Whole System Design

This book is dedicated to Amory B. Lovins and Alan Pears. To Amory, for his significant contribution to expanding the solution space for sustainable design, and for taking the time to mentor our team, and to Alan for sharing with us his enthusiasm, insights and lessons learnt from a life dedicated to whole system design.

Whole System Design: An Integrated Approach to Sustainable Engineering

Whole System Design is increasingly being seen as one of the most cost effective ways to both increases the productivity and reduce the negative environmental impacts of an engineered system.

A focus on design is critical, as the output from this stage of the project locks-in most of the economic and environmental performance of the designed system throughout its life, which can span from a few years to many decades. Indeed, it is now widely acknowledged that all designers – particularly engineers, architects and industrial designers – need to be able to understand and implement a whole system design approach.

This book provides a clear design methodology, based on leading efforts in the field, and is supported by worked examples that demonstrate how advances in energy, materials and water productivity can be achieved through applying an integrated approach to sustainable engineering.

Chapters 1–5 outline the approach and explain how it can be implemented to enhance the established Systems Engineering framework.Chapters 6–10 demonstrate, through detailed worked examples, the application of the approach to industrial pumping systems, passenger vehicles, electronics and computer systems, temperature control of buildings, and domestic water systems.

Citation: Stasinopoulos, P., Smith, M., Hargroves, K. and Desha, C. (2008) Whole System Design: An Integrated Approach to Sustainable Engineering, The Natural Edge Project, Earthscan, London.

Whole System Design: An Integrated Approach to Sustainable Engineering


This document provides an example teaching plan for working through the 10 Whole System Design lectures, based on 2 iterations of teaching the material to 2nd year undergraduate engineering students. It includes a sample assessment item that uses a problem-based learning approach.

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Unit 1 explains the importance and relevance of a Whole System Approach to Sustainable Design in addressing the pressing environmental challenges of the 21st Century. It introduces the main concepts of a Whole System Approach to Sustainable Design and how it complements ‘design for environment’ and ‘design for sustainability’ strategies.

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Unit 2 provides an introduction to conventional Systems Engineering, setting the context for Units 3-5. Unit 2 highlights the similarities and differences between some of the principles and motivations of good Systems Engineering and a Whole System Approach to Sustainable Design.

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Unit 3 illustrates clearly how a Whole System Approach fits into the traditional engineering methodologies of Systems Engineering that are taught in engineering schools all around the world. This unit outlines traditional operational Systems Engineering processes as described in leading Systems Engineering text books and highlights how they can be further enhanced through a Whole System Approach for Sustainable Design.

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Unit 4 presents a ‘how-to’ of the first 5 of the 10 key elements of Whole System Approach to Sustainable Design. The application of each element for optimal sustainability and competitive advantage is discussed and then demonstrated with case studies.

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Unit 5 presents a ‘how-to’ of the last 5 of the 10 Key elements of Whole System Approach to Sustainable Design. The application of each element for optimal sustainability and competitive advantage is discussed and then demonstrated with case studies.

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Unit 6 comprises a worked example of a Whole System Approach to the redesign of a single- pipe, single-pump system, focussed on a) reconfiguring the layout for lower head loss and b) considering the effect of many combinations of pipe diameter and pump power on life cycle cost. The WSD system uses 88% less power and has a 79% lower 50-year life cycle cost than the conventional system.

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Appendix A | Appendix B | Appendix C | Appendix D
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Unit 7 comprises a worked example of a Whole System Approach to the redesign of a passenger vehicle focussed on reducing mass by 52% and reducing drag by 55%, which then reduces rolling resistance by 65% and makes a fuel cell propulsion system cost effective. The WSD vehicle is also almost fully recyclable, generates zero operative emissions and has a 95% better fuel-mass- consumption per kilometre than the equivalent conventional vehicle.

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Unit 8 comprises a worked example of a Whole System Approach to the redesign of a computer server focussed on using the right-sized, energy efficient components, which then reduces the heat generated. The WSD server has 60% less mass and uses 84% less power than the equivalent server, which would reduce cooling load in a data centre by 63%.

