20 April 2007

Sustainability and the elephant

There is a growing outcry, gaining momentum, and plenty of press regarding sustainability in design. I can’t give you a single reason why that movement should not move forward full steam ahead. I am a total fan and advocate. But there is an elephant in the room.

The American – OK the world economy, and subsequent prosperity is predicated on the very waste built into our current products and services that this effort seeks to eliminate. Say for instance you develop a longer lasting battery and they now last twice as long. What is the economic impact? Suppose we develop cars and slow the need to purchase and own the newest model. Suppose the developers in the US stop building the 25-year T111 plywood palaces and instead build houses that last for 50 or 100 years. The economic impact of all of this would be enormous.

So, you make the product longer lasting, more efficient and smarter… and the economy suffers. How do we counter act that? Innovation and design is an obvious resource to tap. But it is a double-edged sword. As design gets smarter and innovation increases, so does the value of that product or service. But at the same time, that innovation and design is (hopefully) a marked improvement that displaces and renders obsolete, the preceding product. Entrepreneurialism has been the primary source of job creation in the last 100 years. But again, the same issue arrives. Many of the new companies and jobs end up replacing a great number of those previously in place. There is usually a net sum gain… but it is certainly not pure solution.

If consumers and companies switched their thinking to a value economics we might be better prepared for the inevitable economic impact coming. Consumers tend towards purchasing the cheapest product that will do the job right now. Can we shift to a longer-term approach that reduces the liquidity of our pocketbooks? Companies tend to charge as much as is possible in the short run, knowing that if their product finds the tipping point it will most likely become a commodity. The result being a price based market and impossibly decreasing margins. That is some prize for success.

Hold on folks, the ride will likely get bumpy. We absolutely need to decrease the waste inherent in our lifestyle choices, but the trade offs will be huge. The change difficult and painfull. This may be the ultimate wicked problem.