Nathan Shedroff, chair of the MBA in Design Strategy program at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, has just released his latest book, Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable. Published by Rosenfeld Media, it is likely to become one of the most important books for designers on the subject of design, design practice, and sustainability. (If Bruce Sterling called Worldchanging "not the book of the year; the book of next year" when it was first released, we're calling Design is the Problem "the definitive guidebook to the future of design practice.") Filled with insanely pragmatic advice, persuasive argument, and impassioned calls for action, Nathan's book is essential reading for all designers, design students, business people, business students, innovation specialists, and advocates of all stripes. In celebration of its launch (and in conjunction with our exclusive excerpt, Core77's Editor-in-chief Allan Chochinov sat down with Nathan (well, email was more sustainable, being on opposite coasts) to chat about the book, the challenges ahead, the culture of business, and the amazing opportunities for designers right now.
Chochinov: Let's start with the title, Nathan. "Design Is the Problem" is certainly a wonderful provocation, and then you follow it up with a subtitle imperative: "The Future of Design Must be Sustainable." I know that the first publisher you worked with balked at the title. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Nathan Shedroff: I'm grateful to Lou Rosenfeld who accepted the book and title. I think he's still a little concerned that designers won't find the book though.
The first publisher complained that the title "didn't say what the book was about." They envisioned that the book was about sustainable design, which is only partly true. For sure, the book discusses sustainability—what it is, why it's important, how to approach it, and how to design for it. For those already on this path, this book can help with that journey; we'll get them with the subtitle.
But, I didn't want to only attract designers already interested in sustainability. Design is the Problem is a provocation to the designers (and engineers and managers, etc.) who aren't yet ready to talk about sustainability and I want to draw them into a discussion about the contribution design has had in promoting consumption and the potential role Design can have in creating a more sustainable world. It's a discussion the Design world needs to have because sustainability isn't merely a few more things to add to the design checklist. If some are a little put-off or challenged by the title, they should jump into the conversation. Designers need to take a larger, systems-perspective to their work and to the world and a book like, Sustainable Design for Dummies, isn't going to challenge them enough to change their mindsets.
AC: I think that's a great point. I recently participated in a Designers Accord Town Hall meeting here in New York City, and I was absolutely amazed at the disparity of where people sat at the conversation around sustainability. Your book starts at the beginning though—really RIGHT at the beginning—and quickly ramps up to a pretty elevated level of discourse. How were you able to manage that?
Shedroff: I'm not sure I have a good answer for you. Perhaps it's two things: First, I spent two years in an MBA program specifically focused on Sustainability (at the Presidio School of Management). Second, I'm a designer and I love making models of how things work. This book is, in essence, the book I wish existed when I approached the subject of Sustainability. After taking several courses, teaching a few others, reading a variety of books, seeing a bunch of films, and having a LOT of conversations around sustainability for the past 5 years, this book represents how it all makes sense in my head. By no means is it the only way to approach the subject and it may not work for everyone, but it worked for me and I wanted to share it. I think that when you present a clear model of something—anything—you can ramp-up quickly without losing people because it's clear where you are, where you've been, and where you're going. That's the beauty and power of great models and how design can contribute to the conversation.
Chochinov: Well, let me pick up on the notion of models then. Can you describe for our readers what some of the principal models of sustainability are?
Shedroff: There are a bunch of things to understand about the principles of Sustainability. Most of these focus on building and using a Systems Perspective and why that's critical to understanding Sustainability. These include why topics like Decentralization, Diversity, and Cooperation/Competition are important to understand. Next, all of Sustainability, including these principles, cross three main categories or domains. These are: Social Issues (or Human Capital), Environmental Issues (or Natural Capital) and Financial issues (or Financial Capital). Essentially, Sustainability just asks us to manage all of these forms of capital well. In theory, it sounds easy but, of course, in practice, it can be difficult since each of these (especially the social issues) can get complex. This is the first realization that many people come to when learning about Sustainability: that it's not just about the environment. The current economic carnage is a clear illustration of what happens when we don't manage financial capital well, either as individuals, organizations, or a society.
That's about a third of the book. The next third of the book uses this model of three domains to describe the eight or so prevailing frameworks (some could aptly be described as tools more than frameworks but let's not argue those details right now). These frameworks are helpful in approaching what to do and illustrate how different the approaches can seem. Some focus only on environmental impacts. Others focus on only on social impacts. Some cross several domains. However, all are incomplete and, by looking briefly at each, we can build a more complete picture of what's going on.