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Unit 9 comprises a worked example of a Whole System Approach to the redesign of a simple house focussed on: a) optimising the building orientation; b) optimising glazing and shading; and c) using more energy efficient electrical appliances and lamps. While the WSD house has a $3000 greater capital cost than the conventional house, it has a 29% lower cooling load will reduce energy costs by $15,000 over 30 years.

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Unit 10 comprises a worked example of a Whole System Approach to the redesign of a domestic onsite water system focussed on: a) using water efficiency appliances in the house; and b) optimising the onsite wastewater treatment subsystem, which then reduces the capacity and cost of the subsurface drip irrigation subsystem, and reduced the operating and maintenance costs. The WSD system uses 57% less water and has a 29% lower 20-year life cycle cost than the conventional system.

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Quotes from the Forewords

I was thrilled and impressed reading this manual that features an integrated approach towards resource productivity and, ultimately, sustainability both at small and large scale. Each chapter in this book is self-explaining and self-sufficient, making for easy reading and teaching, but taken as a whole it is a wonderful contribution to engineering design, as you would expect from a book with this title. Good luck, readers, students, and teachers!

Professor Ernst Ulrich Von Weizsäcker, Co-recipient of the 2008 DBU German Environmental Award and former President of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, Wuppertal, Germany

The authors have provided a publication which can, and must, be widely used in our university and technical training institutions. The examples highlight the simple application of the theory presented and make the book suitable for self learning as well as in classroom or tutorial use.

Mr Barry J. Grear AO, President, World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO), 2007-2009, Paris, France

The work of the Engineering Sustainable Solutions Program of The Natural Edge Project, and this publication, could not be more timely and relevant.

Dr Tony Marjoram, Senior Programme Specialist, Head of Engineering Sciences, Division of Basic and Engineering Sciences Natural Sciences Sector, UNESCO, Paris, France

Implementation of the principles and concepts of whole system design can be effectively applied in the design and development of any type of system… I sincerely believe that implementation of the concepts presented will greatly facilitate… the design and development, production, and installation of future systems which are robust, reliable and of high quality, supportable, environmentally sustainable, and will be highly responsive in meeting the needs of the customer/user… I feel that following the guidelines presented within will lead to much success in the future.

Emeritus Professor Benjamin S. Blanchard, Department of Industrial and System Engineering, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Co-author of Systems Engineering and Analysis, Author of Logistics Engineering & Management

Quotes and Endorsements

Speaking recently, I outlined what I thought were the requirements for the engineer of tomorrow. I was quickly corrected. Today’s engineer needs to be engineering with tomorrow already clearly in mind. This book encourages and leads today’s engineer on a journey to meet tomorrow’s needs. Systems thinking and asking the right questions opens up far more design options and solutions than we first think. And some of those solutions bring the breakthrough improvements that go far beyond the incremental. Like many books, this one seems a little too simple at first, but I challenge the reader who feels that way to jump to the back and look at the examples. Then go back and read again. There is real power in its simple approach. Engineers are often caught up in looking for the incremental improvement, but I would suggest that our current challenges need more than that. I’d encourage all engineers to look at this book. Dip into it at first, then, come back to it. There is an elegance in the approach it advocates. I had a design lecturer once who commented that I had correctly answered the question, but that I might have done better by asking a very different question. I think he would like this book.

Martin Dwyer, Director, Engineering Practice and Continuing Professional Development (CPD), Engineers Australia

‘Whole System Design’ is a comprehensive resource to support professional, academic and student engineers in complex problem solving around sustainability – an area of focus recommended by the 2008 Review of Engineering Education in Australia: ‘Engineers for the Future’. As the book shows, engineers and designers can make a significant difference to the current global environmental crisis by reducing environmental impacts in the design phase of a wide range of projects.

