Elegant solutions represent the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Ideas at point 1 in the figure are simple, but not elegant because they don’t meet user needs. When faced with attacking elephants, Timur’s men who panicked and ran found a simple solution, but one that would not have led to the capture of Delhi. Similarly, just about anyone can come up with point 1 ideas for sustainable places, but they won’t necessarily function or meet user needs, which is a big reason why engineers have jobs.
Timur’s men who began digging ditches were working on a point 2 solution. With enough time, these ditches may have deterred the elephant onslaught. Delhi may still have been taken, it just would have required more time and fighting. Engineering examples of “sustainable” places at point 2 may include a green buildings or a road system that allows traffic to flow more smoothly. Since minimum user needs are met at point 2, many designs do not advance beyond here.
Elegant design solutions are those that make it to point 3, where user needs are met to an even greater degree, but in a less complex way. Timur’s flaming camels, the road diet, and intelligent space utilization all do an even better job meeting user needs, but with less complexity. These are the types of transformational solutions required by our sustainability challenges.
Flaming camels and road diets are the subject of my presentation at the upcoming Engineering Sustainability Conference April 7-9 in Pittsburgh.