Mainstream Thinking about Designing Systems


Many technical systems, but also economic and organizational systems are organized to the limits of its capabilities. There are no redundancies, all components are trimmed to the bare bones. A little distortion in a daily routine can cause a cascade-effect and leads to a total breakdown of the system. There is no back-up or fail-safe.  it is efficient.

This is mainstream design thinking. It is based on the idea that it is exactly known what the system does in all  circumstances. Nevertheless, this is seldom the case when we are looking at  complex systems.

It can be questioned if it is to be wise to design vital systems to have robustness, the ability of a system to resist change without adapting its initial stable configuration.

In this blog post, we will do some metaphoric thinking about mainstream thinking by comparing the concept of  hiking with  trail running.

Hiking is an outdoor activity which consists of walking in natural environments, often in mountains or other scenic terrain. People often hike on hiking trails. Trail running is a sport which consists of running over trails.

What is the difference?

While an ordinary hiking expedition may last for eight days, averaging eight to ten miles per day, with participants carrying fifty to sixty pound backpacks, back country trail runner will do the same trip in three to four days, covering much greater distances each day, and carrying only minimal equipment. This type of backpacking is rare, as it is very difficult and dangerous, but it is growing in popularity.

The choice between hiking and trail running has to do with a lot of factors, such as carrying weight , fitness, daylight, velocity, trail condition, weather. Basically, it can be scheduled as a optimization problem, of finding the best solution from all feasible solutions.

The best solution will always be a trade-off: a situation that involves losing one quality or aspect of something in return for gaining another quality or aspect. It often implies a decision to be made with full comprehension of both the upside and downside of a particular choice;

So, the key concern is full comprehension. However, full comprehension depends first and foremost on available information:

  •  What is  the condition of the track?
  • How is my fitness?
  • Will  the weather be steady?
  • What are my fall-back positions and exit routes?
  • What risks I am prepared to take?
  • Can I get help if needed?

If we lack complete information, or there are uncertainties, then it is wise to built-in some redundancy as more warm clothes, ropes, first aid, a bivouac sack, more water and food, heavier boots, maps, GPS and compass, and  emergency signals. In short, a lot of things you probably are not going to need. In hindsight: very inefficient.

We conclude that if the impacts of risk are very high, and cannot  be calculated accurately or not at all, the mainstream thinking of designing systems could be disastrous.

In a next blog post, we will write about  how, according to  Nassim Nicholas Taleb and David Orrell, “ to cope with improbable and potentially devastating events, not through forecast, prediction and reliance on statistical data, but by adhering to the concept of ‘robustness’ in the face of potentially devastating systemic fragility”.

Go here to look at Part 2 of our eBook. You can download Part 1 for free here .

Photo: “Climbing Guy” by hin255


9 Replies to “Mainstream Thinking about Designing Systems”

  1. The Evolution of Light Alpinism

    While I’m also a climber and wear boots on routes where they’re needed, I much prefer doing things as light and as comfortably as possible. I don’t choose running or approach shoes for everything, I just choose them for when the route and conditions allow. In recent years, I more often seek routes that can be done in this style. Decisions about gear should be based on what is most appropriate and not because anything is, “just what you do in the mountains”. That climber on the first move of the Löbhorner had 2250 grams of rigid, zero sensitivity boot on his feet. I had 250 grams of cushion and just the right amount of sensitivity and support.

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