Associate Professor Roger Hadgraft, Director, Engineering Learning Unit, Melbourne School of Engineering, The University of Melbourne, Australia, President of Australasian Association for Engineering Education

The Natural Edge Project’s ‘Whole System Design’ book will provide a valuable resource that can contribute significantly to technical design curriculum in university courses and professional training. I have used a whole system design approach, as is described and demonstrated in this book, to improve resource efficiency of products and industrial processes often by a factor of 2 or better. An exciting consequence of applying a whole system design approach is the drastically reduced need for end-of-pipe treatment, both in the local area and potentially in the wider air, soil and waterways. This book is the first free resource that I’ve seen that goes into sufficient detail for the reader to comprehensively grasp the concepts involved in a Whole System Design approach. A great attribute of the book is that it is not simply a set of a stand-alone ideas – it provides a strong foundation for embedding sustainable design into the popular design process already taught to students and professionals in Australia and around the world. It is evident that a great deal of thought went into ensuring that the ideas in the book could be quickly and easily integrated with current practices, and ensuring that the ideas are universally applicable to all engineering and technical design disciplines. I commend The Natural Edge Project for their efforts and the Department of the Environment and Water, Heritage and the Arts for supporting the project.

Adjunct Professor Alan Pears, School of Global Studies, Social Science & Planning, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, Co-Director of Sustainable Solutions

I have gone through your Whole System Design Suite and am greatly impressed with what has been accomplished! The material seems to be VERY well organized, quite comprehensive, and quite complete. I like the rather unique approach in your material, addressing ALL categories of systems from a total life-cycle perspective, which facilitates broad application. Congratulations on producing an excellent package. It sounds like an exciting time ahead.

Emeritus Professor Benjamin S. Blanchard, Department of Industrial and System Engineering, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Co-author of Systems Engineering and Analysis, Author of Logistics Engineering & Management

It is becoming increasingly clear that climate change and climate variability will have serious impacts on virtually every facet of our lives. While much work remains to be done to better understand the world’s climate system, it is crucial that humanity rapidly innovates to reduce global carbon intensity whilst at the same time preparing for the inevitable impacts of climate change on communities, industries and ecosystems. Wherever possible, we must seek to convert adversity into opportunity. Solutions to these complex problems will inevitably involve a “whole of system” response – one that pushes the frontiers of innovation by bringing together knowledge and expertise at the boundaries of our traditional disciplines. Accordingly, the publication of this book is both timely and important given its focus on whole system design and I commend it to researchers, practicing engineers and designers.

Dr Andrew Johnson, CSIRO Group Executive, Environment, CSIRO, Australia

Whole System Design underpins efforts to help get our societies onto sustainable pathways. This book is a much needed contribution providing, in detail, instructions on how to implement sustainable design for green buildings, more eco-efficient products, ICT systems and fuel efficient cars to help us build healthy cities.

Dr Steve Morton, CSIRO Group Executive, Manufacturing, Materials & Minerals, CSIRO, Australia

Climate change poses a significant challenge but also a great opportunity. Mitigating climate change successfully will involve transforming our energy systems. As part of this transformation, it is vital that existing technologies and designs are re-examined to identify new ways to make them more energy efficient. The Whole System Design approach presented in this book offers engineers an advanced strategy to enable them to achieve large energy efficiency savings. We urge you to read and absorb the book’s whole system design framework and then see how whole system design can be applied to achieve large energy efficiency savings in the book’s detailed technical case studies. For those interested in more examples of how a whole system design approach can be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions we commend the online textbook ‘Energy Transformed: Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change Mitigation’ by the same authors, which the CSIRO Energy Transformed Flagship funded.

Dr John Wright, Director, CSIRO Energy Transformed Flagship, CSIRO, Australia

‘Whole Systems Design’ (WSD) developed by The Natural Edge Project (TNEP) will be an invaluable resource in the near future for the education of systems engineers on matters of sustainability and design. It provides a seamless link between the traditional system engineering design approach and the wider perspective of environmental and social effects that future engineers need to consider. The WSD material is lucid and concise but also has sufficient technical depth to be useful and challenging for all students in the tertiary sector. In particular, the high impact examples and case studies clearly illustrate the new systems thinking. I am already integrating the WSD book into the systems engineering curriculum of the ANU Engineering undergraduate programme. Students are being introduced to the WSD book in 2nd year (2007 and 2008) and the impact, in terms of sustainability awareness and responsibilities for future engineer practice, is immediate. The TNEP material is, therefore, already changing the perspective and thinking of our future engineers and aligning their design skills to address the global environmental challenges.

