“The best way to predict the future is to design it.” (RB Fuller)
In this article I want to discuss design and also sustainability, systems thinking, and economic models. I recently gave a presentation at the Agile Trends Festival. Since I know most of you weren’t able to attend, I’ve compiled some of the ideas that I presented, as well as some extras.
Let’s Start with Sustainability
When I say the word sustainability, what images come to mind? Some that come to my mind are of nature, such as animals or plants, and the recycling symbol. While these images may do a decent job of capturing the scope of the term, they are pretty vague.
The term sustainability speaks to the beautiful and broad idea that current generations must make a great effort to satisfy our needs in a way that doesn’t also cause negative impact. We need to ensure that future generations have the ability to do the same with equal opportunities.
It may seem like a simple message to some and too daunting for others. I’ve got good news though! Everything we do, each and every one of our decisions, has a positive or negative impact on what surrounds us today (people, environment, etc.), and tomorrow. So, every day we have the opportunity to be a part of a more sustainable future; not just wish for it, but actually design it through our actions.
Your head might still be full of nature imagery, but consider applying the same thought to your work. When speaking of agility and product design, sustainability arises from the overlapping of several systems; from finding the balance between what the human system (people) does and demands, the products and services that we create (industrial system), and the impact of both systems on the planet (environmental system).
So, Let’s Talk About Systems
Sustainability is something that applies to us all, but to understand how we should act, we must have a systemic vision. Think about it for a moment. Everything is connected. The world is made up of a massive number of systems that interact, establish connections, create dependencies, etc., all of which leads to a very complex reality. And as you probably know by now, complexity is met with complexity.
This has happened with our attitude and approach to product development and sustainability over time. Consider recycling as an example of how we validate a bad practice. We continue to manufacture products with planned obsolescence that are made with materials that can only partially be reused. We produce more because it can be “recycled” – however, much of what is produced ends up flooding our oceans. Recycling is a step, but it is one that can validate even more waste.
And yes, of course recycling is a good and necessary endeavor, but I hope you agree with me that it is not the solution for how we should design good products that have a positive impact on society.
If it helps you understand, keep in mind that our cognitive bias of the “status-quo” often plays tricks on us. The longing for calm, the tranquility of the known, and a feeling of control can often outweigh our desire to face problems and fight to solve them. Do you know what that fear is called? The fear of the cost of change.
For a long time, we have been benefiting from this calm and allowing a linear economic model without regarding its impact on the planet and its other consequences.
And Now, Let’s Talk About Economics
If we want to change things, we need a firm commitment to circular economy models and impact economies. In other words, we need to find a healthy balance between maximizing the economic return of business and maximizing the positive impact on society and the environment.
And how do we know exactly what kind of positive impact we can generate in our society and our environment?
I recommend taking a look at the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. It is a global blueprint for the actions we need to take if we want to overcome our greatest challenges and really take a step in creating a sustainable future for our planet.
It might seem that in a world that has blinders on, these goals may not be SMART. The first two goals of No Poverty and Zero Hunger are extremely relevant but equally difficult to achieve. However, politics aside, I have good news. An awakening is beginning, both in the general population and in the organizations that make up our economic infrastructure.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at some of the data from the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020. In it you will be able to see how the youngest people recognize a greater concern for recycling and the use of plastics and locally produced products. I think it also includes a particularly revealing data point: 47% of millennials and 42% of young people belonging to Generation Z declare that they educate themselves on the environmental aspects of the brands they consume. See other actions both groups are taking to protect the environment.
This reality is also reflected during COVID-19 pandemic in how consumers have rewarded the brands that have shown a more friendly and supportive face to those most affected. How have these brands been rewarded? By choosing them over the competition and increasing their consumption and/or use. They are believers in the idea that, “If you are good for my environment, you are good for me.”
Do you notice a difference in how you might consider brands? In the past, we have literally killed ourselves to define a unique value proposition based on a previous needs analysis of our customers, sometimes intentionally neglecting the impact that our products or our brand has on any of the 17 Sustainable Development goals presented to us by the WHO.
The Challenge for Design
If, as I noted above, everything is connected, we must assume that design and our world reflect one another. We design the world (its products, its services), and the world designs us. We cannot focus solely on people and their needs; we need to embrace systems thinking.
We need to fall in love with problems and frame customer needs in the systems they interact and interrelate with. Learn to explore, to deepen our understanding of how these problems and challenges (as we call them in Design Thinking) are nothing more than pieces of reality that establish thousands of links with other realities that are linked to their cause, that help us to understand and face solution design with greater vision.
We need to design solutions that not only meet the needs of our customers, but that also ensure a proven positive impact on the sustainability of our environment.
“Creating solutions for our clients’ problems that deliver value and sustainability for a world that is home to the ones we love the most.”
To a sustainable future,
— Juan Luis
At Netmind, we are working on designing new tools that you can incorporate into your toolbox to help you incorporate this perspective into your design processes. Here is a sneak peek. (Get started now though by learning how Design Thinking works!)