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How to Design for a Post-Consumption Economy

We are all consumers.

As we continue to gain a deeper understanding of the impacts of global growth, it has become clear that our consumption-centric lifestyle has challenged our planet's ability to support us.

Recent market meltdowns, regulatory limitations on off-shore manufacturing, and the social and environmental impacts of a consumption-oriented economic model has given rise to a challenge -- does our economy need to be focused solely on spurring consumption in order to survive?

The answer is a resounding no.

The Shift from Human-Centered to Resource-Centered Design

Ironically, the modern green response to these new environmental and social pressures attempt to make things better through new or altered methods of consumption. We've seen an explosion of everything from recycled paper to hybrid cars to green cleaning products to energy efficient electronics as purported solutions.

This, unfortunately, is flawed logic -- digging slower won't stop a hole from getting deeper. There is incredible economic opportunity if we learn to reframe problems, seize opportunities and design solutions by looking beyond the consumption-oriented economic model.

Within the context of our day-to-day lives, we encounter dozens, if not hundreds, of interactions with various products, services, and environments relative to our lifestyles. Although it may come as a surprise to some, a very high percentage of these interactions are the focus of somebody's business. These interactions are anticipated, researched, designed, and re-evaluated for improvements. We purchase these products. We use them. We throw them away. We go buy more. And the money exchanged forms the basis of our economy.

But just as we emerged from the dark ages to a new era of social and artistic enlightenment, we are now entering the post-industrial age with the realization that the well being of our economy is not separate from the health of our natural resources.

{related_content}Globalization took hold after World War II, with the goal of integrating global powers for shared economic security. The running theory was that if nations became economically interdependent, no one nation would willingly disrupt this chain, encouraging postwar peace. In hindsight, this experiment has produced new challenges steeped in social and environmental unrest.

So, while business circles slowly recognize the need to adopt environmental and social issues into their corporate statements, the solutions continue to be framed through the lens of consumption. Ironically, we're placing our bets for new solutions to be borne from the same practices that created these massive ecological problems in the first place.

In the spirit of progress and "triple bottom line" (i.e., economic, social, environmental) development, how might we start to discover new opportunities that generate wealth without destroying our planet? How might we challenge our existing approach of framing problems to provide more holistically responsible solutions that continue to drive economic growth?

To Err Is Human-Centered

To understand where we need to go, it's important to understand how we got here. Contemporary design and marketing practices have emphasized "human-centeredness." Human-centered has become synonymous with "user-centered," which historically relates to the designed interactions between technology and humans. Microsoft Windows was a user-centered solution to the then-classic DOS operating systems.

However, the current interpretation of human-centered has expanded to indulge human desires at the expense of other equally critical considerations. This is a dangerous interpretation that has become default for many leading academic and professional creative practices. Don Norman explains the main concern of such unquestioning adoption of human centered approaches: "The focus upon individual people (or groups) might improve things for them at the cost of making it worse for others." 

In reality, our human-centeredness has driven us to the brink of unsustainable lifestyle through the strain our over-consumption is putting on our natural resources, and may represent the largest self-inflicted problem a species has ever created for itself short of Easter Island.

Ironically, and perhaps controversially, our current overload of media is in many ways widening the gap between our habits, actions, and understanding of the consequences of our lifestyle choices. A recent study showed that children could identify on average, over a 1000 brand logos, but could identify less than 12 native plants and food types.

The inertia of mass adoption of ever-changing technologies makes it a component of our evolutionary history. Period. But a question we must now ask is, "Where are we going with all of this?" Our contemporary world has been shaped from an engineering and capabilities point of view. We make things because we can.

Case in point. We now find ourselves immersed in exploding social media platforms, and are hanging on just to keep up. But in all the promise of "better experiences" and seamless access to virtually any information -- in whatever form you might want it in  --  we are, at the same time, recognizing a continuing rift between the trajectories of our human development, and the capacity of our natural system to support it.

The rise of the Internet didn't make things lighter but in fact spurred easier, and more rapid, consumption debunking the idea that we're somehow enabling a "product-less" world. Similarly, a look at media's proximity to our current definition of "social" begs the question if anyone sees the light at the end of this newest technology tunnel. If Facebook, for example, does in fact achieve success in connecting everyone in the world, well, what is the true impact beyond server farms sucking up enough energy to power small cities?

How then, might we begin to start designing solutions that inherently meet ecosystem needs first, while creatively and iteratively creating economic value and stimulus to bring concepts to reality?

Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of frog design, has recently called for the disclosure and integration of Ecological Load Factor (ELF) in pricing the stuff we consume.

Load is a term for how much negative ecological impact is incurred by the making, shipping, use, and disposal of a product or a service. His call is not the first in this topic area.

This notion of true pricing is one such call made by pioneers like Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Janine Benyus, Ray Anderson, William McDonough, and the plethora of players in the current sustainable business movement who continue to challenge and innovate ways of creating economic wealth while simultaneously improving associated social and environmental conditions.