Dr Paul Compston, Associate Dean (Undergraduate), Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, Australian National University, Australia

We all have a major role to play in reinventing our business model and shaping our future, whether we are engineers, designers, governments, business people or entrepreneurs… small, simple steps won’t cut it to deal with major global challenges of climate change and environmental degradation we are all facing. There are thousands of cases that demonstrate that, yes we can, transform these challenges into the foundations of a more sustainable, profitable, and desirable societal model. But where to start? What is the most effective, profitable and desirable way to implement the change we want to see? ‘Whole System Design’ provides essential, hands-on guidance to kick-start this next industrial revolution. This book moves the reader from thinking “hmmm… this is interesting” to “I’m gonna do this!” It reframes the future not as fate, but as choice. A choice each one of us can define, prioritize and execute.

Professor Serge de Gheldere, Founder and managing director of Futureproofed, Guest Professor and Director at Group T University College Leuven, Belgium

The book ‘Whole System Design’ is a clever feat of engineering that bridges the traditional divide between technological and design thinking. It shows how we can cross the giant chasm between conventional and sustainable systems in small, easy steps – provided we start now. It should be read by all engineers as a matter of urgency.

Professor Janis Birkeland, School of Design, Queensland University of Technology, Australia, Author of Positive Development

‘Whole System Design’ gives a comprehensive introduction to whole system design approach as the basis for transformative action. Education for Sustainability has to be more than ‘bolt on’ environmental papers in existing programmes, and this is the best example I’ve seen of resources to support sustainability as an integrated and transformative driver.

Associate Professor Samuel Mann, Department of Information Technology, Otago Polytechnic, New Zealand

As an environmental scientist & educator for 48 years and as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Cleaner Production for 17 years, I have supported the development of holistic, systems approaches to understanding human interactions with our eco-sphere upon which we are all totally interdependent. During that time it has become increasingly evident that many of our ‘problems’ have been caused or are being worsened due to the fact that ‘experts’ in science or technology proposed ‘solutions’ which caused unanticipated, negative consequences. This was/is due, at least in part, to the fact that many engineers and scientists did not have the benefit of a holistic systems-based education to help them to holistically define the problem(s) to be solved, and to develop holistic solutions. Global climate change, species diversity losses, habitat destruction, human population growth and abject poverty are illustrative challenges that require that we educate ‘students of all ages’ to help societies make the transition to sustainable societal patterns. In order to accomplish the urgently needed changes, educators and students must have sound educational materials, models, tools and experiences that provide them holistic and systems understanding. I am convinced that, The ‘Whole Systems Design’ (WSD) book developed by The Natural Edge Project (TNEP) team will, if widely used, contribute much to help societies make the urgently needed, holistic changes. My compliments and wholehearted support for the developers of this excellent material and to the organizations that are making it available to faculty and students, globally.

Professor Don Huisingh, Retired Senior Scientist in Sustainable Development and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Cleaner Production, Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment, University of Tennessee

We see an urgent need for curriculum that develops professionals who can create sustainable solutions for society. This ‘Whole System Design’ textbook provides the rationale and information needed to incorporate academically rigorous sustainability content into curriculum for built environment professionals.

Wynn Calder, Director, Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future

Whole System Design is an excellent aid for teaching sustainable development to engineering student who are not exposed to sustainability in any other engineering course.
Professor Rajaratnam Shanthini, Faculty of Engineering, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka
I was buried in Whole System Design. It’s a real little gem and I look forward to using it. It’s very clear, straightforward and I love the examples. The online supports are also a tremendous facility and together they can play a significant role in practical terms in helping realise a sustainability informed engineering education curriculum globally.
Edmond Byrne, Department of Process & Chemical Engineering, University College Cork, Ireland

Clear and concise, the book assumes the reader already has basic engineering knowledge… That said, this book would serve well for the continuing education of practicing engineers or as a textbook for students.

