategies that screen and cool our site during the summer, we will have to design strategies to capture and heat our bus stop in the winter.

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October 7, 2010 at 9:59 pm

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Life as a Waterman 10/7/2010

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In the Bay Game, I decided to play as an income-obsessed fisherman bent on dredging and potting as many crab as possible. I set my initial Life Balances Metrics at: economy-50%, environment-20%, and quality of life-30%. I purchased a new boat on my first turn. Since our water regulator spent the first few rounds restricting dredging and potting to 2,000 crab per season, my unwavering 100% potting and dredging left me with minimal yields. However, I managed to reach total assetts of $751,075 by 2020.In terms of my Life Balance Metrics, I ended with 4137 since my economic goal never rose above 30. Ultimately, water regulations inhibited my “life goal” of becoming a fishing baron.

I’ll post more reactions to the Bay Game over the weekend.

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October 7, 2010 at 8:33 pm

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Behavioral/Consumer Psychology and Transcending Paradigms 9/28/2010

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In our workshop today, we discussed strategies for changing practices of consumption in a region like the Chesapeake Bay. Looking to Meadows’ “leverage points” as guidance, we thought of several “solutions” that would reduce consumption. Mainly, our solutions relied on methods of peer-pressuring those who overconsume: making water and electricity meters public knowledge and incentivizing the lightest consumers. We also considered several top-down methods like reintroducing home-economics into elementary and high-school education to teach students about healthy living, consuming, and eating. Finally, we looked to prototypes like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, which sells left-over materials from construction sites (perceived by contractors as waste) to consumers.

Ultimately, transcending paradigms boils down to changing people’s habits—or behavioral economics.

I had the pleasure of attending several of Dan Ariely’s lectures at Duke. Ariely is a professor of behavioral /consumer economics who studies how simple changes in how information is represented can effect an enormous—often irrational—change in a consumer’s behavior.  He also writes an incredible blog on behavioral psychology (see below). In his blog, Ariely describes how our convention of measuring fuel consumption in Miles per Gallon does not directly reflect the cost differences of fuel-efficient cars versus gas-guzzlers. He uses the following example: (I’ve pasted a portion of his blog post below)

You have two cars, one is a very inefficient van (giving you on average 5 MPG) and one is a relatively efficient sedan (giving you on average 20 MPG). Due to your work and obligations you have to drive each of them the same distance every month.

You need both types of cars and for now you can replace only one of them. What should you replace?
Option 1: Replace the 5 MPG van with a 10 MPG van
Option 2 Replace the 20 MPG sedan with a 50 MPG sedan

What would you select?

Does this sound odd? Lets look at it more carefully: Lets assume that people drive 100 miles a month. This means that the 5 MPG van uses 20 gallons a month while the 20 MPG sedan uses 5 gallons a month. Now what if we change them? If we change the van we would change from using 20 gallons a month to using 10 gallons a month (saving 10 gallons a month). If we change the sedan we would change from using 5 gallons a month to using 2 gallons a month (saving 3 gallons a month). Now it is clear that changing the van is a much better move.

Why is this not obvious to people from the MPG information? It is because comparing MPG don’t directly reflect the cost differences. In Europe they present efficiency measures I liters per 100 kilometers, and this seems to be a much more intuitive measure.

One advice is clear – if you think about changing a car, change first the least efficient car.

Ariely’s study reinforces one of Meadows’ leverage points: that the freedom and accessibility of information can lead to transcending paradigms. However, Ariely’s findings goes one step further: that the way that information is represented has a direct effect on people’s behavior regardless of the information’s accessibility. As Ariely observed, consumers often make irrational choices, even when confronted with all of the information.

Obviously, Ariely’s cause (that we must be attentive to how information is represented) is perfect fodder for designers.

Dan Ariely’s blog

There are also two amazing TED talks by Dan Ariely on consumer psychology:

Are we in control of our own decisions?

On our buggy moral code

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September 29, 2010 at 3:38 am

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Sun Dial Challenge 9/28/2010

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Incredible that the person who wrote “never” drew the exact shape that the light cast on the wall!

