Pittsburgh Rivers. Photo via Visit Pittsburgh.

Designing Systems Interventions

Aashrita Indurti
Transition Design — Team Synegy
12 min readMay 3, 2021

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This article is Part 5 of a series of articles (Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here) about mapping and designing transitions in waste management in Pittsburgh as part of the Transition Design Seminar at Carnegie Mellon School of Design.

Team Synergy — Aashrita Indurti, Madeline Sides, Monica Chang, Sian Sheu

Designing System Interventions

Looking back at our backcasting mapping from the previous assignment, we designed short, mid, and long-term milestones but how does one get started in actually creating change? Our focus for the past few weeks has been on designing an ecology of interventions that can be used as tangible first steps in moving towards our imagined future. Why does it need to be an ecology you ask? As from our findings thus far, this wicked problem is closely tied to many other wicked problems such as poverty and air pollution, making it difficult for a single intervention to create the impact to actually satisfy the needs of the multiple stakeholders involved. Having an ecology of interventions can provide a visible bigger picture to help people get started and see how their actions can directly jumpstart other interventions in the process.

Getting Started

To help us start thinking about how to design an ecology of interventions, we spent some time looking back at our initial wicked mapping to find places where we could intervene. Using Donella Meadows’ Leverage Points for reference, we focused on material flow, regulating negative feedback loops and changes in mindset to help us get started on designing our ecologies.

Places to Intervene in a System by Meadows

Research

A helpful starting point was looking at Pittsburgh’s Roadmap to Zero Waste as it discusses the changes the city aims to make in improving waste management. Our goal was to understand what steps were already in the works and see how we could build upon these planned changes. We also spent a lot of time learning about techniques other countries are using to combat waste management and see how we can draw upon them when brainstorming interventions.

Material vs non-material

The session on the Theory of Material vs Non-Material systems intervention got us thinking about the widespread role of tangible artefacts and physically existent structures and systems as design solutions and frameworks most commonly incorporated as part of numerous problem-solving methodologies. An added invisible component to these inventions that greatly influence and bring about transitions is the Non-Material aspects that evaluate behaviours, mental models, stories, values, narratives and so forth. The intent of putting this theory to practical use stems from the inclusion and balance of both these two dualities to solve potential wicked problems.

Based on this framework of Material vs Non-Material Intervention, we began brainstorming ideas, inspired by existing solutions, possible near term points of interventions as those solutions that may play out in a long term scenario.

Initial Jam — Brainstorming Ideas

Having jotted down a bunch of ideas, we plotted these action points on a scale of waste creation and waste management set out in the x-axis and material vs non-material interventions laid out in the y-axis.

Mapping Material and Non-Material Interventions

Breaking things down

As a group, we spent a lot of time breaking down how ecologies could help support each other in order to create a cyclical solution. As waste management is extremely multi-faceted, figuring out how to segment and find areas of possible interventions was extremely troublesome.

The Production-Consumption-Disposal Framework

Looking back at the research and mappings that we have made so far, we segmented out three key areas of places to start interventions and tangible ideas that could support these themes:

  1. Curbing Waste Production
    Intervention Focus area: Polluters Pay, Holding those who drive pollution at a multi-scale accountable, Inculcating the idea of consuming to satisfy one’s need and not greed in children at an early age.
    One way of looking at this leverage point is to bring about a change in the mental models and mindsets of residents and educate them about the reckless waste production prevailing in the city. The impactful transition here is for Pittsburgh natives to differentiate between need and greed, thus putting a ceiling on desires and incidentally throwing back to the Planet, conserving resources Mother Earth has to offer.
  2. Reducing Consumption
    Intervention Focus area: Localization, Promoting and creating the means for people to meet their basic needs in ways that generate zero waste.
    Tracing the roots of our ancestors, minimal living is the answer to reducing consumption. As humans we are entitled to satisfying our needs, but how might we do so in a sparing manner that not only promotes and fosters green living, going local and the idea of community-based living. Another theme that we explore under this topic is the idea of revitalising the repair economy.
  3. Waste Disposal
    Focus area: Re-use, Creating incentives for creative re-use and composting
    The vision for the future of technology is to solve existing wicked problems in an innovative manner rather than generate and create something new. Waste disposal is a huge menace that affects flora, fauna and even humans in a direct or indirect way. Some themes that we incorporate under this category revolve around creative reuse, composting, regulations and policy around dumping and polluting as well as the role of technology and artificial intelligence in eco-friendly waste disposal.