The last third of the book is all about design strategies. There are about 12 strategies that designers of all types can put into practice immediately, on any project, to make it more sustainable. I've organized these under the familiar "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" and added a fourth, advanced category "Restore." In this section, there's also chapters on how to measure success, how to declare it, and how to put it into your process easily (which is easier than most people think).
These three simple models are designed to orient designers to the myriad information out there and help them clearly integrate it into a meaningful whole.
Chochinov: I'd add at 5th—"redistribute"—to the 4 R's you have above. It seems to me that a good strategy right now is to redistribute the stuff that we've already got. (You touch on that some in the sections dealing with transmaterialization and services.) I wanted to save this topic for later, but here we are!
Shedroff: I think that in the meaning of Redistribute you describe, it might fall into Reuse, since that's what's happening with it. You're right that as a society—if not a species—we have a staggering amount of STUFF. And, there's a huge percentage of this stuff that we don't use. I've seen families who have two-car garages filled wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with boxes of stuff that they can't bear to part with—much of which they just can't find, so they buy more. It's a sickness. However, there are lots of options for sharing and redistributing, and online technologies are making this ever easier. In Europe, toy libraries are becoming common so parents can simple bring in toys their children are tired of and bring them back something new (well, used, but new to them). Many parents redistribute within their own homes—at least with smaller children. They'll periodically cull toys and put them in a closet, only to bring them out weeks or months later as "new" toys for their kids! It's awesome. My god-daughter lost most of her toys one weekend after misbehaving. She would get them back one at a time as she improved her behavior. However, after a week or so, she didn't care about the rest of her toys. They were already forgotten as she realized she didn't need them.
It's not difficult to set-up a tool lending service (I've seen several groups of grad systems develop these). I had a team last year do something similar for kitchen appliances (how many times have you used that bread maker, ice cream maker, or Hot Dogger?). There are a lot of possibilities for optimizing the use of products with services (rental cars and, now, car share services have been doing this for decades). We just need to get used to thinking differently about what we NEED to own and what we just need periodically.
Chochinov: Ya, in Chapter 10 you write that "We Westerners live in a supremely wasteful society, and we're promoting our way of life, already unsustainable as it is, to others around the world." This question—Should we / could we prevent developing society from repeating our expansion of the middle class with all its attendant paraphernalia?—seems to pop with varying urgencies, depending on the context of the discussion. What's your feeling about this right now?
Shedroff: Well, we shouldn't go out there and moralize to anyone since we've screwed it all up ourselves. This is like parents trying to stop their kids from smoking, while they smoke. It's the "do as I say, not as I do" line and it has little credibility. However, it's an important message and one we should approach humbly. We need to say to the rest of the world, essentially, "Look, we did a lot of this wrong. Try to take the best of what we've accomplished without the worst. Yes, we have a lot of nice things but even we realize that we're no happier overall than anyone else—in fact, we're a lot less happy than most who have less." We need to point-out that we've got incredible problems to overcome, many of which are due to a lifestyle of over-consumption. If they can learn from the best of what we've learned (perhaps, valuing education, personal freedom, optimism, tolerance, etc.) without taking the problems (highly polarized disparities on all of these traits, plus poverty, blaming victims, arrogance, geocentrism, a war between inquiry and dogma, a separation between ourselves and nature, a lust for objects, glorification of excess in all its forms... and a host of other things) then they could "develop" in a much more sustainable, healthy way than we have. It would also be a model for us to follow in order to be more sustainable and healthy ourselves.
OK, that got dangerously close to becoming a moral argument or some kind of finger-waving. I apologize for that. I'm not sure how else to put it, though. Some may read this as a kind of attack on the culture of the USA or Western Civilization or progress. That's not how I intend it. If it's an attack at all, think of it as one on the viruses that are preventing us from being healthy, sustainable, and happy. Maybe this is the healthy, white-blood-cell response to viruses that have been killing our societies, markets, and cultures. I mean this as a positive, aspirational view of the future but I understand how it can come off as critical and moralizing to some.
Chochinov: Don't worry about that; you had us at the "war between inquiry and dogma"! Paul Hawken also talks about an "immune response," which makes me think, perhaps, that all of our problems might just be bringing out all of our solutions right now. I can't tell you how many people tell me about a new website or organization or blog or social network attempting to catalog all of the various positive initiatives underway. (I've started a list!) This is the kind of thing that gives me hope.
