Instigator Subsystems

I’ve talked before about how I’m drawn to projects that “check all my boxes” for interesting research, worthwhile teaching, and community engagement. One of the best examples I have comes from my work with Audrey Stewart on sustainable campus planning. In Fall 2014 we taught a course called Sustainability Theory and Practice. The graduate and undergraduate students in that course spent the semester learning about sustainability by competing in the EPA’s annual RainWorks Challenge design competition. We created two design boards and a design brief for our project transforming the environment around Georgetown’s iconic Lauinger Library into a model of sustainable landscaping. The students did an amazing job. They learned how professionals do Green Infrastructure design with the help of DC Water’s design team. They learned a ton about infrastructure and landscaping for water retention, and they even learned a bit about how institutions do business.



Everybody won with this project, which still echoes at Georgetown today. Our design team took home Honorable Mention in the competition (no small task for design novices competing with professional schools), Georgetown and DC water began a long-standing conversation about increasing Green Infrastructure on campus, and Audrey and I did some great research (2 conference proceedings and one paper in FORMakademisk).

As usual, I learned a lot  about multiscale design and got introduced to similar concepts in organizational management research. We used Prigogine’s notion of dissipative structures as a model for harnessing second-order cybernetic effects to get results at multiple levels of an organizational hierarchy. In the process we invented what we called Instigator Subsystems, which are small systems (like our course) that aim to have predictable higher scale effects (at the level of facilities planning in this case) which continue after the instigator subsystem disappears. If that sounds interesting you should check out the research paper. If it doesn’t, there might still be some hope for you yet…