What is striking about these leaders is their ability to uniquely approach problems in ways that break conventional human-first approaches. Maybe they start with the target (zero-waste) and reverse engineer, or perhaps they look to nature and biomimicry as inspiration for new ways to approach chemistry. What is inspiring about these approaches is that they are slowly becoming recognized as valid inspirational approaches to reframe the way we look at the world around us, and design in a more balanced and benign fashion.

How to Move from Human-Centered to Resource-Centered Design

By placing human (market) needs at the center of the equation, we inherently place our (human) needs above all others, driving us further from sustainable practices by emphasizing aspects of convenience and short-term gain over appropriate solutions that deliver systemic long term prosperity.

On the surface, the impacts of our short-term mindset should be obvious, yet we still struggle with defining sustainability in the context of an economy that's focused on growth and consumption. If we look closer, we can see how this has evolved; the connection between people and our place within our larger ecosystem has largely been designed out of our lives.

As consumers, we're now used to buying products from distant places from a place in the world that most of us will never see. We buy foods with increasingly disparate understanding of where that food comes from, or whether it's even healthy for us. And in our pricing models, we have eliminated the true ecosystem costs for many of the things we use.

{related_content}Within the timber industry, every aspect of the process is given a cost -- except the tree. The paper we use is priced against the costs of labor in cutting down the tree, the fuel and equipment needed to harvest the tree, and the operational costs of the pulping factory that turns that tree into sheets of paper. But the tree is "free" in our system. In a world with increasing CO2 concentrations affecting health of our ecosystem, clearly the tree has value, yet we ignore this value in our accounting.

Similarly, within most consumer products we use, we pay for the costs of making the widget, but then simply toss it in landfills, ignoring the costs that future generations will have to pay for dealing with the hazardous materials in our electronics and appliances that we simply throw in the trash with an "out of sight/out of mind" mentality.

We've become a culture driven by convenience-driven solutions that makes our life easier, and more convenient with less immediate cost. These are the criteria for our human-centeredness, and it is within this context that business-minds continue to frame opportunities for innovation. But the real opportunity for innovation comes not from within existing paradigms, but from challenging the paradigm itself.

How then, might we begin to embrace some of these approaches in our day to day? In the spirit of contemporary research practice, a commonly used technique for drumming up new ideas is found in lateral shifts in thinking. A lateral shift challenges our conventional way of looking at the world. It is a practice that forces us to look at things from a different perspective as a means to provoke new ideas to solve problems and get to "A-HA!" moments.

So what if we shift our thinking beyond human-centered? What if we reframe needs and opportunities across a larger set of stakeholders and conditions? The palette for design opportunity increases significantly.

... Reframe the Client 

Let's suppose we receive a brief from a new potential client.

A global company has come to you for business and design help. The organization's assets are being hit hard, and at alarming rates. Local, national, and international treaties are having minimal impact to help protect these assets. Meanwhile middleman economics and pricing structures keep squeezing capabilities while reaping profits.

On top of all this, this client is increasingly tasked with bearing the brunt of poor waste management and environmental regulations. Costs of remediation are skyrocketing to the point of being economically unrealistic. And reflective of poor inputs, the products and services being produced are consistently failing regulatory accepted levels for toxicity and safety, and the outlook isn't any better as the client finds itself caught in this downward death-spiral of cause and effect.

This client in this case is not a Fortune 100 corporation, but instead the ocean. But what's the value you ask? Well, here are a few "value-add" services it provides. It harbors the base of our food chain, absorbs around 30 percent of the carbon we humans pump out, and is one of the most developed barometers by which we can measure our impact on this planet. The social and environmental consequences of neglecting the influence we have on our water system outweighs any corporations spreadsheet accounting, and if it were to rise (as it's expected to do) due to melting of remaining Arctic and Antarctic ice, huge populations and cities will be forced to move, or spend enormous amounts on infrastructure to deal with this issue. Clearly the ocean can't write a check to pay for consulting services, but to neglect our duty to realize the costs these impacts in our accounting is either arrogant or naive. You choose.

... Reframe the Problem

So let's look then at how we might start framing problems.

Let's not call them business problems. Let's not call them human centered. Instead, let's focus on opportunities in the context of things we know are bad (and getting worse) in the context of our larger environment's capacity to support us.

Let's say we take on the ocean as if it were a client.

Cursory research discloses some startling news and statistics:

1.    Global phenomenon of dead areas resulting from fertilizer runoff
2.    The tides still present a viable option as a "motor/engine"
3.    Ocean captures 30 percent of carbon emissions and rising toxicity levels present an ever-increasing threat. Question for all you risk-managers our there: What is the cost of dropping bottom out of our food chain?
4.    Mercury levels have poisoned many species of fish to the point that they are too toxic for regular human consumption.
5.    The human dumping of trash has created a virtual floating trash "island" nearly twice the size of Texas, which has collected via the natural swirling currents in the middle of the Pacific.