System Intervention 1: Curbing Waste Production

“There are a lot of irritating aspects about large supermarkets for the wannabe eco-warrior, but the one that gets most of us hottest under the collar is packaging.”
– Sheherazade Goldsmith, Environmentalist

Interventions To Curb Waste Production

We believe that by holding stakeholders accountable for the amount of waste produced, we are able to create awareness that could help curb waste production from an individual, business, and manufacturing level. Taking inspiration from countries like Taiwan, where the ‘polluters pay’ principle has been successful in funding many recycling initiatives, we propose that transparency and shared responsibility can allow people to make a conscious decision about what they are purchasing and throwing out.

At the same time, we propose tax benefits for those who are making an effort in using and producing biodegradable materials. With support from the government, incentivizing companies would be an easy way to shift their focus into greener materials.

Packaging Made of Bio-Degradable Materials (Leaves), Source — Reddit

At the neighbourhood level, we propose a packaging take-back program at local markets to provide people with convenient ways of ridding their plastic while simultaneously lowering the need for new plastic packaging to be produced. We took inspiration from companies like Loop and Imperfect Foods that provide packaging pickup services and believe that re-using materials would allow larger corporations to realize producing new materials are unnecessary to meet needs.

With these interventions in place, we see a future that is mostly closed-loop, where the production of new items will be focused on biodegradable materials that can be broken back down and current waste is focused on re-use rather than being disposed of.

Possible Barrier

Though we believe that this ecology of interventions is very much tangible in the near future, a barrier we could face is push back from all levels by implementing the ‘polluters pay principle. With people refusing to pay for the amount of trash they produce, littering and illegal dumping would rise.

Another area that could pose a barrier is companies and manufacturers who abuse the tax incentives for using and producing biodegradable materials. Without strict regulations from the government, it would be hard to ensure that materials were actually biodegradable.

What is the timeline for impact?

Near term! With this ecosystem of interventions, we believe that take-back programs can be in place by the next couple of years. With more local markets that promote programs like this, a natural snowball effect will be seen through other organizations and businesses. Heavy fines and taxes for polluters on all levels could be implemented but we imagine that it would require a couple of years before everyone is on board.

System Intervention 2: Reducing Consumption

“Refuse what you do not need; reduce what you do need; reuse what you consume; recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse; and rot (compost) the rest.”
– Bea Johnson, Activist and Author

Interventions To Reduce Consumption

The next set of interventions revolve around reducing consumption by encouraging people to adopt a minimalist lifestyle. The ancient Greeks took pride in eating locally, produce that was derived from the soil of the land, from groves, farms and the sea. The idea of local farmer’s markets has been an idea prevalent for centuries, we believe that one way of putting a ceiling on our desires and leading a simple life begins with eating local and buying from these local markets. Not only does one have access to food that suits the climate and needs of the place, but also negates the addition of plastic packaging that otherwise is an integral part of supermarket shopping.

Fresh Produce at a Local Farmer’s Market, Source — Flickr/Shinya Suzuki

To strengthen this idea and reinstil this practice nationally, we leverage the power of social media in trying to promote the concept of going local, empowering artisans and farmers. Influencers on these social platforms can play a huge role in creating awareness on ‘going local’ and nurturing a sustainable way of living among their millions of followers.

Another medium that is powerful in informing and influencing people is television. Cookery shows are popular in the city and people are enticed to try out new recipes. These shows can describe the benefits of buying ingredients from the local farmer’s markets and encourage people to buy seasonal produce that is raw, fresh and preciously protected from the pollution that comes from pesticides sprayed in mega-farms in order to ship these ingredients far and beyond.

Another co-related idea that promotes sustainability and the 5R’s (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle) is the establishment of Centres for Creative Reuse in every neighbourhood. These little centres serve as community hubs for disposing of, repurposing and exchanging materials. Another idea that stems from these hubs is the conceptualisation of maker spaces that promote DIY culture. These interventions tap on the potential of community knowledge and community members coming together to share and contribute ideas for the greater good of society and sustainable living.

Maker Spaces promoting the DIY Culture, Source — BitMedia 24

The concept of a circular economy can be further honed in on, using policies and laws nationally to promote repair culture. The Right-to-Repair law can mandate design for extended product life in an attempt to reduce e-waste, thus forcing tech giants and corporations to comply and incorporate repairing and repurposing as opposed to creating new products.

