Decarbonizing Ulaanbaatar: Using DIMES-FIRST Methodology to Tackle a Climate and Sustainability Challenge

Rea Lavi
13 min readDec 31, 2022
A ger district is a residential district in Mongolian settlements. Credit: Zazaa Mongolia.

In spring 2022, I taught an undergraduate course at MIT School of Engineering titled 22.s092 — Tackling Challenges in Climate and Sustainability with Ways of Thinking. This course was funded by a d’Arbeloff award.

The challenge selected for this course was taken from a multi-year collaborative project between MIT and the National University of Mongolia, The UB Project. The goal of this project is to decarbonize Ulaanbaatar, meaning, transition the city’s residents from burning coal briquettes to using low/zero-carbon solutions to heat their homes. A molten salt brick used for thermal energy storage (thermal battery), about the size of a shoe box, was developed at MIT as a key component in enabling this transition.

The challenge I gave my students was sent to me by a professor from MIT School of Engineering, quoted verbatim from his email:

The last 30 feet of transport — how do you get a 400C hot brick of molten salt, which may weigh up to 40 pounds, from a truck through a ger threshold into (and later out of) a traditional Mongolian stove. I’ve got an actual traditional stove to work with … the cultural challenge for the one I specified is that nothing can touch the threshold of the door, particularly not the bottom piece, as that’s a cultural taboo.

By the end of the course, my students came up with two context-appropriate and cost-effective solutions for use by the vast majority of stakeholders. This article details the process by which my students came up with these solutions.

Ill-structured problems

Ill-structured problems are real-world, multidisciplinary problems for which the following properties are unclear:

  1. The problem scope. The answer to “How do we best define the problem?”
  2. Criteria for usefulness, or the precise desired endpoint. The answer to “How do we know which solutions are better than others?”
  3. The appropriate methods for bridging the gap between problem and solution. The answer to “What approach/es should we take for solving this problem?”

An example of a well-structured problem is a jigsaw puzzle, for which:

  1. Every piece can be accounted for.
  2. The desired endpoint is clear, and there’s only one correct solution. Just look at the picture on the box!
  3. Optimal approaches for getting from the problematic situation (scattered pieces) to the solved situation (complete puzzle) are known: you can either try line-by-line or frame-first. In any case, there are only a few approaches worth trying and which you can be aware of in advance.

An open-ended design problem, like the one presented below, is a particular case of an ill-structured problem. When using the term design problem, I refer to it in the broadest sense, including the design of products, services, business models, policies, curricula, experiments, and so forth.

DIMES-FIRST methodology for tackling ill-structured problems

The problem-solving methodology my students applied, DIMES-FIRST, was designed for low-resource teams and organizations whose success depends on tackling ill-structured problems successfully, like early-stage startups and NGOs. DIMES-FIRST integrates concepts, methods, and techniques from systems engineering, marketing planning, social sciences, and cognitive psychology. It attempts to integrate human-centered design (“design thinking”) with systems thinking.

Problem structuring phase: DIMES

(1) *Describe* the problem briefly, using plain language

(2) *Inquire* into the problem by answering the five Ws: Who? What? Where? When? Why?

(3) *Model* the problem as a conceptual hierarchy

(4) *Extract* optimal leverage points (OLPs) deep within the model

(5) *State* the problem concisely based on the five Ws and the identified OLPs

Problem solving phase: FIRST

(6) *Formulate* usefulness criteria for evaluating ideas.

(7) *Ideate* by using analogies to the problem and by challenging implicit assumptions about the problem.

(8) *Refine* ideas for usefulness using thematic analysis.

(9) *Score* the refined ideas based on the usefulness criteria.

(10) *Transcend* the representation of the solution with a systems perspective.

Applying DIMES-FIRST to the course challenge

Elaborating on the problem phase: DIMES

(1) *Describe* The problem description as provided by the MIT faculty professor was as follows:

The last 30 feet of transport — how do you get a 400C hot brick of molten salt, which may weigh up to 40 pounds, from a truck through a ger threshold into (and later out of) a traditional Mongolian stove. I’ve got an actual traditional stove to work with … the cultural challenge for the one I specified is that nothing can touch the threshold of the door, particularly not the bottom piece, as that’s a cultural taboo.

With ill-structured problems, the important thing is to start with a simple, short description, as limited or as inaccurate as it might be. The subsequent stages help us structure, enrich, and verify our understanding of the problem.

(2) *Inquire* The most time-consuming part of the problem phase. It resulted in a five-page summarized report with 17 references from academic, national/governmental, and international sources. The investigation of the challenge includes multiple aspects, including scientific, technological, ethical, cultural, social, and economic aspects. The key questions this report answers are the five Ws:

1. Who are the key stakeholders affected by the problem?

2. What attributes of the key stakeholders are affected by the problem?

3. Where does the problem occur? In the real and/or virtual worlds.

4. When does the problem occur? Events, periods, and/or durations.

5. Why does the problem occur? Its causes, triggers, and/or enablers.

Residents of Ulaanbaatar’s ger district (~300k households) were identified as the key stakeholders.

