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Design and Business Sustainability in 2012


One of my co-workers recently lent me a copy of the book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. The entire book is a stunning thought experiment about what would happen to the world if all the humans suddenly vanished. How long would it take for nature to recover from our influence? What are the real impacts of our daily lifestyle choices on the world at large? What systems do we have currently in place, such as nuclear and petrochemical energy creation, that would have an explosive impact on the Earth if we weren't there to manage them?

As I read the book, I jotted down a few questions that came up that we designers should be considering now, as part of our day-to-day responsibilities. It will take us some time to formulate real ways to answer them.

Should we worry more than we do currently about the environmental impact of an interactive property, and plan our user experience accordingly to lessen its effect?

I could see this movement as having the following slogan: Make Hits Mean More. Code your apps tight. Make them efficient on your processor. Make sure your hosting service uses green IT. Improve overall usability. Save a kilowatt or two.

Last month's Harper's magazine had an interesting short piece about how each Google search burns a certain number of watts. When you tally up the number of searches engaged by search engines on a daily basis, we're burning a helluva lot of power to see where Britney Spears had lunch on Tuesday.

We will have methods to quantify this impact on our power grid, and perhaps even be charged for our electricity consumption amortized across the Internet, the number of searches we engage, and any other wasteful Internet usage. There will be systems to quantify power used across a web site or Internet application. We may even test our code for browser compatibility alongside its overall wattage use per click.

Will people be warned of the environmental impact of their purchases online or in a physical store?

As designers, we will need to develop rationales to guide our clients into greater transparency on whether the world needs their products, and if so, what kind of impact purchasing their products will have on society as a whole. People will need to see, in product marketing, the long-term effects of their choices beyond their own lifespan.

For example: baby clothes and toys, which are swiftly outgrown. You can recycle baby clothes and toys by passing them along to new mothers, but eventually, the polyester and plastic clothes will enter a landfill and degrade into tiny bits that in a few thousand years will perhaps be eaten by microbes that have evolved to consume plastic and its derivatives.

We can't expect our clients to shoulder this kind of burden while we're just pointing the way. It will likely be a shared responsibility, and we'll have to create methods to kindly shame the big companies into shifting their business strategy.

Will the environmental impact of a future product, or even a meme, be accurately measured and rated before it hits the market?

The tools don't exist to make this kind of assessment over time... yet. But they will.

"Great thought, Jim. You'll make millions off it but it'll generate at least 20 million pounds of carbon waste, use as much water as Lake Michigan in processing, and kill dozens of whales and three species of waterfowl. Should we come up with something better, or see if we can improve your idea to have less of an environmental impact?"

People will need to make judgment calls before they even engage on making a product or service. This kind of filter for a business decision hasn't been clearly articulated across Wall Street, because both public and private corporations had been traditionally focused more on making money than on leaving no trace. Sustainability is the next arms race for public corporations, and will be full of claims such as: "We use 5% less waste in our packaging, reducing our overall waste by 50,000 tons." All while the bottle's still made of plastic. And not being recycled.

Are we really being creative enough about finding a better way to assess a product's long-term impact? Companies will need to evolve existing products that sell well to either minimize their impact, or make the decision to cut them entirely (such as spray aerosols) and invent new products that aren't as convenient, but won't, say, destroy the ozone layer accidentally over New Jersey.

Designers will need to be vocal and raise their hand when they see potential problems, both in product design, development, and marketing, to ensure the long-term interests of the Earth aren't being trounced.

Designers can also encourage innovations that, for products with a short lifespan, biodegrade gracefully with low or no environmental impact. A company that makes tricycles, for example, could replace the plastic with a corn derivative or another compostable substance, which would break down over a year or two. This is already happening with plastic silverware. Consumers will need to be sold on the benefits of owning a product that will fall apart quickly and return to the earth in a non-harmful way.

The only danger with this technology is that we'll need to be sure we don't overtax the land necessary to grow the crops we'll use to create the plastic alternatives.


I have other questions, but in order to save a watt or two, I will beg them off for another post. However, I'd like you to expend some watts by posing some more questions regarding the future of design and sustainability.


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