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September 28, 2010 at 8:32 pm

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Appraising our Global Ecosystem 9/19/2010

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The Ecosystems Exchange:

In The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital, Costanza addresses the concerns of environmental policy-makers and lobbyists: how to appraise the global ecosystem and natural capital in a world dominated by global economy and monetary capital.

Costanza appraises “natural services” through the lens of an economist. By perceiving the global ecosystem as a quantifiable “stock” (inextricably connected to the global economic system), Costanza estimates a current market value ($33 trillion) and GDP ($18 trillion). Costanza’s evaluation of the world’s ecosystems implies that humanity should seriously “invest” in “natural capital” to support our ecosystems’ growth.

Nevertheless, by deploying an economical approach, Costanza ultimately confronts the age-old problem of “exchange”: a commodity’s value is produced in the exchange. If ecosystems are meant for exchange, then where, when, how, and with whom do we exchange them? Since nobody explicitly buys or sells natural services (not at the scale of Costanza’s numbers), then its value—in economical terms—remains negligible. Of course, government could impose regulations on the buying/selling of natural services, but government is not the most accountable/consistent spokesperson for the environment either. With nobody ensuring the economic success of the environment then a “Tragedy of the Commons” scenario develops, where people exhaust natural capital without understanding its stock.

Unlike Costanza, I do not believe that our problem lies in our inability to quantify the world’s natural capital, but in our tendency to appraise our natural environment with economical terms. Ultimately, we are forcing monetary value on a system that consistently rejects appraisal. For instance, when an economical market dissolves, opportunity arises for new markets to emerge. Yet, when a natural stock is exhausted, it simply dies and is gone forever. In this way, ecosystems are much more fragile than economies.

So why subordinate ecosystems to the language of economics? Instead, why not approach economy through the lens of the environmentalist? Perhaps this is the legacy of Meadows’ Thinking in Systems: to describe mundane, economical processes with the same rigor and complexity (“flows”) of natural processes.  Nevertheless,  by commoditizing our global ecosystems—and assuming that they can be appraised—we will continue to subordinate our ecosystems to our global economy.

Talking about economies through environmental terms: a great example of this approach is McDonough’s TED talk on Cradle to Cradle design. The last couple minutes, when McDonough is describing an urban design for a Chinese city, exemplifies this notion to describe economic processes in terms of natural processes.


Compare Costanza’s global map ecosystem services to NASA’s map of the Earth at night (showing human settlement), and you will find an intriguing set of interrelations.

There seems to be a strong inverse correlation between areas of human settlement and regions of high natural services. Natural services seldom occur near high-density settlements. In fact, high natural value occurs in coastal regions away from human settlement. I am left wondering if natural value has been destroyed in regions of human development or if areas of high natural development (coral reefs, rainforests, etc.) are simply inhospitable to human settlement.

It is interesting to note, though, the belt of high-valued natural ecosystems that circles the globe at the meridian. Additionally, I wonder why the map of global ecosystems does not include the vital natural services that occur underwater…

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September 19, 2010 at 10:44 pm

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Sun Dial Challenge 9/10/2010

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By my calculations, the sun will align the red pane and the “never” spot twice during the year (on each side of the equinox): on March 15th at 4:52pm and on September 28th at 4:35pm.

Below, I have posted my geometrical calculations for the optimal altitude (27.65degrees) and azimuth (243.119degrees) that align the red pane and “never” spot. I based these calculations on measurements of the stairwell by tape-measure.

Below, I have included screenshots of my three methods of calculation. I used a simple Rhino model (with sun position calculator), an orthographic sun position diagram, and NOAA’s “sun calculator.” Interestingly, my results varied across the three applications (even though I input the same longitude, latitude, date, and time). I have noted their error from my optimal values. Since there is a slight variation between each sun position calculation, the programs must be using different algorithms… It’s strange to think that there isn’t a standardized equation for calculating sun position. Perhaps the slight eccentricities and wobbles of the Earth as it orbits around the sun has resulted in several different algorithms for sun position.

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September 9, 2010 at 9:22 pm

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