• Fernanda Ford

Can you see the big picture?

One of the things that intrigue me the most in research is the attempt to seeing the big picture. You don't need to be a researcher to practice such a skill, though. Seeing the big picture is key when approaching any complex problem, especially when you are seeking innovative solutions. It helps you identify different actors, causes and consequences, scales, spheres, disciplines, and tools that you should consider when trying to solve a problem. Practicing your strategic thinking is a must, but besides that I tried to put together a simple thought process that may help you see the big picture.

I like to start with four basic elements:

  • Causes and consequences

  • Barriers and solutions

  • Actors involved

  • Tools

To illustrate, I'll use an example in my field of expertise. Let's say we are studying the reuse of building components in the construction industry (for example, the metal studs that support drywall).

What causes, or better saying, what drives the reuse of building components? What are the consequences, or what happens when we reuse building components? Who are the actors involved in this process? What are the barriers, that is, what is preventing these actors from reusing building components? What are the possible solutions for such barriers? And what tools are available (or need to be created) to support building components reuse?

To help to answer these questions, it helps to think of three dimensions of the problem:

  • Timeline (that is, what happens in short-term, medium-term, long-term?)

  • Scale (what would be a micro-scale, meso-scale, and macro-scale for our problem?)

  • Spheres (how does your problem affect or is impacted by different spheres such as human behavior, technology, government/policy-making, society and culture, economy, and the environment?)

Now comes the fun part: how does each of the four elements relate to each of the three dimensions of our problem? For example: what drives the reuse of building components in the short, medium, and long term? In the short term, it may be cost savings if the reuse is feasible. In the long term, it may be environmental benefits (reuse is better for the planet than recycling).

What are the scales of reuse in the built environment? Say, we may consider reusing building components as micro-scale, while reusing an entire building may be meso-scale, and reusing existing urban infrastructure may be considered macro-scale... in this case, how are these scales related to each other, and how are they connected with the four basic elements that we mentioned? (brain explosion).

I even tried to create a tridimensional figure with three axes forming three different planes (dimensions), and then tried to "fit" each element in these planes... but it got way too complicated. The point is, it is not easy to think about all these connections. Otherwise, we wouldn't call it a complex problem. But we can simplify our thought process to analyze each element and dimension individually and then zoom out and see these connections.I hope this attempt of simplified framework helps you to see the big picture. If it does, let me know! What would you do differently? Let me know as well. I love this topic!

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