America Is Like a Car. With Air Conditioning

When you think of America, do you picture a waving flag? Amber waves of grain? A beer commercial? As an engineer, I think of America as a system. This does not necessarily make me an insufferable geek. My career, spent creating and building first-of-a-kind, has-to-work-the-first-time and operate-in-extreme-environments space robots, has taught me that systems thinking helps us navigate complex problems.

So let’s look at America as a system—one that works remarkably well, despite what you hear during election seasons. Our 50 states include several that would rank among the world’s top nations in economic might. We grow enough to feed our 300 million people and ship the rest around the world. Our corporations operate globally. Our university system is the envy of the world. Our highways connect us conveniently, our air traffic system safely allows millions of business and pleasure passengers a day to zip around the continent. The power grid is amazingly well behaved and reliable. Businesses operate with ease across state lines because of a massive communication infrastructure. Hospitals, law enforcement, federal agencies, and the military all contribute to a peaceful, long-lived citizenry. From individuals to families to businesses to corporations to state and local governments, America comprises a single complex system.

So what, exactly, is a system? It’s a set of parts that work together in a certain way over time and interact with an environment. A system comprises processes, materials or information, and inflows and outflows. How does that definition help you solve problems? Because proven techniques have been developed, partly in response to difficult aerospace problems, that can be applied to real world entities. Originally developed to tame the difficulties of missiles and rockets, these solutions also apply to many other areas. Imagine this scenario:

You’re driving your old classic car with a partner on your way to work, through a hot, barren desert. The commute is ridiculously long; lately it has stretched to more than an hour each way, in part because the ancient car can go only 40 miles an hour. What’s worse, it lacks an air conditioner. You both roll down the windows, but that barely helps. By the time you get to work each day, you’re dripping with sweat. Your trip back home is even hotter. You could stand it if the breeze were stronger or the commute weren’t as long.

“We need air conditioning,” your partner says.

Here’s a classic illustration of the failure to think systematically. Systems experts call this flaw “bounded rationality.” It’s what happens when you have limited information, or fail to think beyond the bounds of the immediate problem. When I oversaw projects at NASA, I encouraged the engineers under me to think beyond their specialties. A NASA electrical engineer can design you just about any kind of circuit, but it might be useless if it interfered with the vehicle’s mechanical system, or used too much energy, or took up too much room, or weighed too much, or used rare minerals that ate up the budget.

You see the same problem with your miserable commute. Following your partner’s advice, you put a compressor under the hood and hook a belt up to the engine. This drives the compressor to cool down the car. Woo! Cool air! But now your car goes even slower, and your round trip stretches to four hours. That compressor pulls power out of the engine. Plus, cooling the car’s interior decreases the gas mileage, risking running out of fuel in the middle of the desert. Not a good plan. Instead, let’s look at the problem systematically.

“First, with any system, you have to make sure that any solution improves the system’s function. Is the car’s chief function to cool you down? Of course not. The car is supposed to get you to work.

Second, look to see what parts or interactions are interfering with the system’s function. A systems expert will tell you to look for the best places to intervene. You want to seek the smallest change that would make the biggest difference. This often isn’t as easy as it sounds. Often, as the late Dartmouth Professor Donella Meadows pointed out, people will “push the change in the wrong direction.” Installing air conditioning, thus slowing the car and risking a breakdown, does exactly the opposite of the car’s function of getting you to work.

When you look at your car as a system, you realize that, with your AC, you’re looking at the wrong part of the car. Maybe it needs a tune-up, or a new carburetor, or a whole new engine. But a systems expert will tell you that you still might not be thinking broadly enough. Your rationality might still be bounded. Sometimes the best solution is not to change a “the system’s function—an act that systems people call a “paradigm shift.” What if the car’s purpose wasn’t to take you across the desert? What if you just asked it to get you ten miles to the grocery store? You and your partner set up a new business out of the home. Which has air conditioning.