The Future as a Design Challenge

“Problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them.”

- Albert Einstein
Sustainability is the elephant in the boardroom. Businesses continue to ignore it in practice, even as they acknowledge the need for a sustainable future. Is the issue simply too large to fathom or is it so pervasive as to be invisible like the air we breathe? Or are sustainability’s accounting standards such a threat to our short-term gains, that we push it into the future where we can agree in principle without acting today. How do we resolve this glaring contradiction between urgency and complacency?

Surprisingly, business makes a good metaphor for sustainability. Like sustainability, it needs to maximize efficiencies among finite resources, strive for long-term viability, rely on collaboration for success, constantly adapt to change, and offer rewards for performance. When we accept that our business’ fate depends on the sustainability of the larger sphere in which it operates, the foresight and intuition that has served us as managers, transforms us. We become designers, eager to shape this crucial relationship proactively.

In this subtle role switch from managing to designing, we gain a significant perspective shift – we can now see constraints as possibilities and start to discover hidden clues to sustainability within our business frameworks. No crisis has challenged our collective imaginations as managers more fiercely. We must re-imagine everything – products and manufacturing processes, raw materials, waste and supply chains, energy and profits, marketing and advertising – in essence, everything that impacts our business’ bottom line. We cannot continue to manage what we have failed to manage thus far. We must design our way out.

Only when design becomes the active principle in business does sustainability become intuitive, creating a triad that is naturally hostile to system inefficiencies – an anathema to all three enterprises. Evaluated within the context of some market-based examples, here’s how it has worked:

Business & Sustainability: Maximize Finite Resources

Design aid: Do More with Less.

Example: Dr. Bonner’s Soap

A product of innovative design, ecological values and business acumen, the soap supplied in concentrated form offers more than double the amount in the same sized package as its competitors, reducing plastic bottle waste per use. The soap itself is designed to be used across unlimited applications. Less waste, more use, significant efficiencies.

“Constructive capitalism is where you share the profit with the workers and the earth from which you made it.”

- Dr. Bronner

Business & Sustainability: Long-Term Viability

Design aid: Build to Last

Example: Eames Furniture

Investing early in the innovation and vision of Charles and Ray Eames was a prescient business decision by Herman Miller. The Eames’s designed everything from the manufacturing process to the final product always keeping quality as the benchmark of their efforts. Their products have become classics and Herman Miller has enjoyed a position of leadership and quality in a competitive industry ever since.

“The real questions are: Does it solve a problem? Is it serviceable? How is it going to look in ten years?”

- Charles Eames

Business & Sustainability: Prepare for Change

Design aid: Make it Scalable.

Example: Interface

Prepared to respond actively to eventual wear and tear on its carpets, Interface designed modularity in its product. Designing carpets in individual tiles rather than in oversized rolls allows them to replace only the small section that undergoes the most damage. Compared to the material used in a standard replacement process, this designed solution reduces waste by 80 percent. This simple solution added to their comprehensive sustainability initiatives has generated consistent profits for Interface increased profits consistently for Interface.

“Sustainability has been a source of imagination and innovation.”

- Ray Andersen, Founder, Interface

Business & Sustainability: Collaboration is Key

Design aid: Design Whole Networks

Example: Curitiba, Brazil

The mayor of Curitiba undertook a holistic design of the entire city’s transportation systems and public spaces and ended up providing more open space per resident despite a three-fold increase in its population during the period. Designing in whole networks while making collaboration from its residents a primary focus of its planning ensured the tremendous success of this community, which after 25 years of designing this approach has become a model of sustainability for urban planning worldwide.

“Take Integrated Action and use connected thinking.”

- Jamie Lerner, Chief Architect of Curitiba’s success

Business & Sustainability: Incentives to Action

Design aid: Create Reward Systems

Example: Chicago Climate Exchange

Our markets are rife with examples of how subsidies, tax incentives or other rewards systems act as motivators for action. The success of the Chicago Climate Exchange is based designing a market that provides incentives to sustainable action to businesses by creating natural reward systems. In the book Natural Capitalism, the authors raise the possibility for establishing fee structures for engineers based on savings generated by their designs not by the total cost of their projects. Rational self-interest put to good use.

“Markets are going to motivate behavior.”

- Richard Sandor, Founder CCX

Where the Design mindset pervades Business and Sustainability, the parts and their relationship to the whole become obvious. The naturally proactive design mindset counters complacency and indifference at every stage. By making the shift within from business managers to business designers, we can translate the urgency of sustainability into immediate actions that will ensure the well being of our businesses and of the larger sphere in which they can exist.

Chhaya Bhanti is part of the latest MBA Cohort at the Presidio School of Management. She is a brand and sustainability consultant based in NYC, and is currently developing a comprehensive sustainability initiative for Duggal Visual Solutions, an outdoor printing and display company in NYC. Chhaya has over 10 years of experience in film, multi-media, experiential design, brand strategy and advertising with an M.A in Communications. Chhaya is deeply committed to socio-environmental issues in India and is helping build an awareness platform through integrated media for Sanjhi, an NGO in Rajasthan.

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