(3) *Model* Students created a four-level conceptual model of the problem in OPCloud, decomposing the challenge Molten Salt Brick Truck Bed-to-Stove Transporting into sub-functions (2nd level of detail), then further into sub-sub function (3rd), and finally into sub-sub-sub functions (4th).

(4) *Extract* Students identified Optimal Leverage Points (OLPs) deep within the model which they had created in Stage 3. OLPs were specific functions in the third and fourth levels of the model which have the largest impact on the challenge.

(5) *State* Based on the report produced in Stage 2 and on the OLPs identified in Stage 4, students answered the five Ws about the problem in short sentences and plain language, and combined their answers into the following paragraph:

During colder months, especially October-April, if gers can be heated with molten salt bricks, they would keep ger dwellers warm without the health detriments that result from burning coal. There is currently no viable method to transport hot salt bricks from delivery trucks to gers in the Ger District in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The main obstacles to a viable method are lifting the brick, which is heavy and hot, from the transportation vehicle, through rough terrain; getting through the fence surrounding the ger, which is usually locked, with the brick; passing the threshold of the ger with the brick without touching the door frame; and replacing the cold brick inside the ger stove with the hot brick.

Elaborating on the solution phase: FIRST

(6) *Formulate* usefulness criteria for evaluating ideas, based on the problem statement produced during Stage 5. With the facilitation of a co-instructor on ethics in engineering, the student came up with six usefulness criteria (relative weighting in parentheses): heating efficiency (25); safety (23); respect for local culture (17); cost per user (15); flexibility/accessibility (12); and sustainability (8).

(7) *Ideate* During this stage, the problem statement produced in Stage 5 was used as the basis for two creative ideation exercises: (a) Using analogies to the problem and (b) challenging implicit assumptions about the problem.

(A) Using analogies to the problem. An analogy, in the context of problem-solving, is a collection of meaningful relationships between a source (a solved problem and its solution) and a target (a problem to be solved).

For the first step, students watched a YouTube video titled How To Load A Stove Into A Truck By Yourself. I chose it as it contained close-field analogies to the problem.

While watching the video, each student jotted down two analogies they could identify between the source (the video) and the problem statement. An analogy was written as one or two short sentences in plain language. The students then shared these analogies with each other, and listed them on one screen. Finally, each student used this list of analogies to generate two creative ideas each. An idea was written as one or two short sentences in plain language.

Here are some examples of analogies which students identified:

  • Lift something big and heavy — removing extra weight, tipping to higher level using strongest part of structure as anchor/pivot point, and dragging it over to the area it needs to be lifted
  • Dragging the brick inside the ger to the threshold and getting it over the threshold. Placing the brick on its shorter side to get it into the threshold.
  • Tipping it to move the large weight. Used a piece of fabric to protect the appliance and truck itself. This made it easier to slide, too.

The second video watched by the students, titled High Temperature Proof Steel Mills Transfer Hot Ladle Transfer Trolley Solution, was utilized in the same manner as the previous video was. I chose it as it contained far-field analogies to the problem.

Here are some examples of analogies which students identified:

  • Keeping people away from hot object — using a machine to handle the object, a person operates it.
  • trolley/cart system that has wheels, so the object you’re transporting doesn’t touch the ground.
  • The container with the hot material rotates and spills out the material. Could rotate and place our brick where we want it.

(B) Challenging implicit assumptions. An implicit assumption is an assumption which clearly rises from the problem statement, and yet is so obvious that it’s not discussed or even pondered upon.

The process was the same process as that of the analogies exercises, only with implicit assumptions instead of analogies, and focused on challenging the assumptions students came up with. The degree of correctness of an assumption was not important; they are used as prompts for helping to think differently about the problem.

Here are some examples of assumptions which students identified:

  • Members of the community can’t lift the brick on their own
  • Stove cannot be moved
  • The brick stays hot while we transport it
  • Nothing (not any object) can touch the threshold
  • The brick has to go inside the stove
  • Need to pass through the threshold

(8) *Refine* ideas for usefulness using thematic analysis. Together with the students, we classified their ideas, produced in Stage 7, into five categories of underlying solutions concepts, where each concept is two to five words long. This classification took three iterations to complete.

Below are some examples in each category:

(A) Brick insulating/storing: insulated hand truck (similar to big outside trash can with wheels) that can also stay outside the fence when people are not at home; built attachment — insulated mini building on side of ger that connects to fence.

