It would be hard to say who spoke faster, Joe Brewer (a consultant who helps organizations improve by using ideas from cognitive and behavioral science) or Zac West (industrial designer), but both exuded high energy.
First Brewer gave a lively pitch for Seattle Innovators, who aim to make Seattle the first carbon neutral city in North America by 2030, a goal that Seattle's City Council has already adopted. Brewer sees Seattle's civic-minded, well-educated populace as a kind of "civic software," one of the advantages that makes the Puget Sound region one of the "cool places" to live in the U.S. Since any early mover gains a competitive advantage, Brewer thinks Seattle should build an "innovation engine" (like the TED talks or the X Prize) to spark it to become the first sustainable city.
To that end, last March Brewer and collaborators organized what they called "Building Day," to build tools for cross-sector collaboration, and they will do another installment in the future. "Is this Seattle's moment?" Brewer asked. As designers, we have a system perspective, the tools, and the know-how to bring these things about.
Then, Zac West talked about a "green revolution" in the American agricultural system after World War II, as the nation scaled up its food system, cut its expenses for food drastically, and greatly reduced the number of farms needed to support its population. But in doing so, we added fertilizers and pesticides, and created many problems and complications we find in the food system today.
Systems (like the agricultural example) contain externalities--components that are outside the business equation, like putting carbon into the world without having to account for it.
There is a wide range of approaches to addressing these vexing externalities: from "building utopia," on the one hand (the inclination of a minority of people on the political Left), to "engaging the system to evolve," the inclination of about 300 million Americans, according to West. As a rational industrial designer, he definitely prefers the latter.
Good environmental projects and clients are rare, West said. Rather than talk about them, which would be easy, he preferred to talk about a hard one: a client that makes hunting gear. West called his approach with this client "code switching." Where he might normally talk about "corporate responsibility," for this client he would refer to "brand legacy." Instead of "eco-friendly," West used the term "resource responsible"; he listed several other switches in terminology to bridge the gap in values between clients favorably disposed to sustainability already and those who could be brought there by couching ideas differently.
Really good design questions lead to really good business questions, West said. He feels that design's purpose is to create meaning in the world. Adapting Maslow's hierarchy of needs to a design and business environment, West put business thinking at the base of the pyramid, with design thinking above that, and entrepreneurial thinking on top (creating value for the customer). He argued that design thinking isn't enough; it needs to be combined with business thinking to create the higher category of entrepreneurial thinking.
Creative director Marty McDonald told the story of "great design gone bad"--the branding of British Petroleum. By the 1990s, the company was already admitting that petroleum was one of the culprits in causing climate change. When Landor designed a new identity for BP in 1998-99, BP's global CEO had said "I want this company to be a force for good in this world. Build that image and I will hold the company accountable for it."
Besides creating the handsome mark, Landor's scheme changed the BP initials from caps to lower case, and added a new tagline, recasting bp as meaning "beyond petroleum," a rather astonishing assertion for a company that even as late as 2008 would still be producing 93% oil and gas, and only 7% renewables.
Ogilvy & Mather in New York created a successful ad campaign for the company: "BP on the Street." The results were only too effective: BP went from 4% public awareness to 67% and within 5 years was seen by the public as "more green" than any of its competitors.
The strategy worked for about 10 years, but after the Gulf oil rig explosion and spill this year, no amount of PR could undo the thousands of parodies of the BP identity on the web. There was even a fake Twitter feed (@bpglobalpr) that got thousands more hits than the real one.
A chief writer for BP, Brian Kenney (who McDonald said was essentially the equivalent of the designer in this case, since these ads were more about copywriting than images), said "I believed wholeheartedly in BP's message.... Maybe I'm naiive." Um, yes.
McDonald asked: What went wrong? How can we designers avoid making these mistakes?
Then Hilary Bromberg, strategic director at Egg, jumped in. Designers are propagandists, she said.
Once, in the period she called "Branding 1.0," designers and clients identified how people saw a company and then worked to change that into how they wanted people to see it. But now, in the age of the Internet, people can peek over the wall and learn so much about a company that that sort of branding can't stick anymore.
A good designer needs to take a system-level approach and do a lot of research, both internal and external to the company, about a whole range of subjects.
The bottom line: Designers need to be responsible citizens.
Every client has an agenda. Do we as designers want to support it or not?
The final speaker, architect and urbanist Cameron Hall, talked about past public-private collaborative projects (Safeco Field, the Gates Foundation) that he worked on for NBBJ.
He also talked about the attributes needed for collaboration and collective action, and cited Umair Haque's The Builders' Manifesto. However, he admitted that the 2030 Challenge (to become carbon neutral) was started by an individual, architect Edward Mazria. And another individual architect, Brian Geller, sustainability specialist at ZGF in Seattle, has enlisted both public and private stakeholders--major property owners/managers, city utilities, and other groups--to all cooperate in large-scale energy use reduction within a new Seattle 2030 District.
The movement toward carbon neutrality now fomenting in Seattle, Hall said, is getting bigger and bigger, and now embraces energy, land use, neighborhoods, transportation, food systems, zero waste, green careers, and youth. Hall's own RACE TO ZERO CITY is a communication tool for Carbon Neutral Seattle.
Breakout sessions with the speakers and event organizers (West and SallyAnn Corn on "Mapping the Design Process toward Sustainability," McDonald and Curfman on "The Role of Design in Sustainability," and Hall and Jared Silliker on "Collaboration") allowed everyone present to discuss the issues. A designated person from each breakout reported back to the large group at the end of the evening.
Go to the Town Hall breakout groups for more details. Watch for followup events, such as Design Jam, an IDSA event on November 13, 2010.