The Industrial Pumping Systems Chapter is nice example that illustrates the point well.

Emeritus Professor Bruce R. Munson, Department of Aerospace Engineering, Iowa State University, USA, Co-Author of Fundamentals of Fluid Mechanics

The Chapter on Domestic Water Systems within ‘Whole Systems Design’ developed by The Natural Edge Project (TNEP) eloquently captures the current household water challenge, that is, achieving both fit-for-purpose and efficient water use, to reduce the water footprint of this sector of the economy. Current data about water consumption, available technology, and cost across the life cycle of the technology; illustrate sensible, simple and appropriate design solutions for engineers looking to understand and implement best-practice water systems engineering. Capital and operating costs are included by TNEP through case studies, to confirm that water efficient design is the only way forward to meet water needs for households, on a least cost basis, and a quality appropriate to purpose. In addition, the chapter will enlighten users on the environmental and economic benefits of moving from linear household water use, treatment and disposal systems, to more enclosed water use systems, through appropriate and sensible engineering design.

Nick Edgerton, AMP Capital Sustainable Share Fund, formerly of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia

Whole Systems Design reviewed by CSIRO’s ECOS: Towards A Sustainable Future magazine (Issue 141, February-March, p 32).

TNEP resources listed as learning tools for INCOSE 2008: Systems Engineering for the Planet (18th Annual International Symposium of INCOSE, 6th Biennial European Systems Engineering Conference).

Whole System Design reviewed and identified by BuildingGreen as a resource that can contribute to achieving LEED® credits – LEED® Energy and Atmosphere Prerequisite 2 – Minimum Energy Performance and LEED® Energy and Atmosphere Credit 1 – Optimize Energy Performance.

Whole System Design reviewed in the Journal Education for Sustainable Development (July/December 2009, Volume 3, No. 2).

Whole System Design reviewed in the Journal of Cleaner Production (2009).


This book is dedicated to Amory B. Lovins and Alan Pears. To Amory, for his significant contribution to expanding the solution space for sustainable design and for taking the time to mentor our team, and to Alan for sharing with us his enthusiasm, insights and lessons learnt from a life dedicated to whole system design.


The Natural Edge Project (TNEP) would like to thank the following individuals and groups for making the development of this publication possible. Firstly, a special thank you must go to the authors’ families. Peter would like to thank his family and friends for their love and support, especially his family Bill, Georgina, George, Steven and Olivia, and partner Jacquelina. Mike would like to thank his wife Sarah Chapman for her love, support and for sharing a life long passion for sustainable engineering. Charlie would like to thank his wife, Stacey, for her patience and love. Cheryl would like to thank her family for their love and support of her commitment to make a difference. The authors would also like to thank Fatima Pinto for her tireless efforts in managing the TNEP office.

TNEP Secretariat – Charlie, Michael, Cheryl, Peter, Stacey Hargroves and Fatima Pinto – would like to thank the Australian Federal Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWR) for funding the development of the publication as part of the 2005/06 and 2006/07 Education for Sustainability Grants Program.

A special thank you must go to Amory Lovins as he was the inspiration for this publication, in particular the starting point for the development of the methodology, and the unique format of the case studies. During our trip to Rocky Mountain Institute in 2004, we asked Amory what a team of young engineers could do to make a difference to our profession and he responded simply that we should contribute to the ‘non-violent overthrow of bad engineering’, and the many conversations that followed inspired our team to develop this book.

Thank you to Paul Compston and Benjamin S. Blanchard for taking the time to mentor our team on Systems Design and Systems Engineering. Additional thanks must go to Paul for trialing the book’s material in his Systems Design course at The Australian National University. A special thank you goes to Alan Pears for taking the time to share with us his personal experiences and lessons learnt from whole system design projects to inform the development of the methodology on which this book is based.