(B) Brick lifting/carrying: get a dolly that can rip the brick over the entrance way; basket on hand truck/cart with axis.

(C) Brick rolling: have the brick on a device with wheels; some sort of low friction fabric to drape over threshold and slide over; have the brick in a container with a slippery surface so that rotating the container can cause the brick to slide out and into the stove.

(D) Brick ramping: ramp for sliding between floor of ger and stove; drag the brick to the threshold and have a bump that goes over the threshold.

(E) Brick projecting: springy platform for transporting brick over threshold.

(F) Ger modifying: have door opening on double sided stove, brick can be inserted into stove without needing to be transported through main doorway; have a hole dug on the side of the ger and slide the brick through this hole. The hole can be plugged with insulation material when it is not being used.

The students then used this classified list to brainstorm two refined ideas together. These are longer, detailed, and more concrete than the ideas generated during Stage 7.

(9) *Score* the refined ideas based on the usefulness criteria formulated during Stage 6.

Each student individually scored every idea across the usefulness criteria produced during (score of 1 to 5 for each criterion), as well as the existing situation of using coal briquettes. In class, individual scores were then shared, and any differences in scores between the students were resolved via classroom discussion and further research outside of class, where required.

The final scores showed that both solutions outscored the existing situation (284 of 1,000 maximum points) on heating efficiency, safety and sustainability. Solution A (418) outscored Solution B (316) on cost and safety.

The students’ refined ideas were as follows:

Solution A in Brief

A modified backpack for brick transportation that will be used by delivery workers. The backpack design is based on the speaker backpack with modified straps for brick delivery. The backpack will be used by transportation workers who would deliver the brick from the transportation truck to inside the ger. Modified backpack allows transporter workers to use their bigger muscles to transport the heavy and hot brick in the insulation box. Flexibility of the backpack structure allows the transporter to easily pick up bricks from the truck and go on uneven terrains and ger threshold without obstacles and enter the ger easily. Once the transportation worker enter the ger with the backpack with a brick, the worker would sit down with the backpack near the stove and unbuckle the straps, place the brick on a mat that would protect the floor from potential heat, take out the cold brick, and replace the cold brick with the hot brick to exit the ger with the backpack with the cold brick.

Solution B in Brief

A hand trolley used for transportation by ger residents. The hand trolley would be used by ger residents who would afford to buy the trolley and want to have time flexibility to get the brick when they are not at home during the delivery. Hand trolley would be placed inside the fence near the adjusted fence window. The delivery workers could put the brick through the fence window on the top of the platform of the trolley. Then the brick could sit outside in its insulation box waiting the ger residents to pick up the brick with their trolley. Trolley allows the residents to not rely on their strengths, helping the ger residents to transport the brick from near the fence window to enter the ger and place the hot brick inside the ger. The trolley would have scissor legs with threaded rod that can be used for height adjustment for a flat platform on top. Users would easily rotate the handle to adjust the height of the platform. There will be securing straps to help the brick securely be placed on top of the platform. Scissor legs with wheels allow the trolley to easily pass the threshold.

(10) *Transcend* the representation of the solution with a systems perspective by mapping it to the SAFO (system architecture-function-outcome) template.

Using this framework, we can contextualize our solution better within other systems (technological or otherwise) it interacts with, and also understands how it might affect our stakeholders in both beneficial and detrimental ways (yes, every solution also has bad sides!). Thinking of potential detriments allowed the students to come up with potential mitigations. For example, mass replacement of coal briquettes with molten salt bricks may lead to loss of jobs for people who work in the coal industry. However, the same people who deliver coal could feasibly be retrained to deliver the bricks, with some modification to the delivery trucks.

Note that the framework explicitly states to only include the key components of each system aspect in this mapping, to help facilitate a concise understanding of the system being described.

You can read more about the SAFO framework here.

Outcome and conclusion

Solution A was prototyped and tested, with yours truly serving as one of the ‘test subjects’. The prototype backpack was also used by the students in their final presentation. One of the professors commented his team has been pondering this particular problem for over a year and haven’t come up with something as workable as the solutions presented by my students.

The attending professors also noted that both solutions (a) can be produced using local materials or mass-produced inexpensively in China (which borders Mongolia) and (b) are designed for use in a manner that’s similar or identical to how coal, water, and other goods are already transported in and around Ulaanbaatar. In other words, both solutions proved to be even more scalable and context-appropriate than I had assumed.

In other words, what my students produced something valuable and viable in the eyes of recognized experts. In addition, the documented knowledge created during the course can now be taken forward into further work on the UB project.

The DIMES-FIRST methodology is the present culmination of work I’ve been engaged in since I began working on my Master’s thesis on assessment of scientific creativity. I continue to refine this methodology and plan to evaluate its efficacy with more students and practitioners.

Select references

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