Shedroff: Me too. Paul Hawken is right with the "immune response" analogy and it needs to be supported. My only concern is that we all need to collaborate better if we want to be successful. There are SO MANY blogs and websites and start-ups trying to do much the same thing and it has the effect of fracturing our attention, as well as the conversation, rather than bringing it together. There are so many new NGOs and foundations and socially entrepreneurial start-ups but not enough conversation and cooperation between them all to be a more powerful force for positive change. Some of these are started out of ignorance of the other initiatives but many are started simply because someone has a passion and vision and doesn't want it contaminated by someone else's vision. We're duplicating a lot of effort and we need to be more effective. This doesn't mean that we should be simply spending our money and time on the existing NGOs—many of them, in fact, need to change or go away as new understandings and approaches reshape the landscape of solutions. But, we all can't be running our own foundations and, essentially, confusing the audience with who to believe, listen to, support, and join. Consolidation in the for-profit world works pretty naturally (and not always for the best result), but in the non-profit world, it may be a phenomenon we need to enable more.
Chochinov: Let's get more specific about that. Hawken has Wiserearth.org, a catalog of many NGOs and various other entities, for example. Should there be a "Consolidate Now!" button? Is that so crazy? Can you name a few initiatives that you think could do more good by joining forces (and not just linking to one another)?
Shedroff: Yes, perhaps they can have a tool that helps the audience crowd-source consolidation—even going so far as to suggest which parts of each group to combine to make the most effective organization (the best of the best). I can imagine doing that with all industries, actually. Anyone feel like banging-out a Facebook app that lets people make their DreamCompany by specifying, for example, BMW's engineering, Nike's sense of style, Amazon's customer service, and...? Oh wait, that's Apple. But, you get the idea.
I can't comment on the whole NGO world but I do know a fair amount about the sustainability rating/labeling world and it's RIPE for consolidation and cooperation. There are probably eight initiatives in the SF Bay Area alone and none of them are getting traction or successfully solving the problem. I've always wished I could get $2M from the Google Foundation or even the Pew (because that's all it would actually take) to build and launch Reveal (my approach to the solution via my graduate thesis). The first thing I would do is to call a summit of all of the other initiatives (Better World Shopper, Alonovo, S-BAR, WiserBusiness, Mass Roots Project, Good Guide, Carbon Trust, Ethiscore, Sustainability Ratings, Cradle-to-Cradle, the list goes on) and have everyone throw what they have into the pile and work on the best solution together. The for-profits probably can't participate well unless they radically rethink their business models (which wouldn't be a bad idea anyway), but the rest could easily and quikly build THE ratings system that would change how everyone buys everything. That's the promise, at least.
Chochinov: One of the most powerful messages in your book is the one concerning business—as a culture and as a language. I remember from your presentation at CompostModern in San Francisco last month that you urge designers "not to use the word green." That if we HAD to use a color, to use the color blue; that blue was the color of the sky and the earth seen from space...but most of all, that "blue was the color of business." Brilliant, I thought, and I'm a big fan of Roger Martin and all his riffs on the different languages and worldviews between business people and design people. You use the term "business-positive" in the book, and I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit more about that as a point of departure. Especially since "business" has such a bad rap these days, how can designers not only learn how to talk the talk, but tailor their solutions to that kind of culture. Okay, that's an insanely broad question. Where would you like to start?
Shedroff: I need to clear two things up: First, I make a point of crediting Adam Werbach, from Saatchi S, whenever I speak as the person who came-up with the concept of Blue but that bit almost never gets picked-up in any of the blogs. Second, I don't think we should be using Blue any more than Green, but if designers feel like they HAVE to use a color, the Green thing is really tired—and weird for some people.
As for Business, we have a brain-dead context for it in this country. When politicians talk about business, they mean "big business"—that is big corporations and especially multinationals. When the "conservatives" talked about business for the last few decades, this is who they were talking about. Forgotten were the small and medium-sized businesses that are actually the back-bone of our economy—of any economy. Over 50% of our GDP in the USA is from small businesses alone. Because of this warped perspective on "big business," we've targeted all of our legislation toward making their lives easier—at the expense of the bulk of "business"—small business—as well as at the expense of people, the environment, justice, culture, etc. So, unfortunately, we always need to have a little language interlude before we can talk about business. I am very pro-business but I'm a much bigger supporter of small and medium-sized businesses than big corporations. I don't have a problem with them, per se, but they wield way too much influence over governments at all levels and this allows them to play by rules unfairly stacked in their favor and to everyone else's detriment. The idea that the Founding Fathers wanted it this way is a myth. They were incredibly wary and distrustful of corporations. They built legislation to specific limit their power and we've spent the last 200 years undoing it. That said, no one is better positioned to make more change than the biggest multinationals—if they change their goals and behavior and if they make these a priority.