The carcass of an albatross on a beach and the rubbish the bird consumed. Birds and sea mammals mistake plastics for food, then starve to death.
Photo courtesy

This approach gives us a new set of rules to reframe stakeholders and to challenge our thinking.

... Reframe the Users

Another way to discover new opportunities is to expand and challenge our definition of stakeholders. Let's go back to the example of the Pacific trash vortex. In this magical plastic flotilla, the ratio of plastic-to-phytoplankton is 6:1. Phytoplankton represents the base of the ocean food chain, and like plants on land, uses photosynthesis process to convert CO2 to the oxygen we breathe. In the most polluted areas, reports have recorded ratios of plastic nearly 48:1.

While this sounds shocking (and it is), the real impact story comes in the understanding that in compromising the ocean's phytoplankton, we inherently risk knocking out the base of our food chain and the capability of our oceans to absorb the CO2 we humans are increasingly pushing into the atmosphere. Arguably, the stakeholders that create oxygen and absorb CO2 from our atmosphere are just as vital to our existence and comfort as any other we may currently include in our business calculations.

... Reframe the Opportunities

It follows then, that through these exercises of reframing the problem and redefining stakeholders, we should begin to see unique opportunities evolve away from human-centeredness.

Here is a way for us to be entrepreneurial and, to frame new business opportunities based on the unmet needs of our natural systems -- not just the homo-sapien needs within it. Moreover, this approach takes the long view by solving problems within the context of long-term prosperity and learning.

In this context, insights emerge as pieces of a new puzzle. Opportunities rest within our abilities to combine them in new ways. In our "ocean-as-client" example we can begin to outline challenges to prompt new solutions:
1.    Fact: A trash vortex exists in the Pacific.
     Insight: We know where trash travels via natural ocean currents.
2.    Fact: Phytoplankton is the foundation of the marine food chain, and it can influence earth's climate through CO2 absorption.
     Insight: Ability to generate phytoplankton may help reduce oceanic CO2 levels.
3.    Fact: Energy reduction is a key area of focus from buildings to transportation to smart grid development.
     Insight: Today's solutions require a sharp look at methods of designing net-zero or net-positive energy scenarios.
4.    Fact: The U.S. market for carbon trading is projected to grow to $1 trillion in the next decade.
     Insight: There is opportunity to take advantage of financial incentives that promote carbon capture and sequestration at current and future trading prices.

Albatross Photo -- Courtesy of

Let's illustrate this as potential within the context of our ocean's needs.

From the short list of these big issues, we can start to establish needs and some rudimentary insights that inform creative concepts to meet those needs.

A Conceptual Solution: What If?

In the spirit of those who envisioned flight, or space travel, or diving to the bottom of the sea, how might we soundly embrace a new way of driving discovery. In the spirit of all of you who have looked at the way things are and deduced that there's got to be a better way, let's explore new ideas.

Conceptually, the stage is set with what we're designing toward. The insights from our ocean-as-client example lead us to ask -- "How might we?" and "What if?" Sure, there's no silver bullet. And just like in today's business landscape, some solutions will be incredibly successful, and others will fail. But that doesn't stop the entrepreneurial spirit from drumming up new ideas every day.

We know there's a present day market for carbon, and projections are that the price of carbon will rise. We know that we have an energy-free transportation source in the Pacific currents that will carry a floating object from the West Coast of the United States and eventually place it in the middle of the Pacific. We know that there are billions being pumped into carbon sequestration and scrubbing technologies. These are all ingredients from which we can bake a new business pie.

{related_content}What if we could envision floating phytoplankton flotillas/farms at scale? Think of them as floating carbon sponge factories, launched across various locations throughout the world, knowing exactly where they will eventually end up. No power needed to propel them. Solar, tide, and wind technologies could be utilized to power tracking and safety onboard devices.

Economically, just as agriculture is subsidized, governments could assist in start-up costs while forward-looking firms seize the opportunity to trade the carbon offset credits in already existing markets. Perhaps the units are privately owned; perhaps NOAA maintains them.

The details of the business plan become the new design challenge, and the nature of the solution is ground breaking. We've framed problems through new perspectives and generated a conceptual solution that creates economic wealth outside of the default consumption-based economic model. The opportunities are out there, and they are massive.

And if necessity is truly the mother of all invention, then the time has come for those who can look to the future and see new opportunities, and design solutions that truly make the world a better place.

Eric Wilmot has a background in industrial design, architecture and business innovation. A writer, teacher and a consultant, he helps leading brands and innovation firms on issues of sustainable product and service development and brand strategy.

Image Credits
Charts/Diagrams  -- Courtesy of Eric Wilmot
Albatross Photo -- Courtesy of
Shoppers Photo -- CC licensed by Flickr user
Chor Ip 



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