The Secretariat would also like to thank Barry Grear AO, Benjamin S. Blanchard, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, and Tony Marjoram for taking the time to mentor our team and contribute forewords for this publication. We would like to thank the following individuals for taking the time to provide peer review and mentoring for this publication:

Al Blake, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
Alan Pears, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
Angus Simpson, University of Adelaide
Benjamin S. Blanchard, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Bolle Borkowsky, CDIF Group
Bruce R. Munson, Iowa State University
Chandrakant Patel, Hewlett-Packard
Colin Kestel, University of Adelaide
Dylan Lu, University of Sydney
Janis Birkeland, Queensland University of Technology
Kazem Abhary, University of South Australia
Lee Luong, University of South Australia
Mehdi Toophanpour Rami, University of Adelaide
Nick Edgerton, AMP Capital Sustainability Fund (formerly of the University of Technology Sydney Institute of Sustainable Futures)
Paul Compston, The Australian National University
Philip Bangerter, Hatch
Rajaratnam Shanthini, University of Peradeniya

Robert Mierisch, Hydro Tasmania Consulting
Veronica Soebarto, University of Adelaide
Wim Dekkers, Queensland University of Technology

The work was copy edited by TNEP Professional Editor Stacey Hargroves. Work on original graphics and enhancements to existing graphics has been carried out by Mr Peter Stasinopoulos and Mrs Renee Stephens.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the collaborating parties: Australian Government; Australian Federal Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts; Australian Federal Minister for Climate Change and Water; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; and the World Federation of Engineering Organizations. While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure that the contents of this publication are factually correct, these parties do not accept responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the contents, and shall not be liable for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the contents of this publication.

Whole System Design Used in Courses

                         Please let us know if you are using the book in your course!

The Australian National University (AU): ENGN 8100 Systems Engineering
Coordinator: Associate Professor Robert Mahony, Mr Jeremy Smith

Use of WSD: One of three text books listed.

Status of unit: Undergraduate, first year course.

The University of Sydney (AU): ENGG5202 Sustainable Design in Engineering
Coordinator: Dr Ali Abbas

Use of WSD: One of three text books listed.

Syllabus: The objective of this course is to provide a comprehensive overview of the nature and causes of the environmental problems facing our planet with a focus on energy and water. The aim is to give students an insight to the political, economical and social forces underlying environmental conflicts and assess the competing approaches used to address these issues. The course starts with a description of the physical basis of global warming, and proceeds with a discussion of Australia’s energy and water use, an overview of sustainable energy and water technologies and sustainable building design. Topics include the principles of sustainability, sustainable design and social responsibility, sustainable and renewable energy sources, and sustainable use of water. Aspects of designing a sustainable building, green technologies that minimise energy and water consumption, consider recycling and reducing waste disposal using advanced design will also be discussed during this course.

Status of unit: Undergraduate, first year course.

Group T (Belgium): Holistic approach to Engineering, Part 1
Coordinator: Professor Serge de Gheldere

Use of WSD: One of three text books listed.

Status of unit: Undergraduate, first year course.

The University of Peradeniya (Sri Lanka): CP551 Sustainable Development
Coordinator: Professor Rajaratnam Shanthini

Use of WSD: One of three text books listed. Part of the assignments in the course is to study the worked examples in Whole System Design and to present them in the class.

Syllabus: Concepts of economic development and human development; Science, technology, innovations and sustainable development; Energy and transport for economic and human development, and their impact on sustainable development; Industrial and service sector and their impact on sustainable development; Use of fertilizers and pesticides, green revolution and agricultural biotechnology in the agricultural sector, and their impact on sustainable development; Globalization and its impact on sustainable development; Information and communication technology and its impact on sustainable development; Sustainable development project execution.

Status of unit: Engineering undergraduate course.

Blekinge Institute of Technology (Sweden): Engineering for a Sustainable Society
Coordinator: Anthony (Tony) W. Thompson

Use of WSD: Supplementary reading.

Syllabus: The focus of the course being to bring together engineers and non-engineers to better understand the opportunities and limitations for engineering to support society’s movement toward sustainability.

Status of unit: Elective Masters course (Strategic Leadership toward Sustainability).

Whole System Design now released in Russian!

RRP: Paperback £19.99 (ISBN 9781844076437) and Hardback £75.00 (ISBN 9781844076420) from Routledge

Paperback AU$43.59 (ISBN 9781844076437) from EA Books