I've met students in the past that came to class with the attitude of "business is bad and responsible for everything that's wrong with the world" and that's too simplistic an approach to be either credible or helpful. These same students often see themselves going right into business after they graduate so how they reconcile these attitudes is a mystery to me. We need to differentiate between the types of businesses and their different types of influence.
The brand "Business" has had huge swings in the past decade. Witness Enron and the MANY other economic debacles and where that led the brand in the minds of most people. Then, we had that incredible moment after 9/11 when the CEO of one of the worst-hit Wall Street firms was on television crying as he described his responsibility to provide for his now-murdered employees' families. That's a big 180 degree turn in a short amount of time and it representing something we hadn't seen in "business" for a long time. Of course, now, we're back to influential financiers defrauding the public and scamming Billions, so the brand has swung around again. In truth, it's all happening simultaneously, all of the time and we can't just lump it all together. "Business" is never bad or good. So, it's ridiculous to be "for" or "against" it. It's a really great, helpful, powerful, and (because of all of that) problematic endeavor but it's not something to be for or against. Government, NGOs, unions, non-profits, and individuals all have their own, similar issues. So, when I say designers have to be "pro-business" if they want to make change happen, it's only because we have to reset the conversation from those who are "anti-business" in order to have the real conversation, which is: What should business be doing to change the world for the better and what can we do to encourage this to happen.
Chochinov: Okay. What should business be doing to change the world for the better and what can designers do to encourage this to happen?
Shedroff: First, businesses need to care about more than just money. Many already care a lot about their employees, so that's a start, but they measure their performance in financial terms almost exclusively. We need a new set of metrics for both non-profit and for-profit businesses that use an Integrated Bottom Line as described by Bob Willard in his various books. But we need tools even better than his current spreadsheets so businesses can immediately LEAD by measuring performance in environmental and social sectors and not merely financial ones. Of course, we also need new legislation to level the playing field for businesses to do this and create clear standards and criteria for all to play by—that goes for international business as well. Second, businesses need to adopt the perspective of sustainability and make it a mandate in their companies. This can start anywhere but, eventually, the mandate has to be supported from the top. It's worked at Interface, Nike, and Apple, and now even at Dell. Once it's a mandate inside these businesses, all employees, from engineers and managers to designers should read, understand, and begin practicing design strategies, like those outlined in my book, in order to make more sustainable products, services, and events. We can't make perfect things overnight but we need to start making things radically better as soon as we can.
As for designers, we need to start making these changes ourselves, with or without a mandate, in the things we make. We can choose to not talk about materials substitutions or other improvements in impacts if our managers don't want to hear about them and, instead, we can highlight the improvements they do want to hear about—like improvements in efficiency. We can learn to speak "their" language authoritatively and speak to risk mitigation and gains in owner's equity. Some designers have already learned how to address brand valuation effectively, in terms of business value as well as customer value, so this just extends that trend. In addition, we need to talk about this to our peers, managers, and clients with an encouraging, quiet, and strong imperative that isn't sensationalized. If they turn-off at the mention of climate change, switch to cute, fluffy polar bears drowning. If they don't respond to that, explain that the market for their goods tanks when customers are out of work, afraid of the food they eat, or their homes are flooded.
Lastly, we need to find a way to speak about this to the rest of the world—to our customers and the public at large—in a way they're ready to hear about it. If we must, then we can discuss it in terms of national security, as the Pentagon itself did in 2004. All of this is as good an answer as we need, for now, but we still need to develop better ones.
Chochinov: Well, that leads nicely into something else from the book I wanted to ask you to expand upon. In Chapter 15, "Designing for Systems", you talk about some of the new territories for design, and write "Not only are [designers] usually inexperienced with supply chains, financial systems, and many cultural impacts, but the last thing our clients and companies want to hear when they engage us is that 'we need to back up here and examine whether the whole system needs to be readdressed' or 'this is really a cultural issue, and it's not solvable by simply making a new product.'" You introduce systems thinking in the book's introduction in fact, and I think this is perhaps the most potent kind reframing a designer can do.
Shedroff: I think that many designers naturally think in systems already, but we don't expand this often to business or organizational systems (in fact, we tend to ignore these whenever we can). Service Designers, in particular, always deal with systems—the solution can't work without addressing them. The most effective solutions are those that solve problems systemically, balancing a variety of challenges from different directions. This is how the greatest gains can be made quickly. For example, just look at Curitiba, Brazil. Cities are complex systems that operate in many domains and on many levels. So, they're difficult to improve without systemic solutions. You can't solve poverty with money because it isn't just a money problem. The same with healthcare, traffic, quality of life, etc.
