About Systems

When we talk about comfort, we are really talking about systems of comfort. Why such a stress on systems? And what is the big deal about focusing on “systems and not things”? The simple answer is that systems make things. And given that we are interested in developing new and different forms of comfort, we need to creatively develop new systems which will, in turn, produce new things. So much of our critical thinking falls into the trap of just dealing with things — light bulbs to save the environment, green AC units to stay cool, or even the desire for a different political leader… If things change but the system stays in place what is the real change? Everything is a system — from big to small — and we need a new way of seeing and sensing that gets us to immediately see beyond things to systems. We also need to speculate with systems at many scales — such that we not fixate on solving old problems and issues — but we change our world such that these issues cease to exist — we need problems worth having and worlds worth making.


Systems in general are quite astonishing and act in many unexpected ways. Often, we miss these because we are so used to focusing on objects and not on the processes that make, activate, and allow these objects to function. We would like to introduce a few very useful concepts to help us experiment with systems. This might sound a bit daunting at first, but a whole world of understanding and experimentation opens up with these five simple concepts:

1. Boundaries and environments: Systems don’t just exist all alone, they, like everything else, need an environment. The interesting thing is that both the system and the environment are producing each other and, in reality, cannot be separated (remember this fit is a key way to think of comfort).

2. Feedback: How do systems stay alive and regulate themselves? It is through feedback. Feedback is the system checking in on its relation to the environment. Positive feedback makes a system change, and negative feedback keeps a system the same.

3. Stocks: The things that systems maintain and draw from are their stock. The water that circulates through a plumbing system is a stock, just as is the oxygen that many organisms breathe. Each system usually has more than one stock and in fact, many stocks.

4. Flows: If there are stocks, then there needs to be a way for these stocks to flow and transform into something else. The pipes, pumps and faucets that circulate and regulate water in a plumbing are examples of how a system maintains a flow.

5. Non-linear causality: This is where the delight, perplexity and astonishment in a system really begin to happen. Systems rarely ever react as you would expect them to. They push something a little bit and something elsewhere changes radically. We are always looking for these key points of change.