Possible Barrier

Based on the secondary research and case studies we reviewed, these leverage points have been identified by a number of communities across the world in an attempt to establish a green way of life. However, most developed and developing countries are caught in the web of capitalism and the economy is often dependent on tech giants and organisations that produce tons and tons of waste in the pretext of creating new products. In such scenarios, laws play a vital role in reinforcing strict policies that benefit the environment, thus imposing heavy penalties on the ‘use and throw’ mindset and excessive consumption. The absence of these regulations would only aid this menace of waste generation, paving way for a destructive future.

What is the timeline for impact?

We envision these interventions to be put to practical use in the present day context (within the next 5 years) and the transitions with respect to the policies to roll out in the near future.

System Intervention 3: Waste Disposal

“There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw anything away it must go somewhere.”
– Annie Leonard, Proponent of Sustainability

Interventions To Manage Waste Disposal

In this segment, we aim to propose solutions and leverage points focusing on the disposal aspect, the end cycle of goods that cannot be directly reused or repurposed.

The municipality in the city has standard metrics for the collection of waste. We picture a scenario where trash cans come in specified sizes based on the volume and each size is associated with a specified cost basis the size and volume of the can. Residents are forced to use these cans as a means of disposal and as a way to curb consumption with the motivation of circumventing the extra costs attached to bigger trash cans.

Trash Cans of different Volumes and Sizes, Source — City of Palm Bay, FL

The vision for the household level describes waste management services to be adapted to the pay-per volume framework established by the municipality. Households are also encouraged to compost in their backyards as much as possible.

Another system of disposing food waste is to establish a process of dropping off food waste at local restaurants in exchange for compensations, discounts and offers. The Waste Management bodies in the city in turn work with grocery stores and restaurants to collect unusable food waste from customers such that it is centrally composted. The benefit of composting this food waste is the metamorphosis of waste into high-quality fertilizers that can be sold to local farms, thus finding a way of creating and utilizing fertilizers within the city, rather than importing these materials from elsewhere. The revenue generated from the sale of these high-quality fertilizers allows the city to fund the composting program and provide compensation for participating businesses. This system built on the concept of a circular economy sustains the production, consumption and disposal mechanism within the city and nullifies the need to import, export and depend on external sources to meet the city’s basic needs.

We also further want to highlight the role of the Pittsburgh Citiparks, in launching public service campaigns and creating awareness on the impact of waste in public spaces at all levels, from household litter to corporate dumping and finally eliminating garbage floating on the rivers of Pittsburgh.

Possible Barrier

This system works in harmony with a number of smaller groups, organisations and non-profit groups working hand in hand to establish a zero-waste structure in Pittsburgh. It requires the alignment of policy, business models and mental models of residents, leaders and corporate giants to come together and take the initiative of eliminating the waste plague. Lack of motivation coupled with individual profit-driven incentives would stall the process and make the self-sustaining model inoperative.

What is the timeline for impact?

We envision the incorporation of this system in the next five years with the cyclic nature of this sustainable framework expanding over several years, thus standing the test of time.

The Maps at a Glance

Link to the High-Resolution Maps

The Interventions

Conclusion

Poor waste management in Pittsburgh has been long tied to its history and only exacerbated over time through various factors. To make things more complicated, this wicked problem is closely tied to other wicked problems such as air pollution, poverty, and racism to name a few. With the help of the transition design framework, we have been able to look at this menace through different lenses to gain a deep understanding of the problem space.

With three separate ecologies of interventions that all work in tandem, we believe that improving poor waste management in Pittsburgh can be tangible in the near term future if we start knowledge sharing today. Through this process of breaking down the system at the multiple levels of production, consumption, and disposal, we hope to create a sustainable future where levels work together to develop new relationships and understandings of the steps they can take to start creating change today.

References

  1. Roadmap to Zero Waste. (2017). https://apps.pittsburghpa.gov/redtail/images/543_Pittsburgh-Road-Map-to-Zero-Waste-Final.pdf
  2. From Waste to Resource Productivity (2017) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/667480/from-waste-to-resource-productivity-evidence-case-studies.pdf
  3. The natural products that could replace plastic (2019) https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190125-the-natural-products-that-could-replace-plastic
  4. Design Against Consumption: The Intersection of Personal and Practice Transitions, N.Wallace (2019)
  5. The South African ‘trash for cash’ scheme that became a lockdown lifeline (2021)
    https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/04/trash-for-cash-south-africans-currency-environment-covid-lockdown/

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Aashrita Indurti
Transition Design — Team Synegy

Interaction and Service Designer | Graduate Student at the School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University