What Mayor Lerner did in Curitiba was, at first, counter-intuitive for many. It was probably a benefit that the city didn't have much funding to fix its problems—at least at first. They were forced to be creative and efficient with their solutions instead of simply buying the same ones other cities use. Since they couldn't afford to build a subway system, they used buses and existing roads, along with beautiful new stations, to create much the same solution. The increased mobility for less fortunate inhabitants allowed more in the slums to seek employment. In addition, the amount of cars on the streets is lower, per capita, than before, improving not only the traffic but the air quality and quality of life. When the mayor had one of the major streets closed to car traffic, turning it into a walking/shopping street, the initial outcry was deafening (there is actually a humorous story about how it occurred) but the result was a sorely needed nexus for social, cultural, and economic revitalization. The emotional, value, and meaning levels of our lives are the most difficult to design for, yet the most important. And, the only way to approach them is through systemic inquiry and solutions. At the far point, this is where sustainability can take us. When we design most sustainably, we design effectively across all levels of significance and throughout all dimensions of experience.
Chochinov: I wanted to end with the topic of values and meaning. In Chapter 16, you write the following:
Often, support for sustainability in all its forms (social, environmental, and financial), at both the corporate and customer levels, is lacking or invisible because traditional, qualitative market research techniques aren't adequate at measuring or uncovering aspects of customers' needs and desires at the levels of emotions, values, and meanings. These are where sustainable values intersect the customer experience. So it's easy for quantitative market research to show that the most important driver of customer decision is price (because it's most easily measured). Even qualitative data show, time and time again, that customers regularly spend more—whether they intend to or not—when their values or emotions are triggered by the product or service options.
You go on to say,
Sustainable values, too, are triggered by offerings, and these triggers change depending on the customer segment and category of product or service. If an organization has no way to discover these, it has no way to appreciate them when making corporate strategies. This is exactly where designers can have the most impact in an organization (either their own or for a client).
Certainly this points to better, more rigorous, more disciplined and smarter ethnographic work, but it also points to the basic questions of What is a value? and What makes meaning? You published a book a couple years ago entitled Making Meaning so I'm wondering if you can tell us your thinking, these days, around sustainability and meaning.
Shedroff: At the risk of starting an entirely new conversation, I'll say that Meaning is the most significant and powerful element of whatever people create for others. Just like how our faces show emotion universally, core meanings are universal throughout all of humanity. This means that every person, in every culture, knows what these core meanings are and why they are significant. Of course, we all prioritize and express meanings differently, which is how they form our values and how they tie into our emotions. Meanings, values, and emotions sit at a deeper level in our lives than price and performance. So, they're more powerful (which is why they can be so motivating and effective when triggered correctly) but they're much more difficult to detect, understand, and design for. However, as humans, we do this everyday, just more intuitively or accidentally than deliberately.
For most people, the word "sustainability" doesn't connect with much in their lives—it doesn't trigger many emotions, values, or meanings. Of course, there are minorities for whom it does—strongly, both positively and negatively. This being the case, we must understand our customers at these deeper levels (and smart ethnographic and other qualitative methods are the approach to doing this successfully), in order to connect with their values and meanings through more sustainable solutions. For some, the best connections are health and safety (rather than tout how sustainable something is, talking about how it's better for people or promotes a safer home or nation, is often more successful). This is particularly true for parents of babies and young children, who often spend a lot of time and money on products, services, and food that they wouldn't use otherwise because of they're perceived health benefits. For example, parents routinely, now, purchase organic baby food when they don't regularly eat organic foods themselves. For others, the triggers might be around efficiency and money-saving. For still others, it might be around the enjoyment of certain activities, like hunting and fishing (which aren't, typically, connected to environmentalism yet are already endangered activities by overfishing and overhunting as well as overtaxing ecosystems).
Connecting to people's values and meanings is going to be critical in order to change behaviors and choices and reach more sustainable goals. There's nothing inherently off-putting about sustainability at all. I challenge you to find someone who is in favor of purposely ruining the future. The problem is in helping people become aware of their impacts and connecting their perfectly adequate values to the effects their activities have. Most of the issues and imperatives around sustainability are simply invisible to people and if we can make them visible, in their languages, we can get more people on board. It's more than merely design but design thinking and processes can contribute tremendously to making this happen quickly.
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