Designing for Zero

Designing for Zero

I thought "zero waste" was pretty radical. Now I'm hearing about "zero footprint." What's that, and what's next?

Zero waste -- "or damn close," as Gary Liss puts it -- is an increasingly common rallying cry, originally among NGOs, increasingly among cities (we've just been working with Gary on a zero waste plan for Palo Alto, Calif.), and beginning to show up on the radar of more companies.

I don't know who gets credit for launching the meme: whether it was a series of New Zealand cities adopting what eventually became a national goal, or Dupont's bold commitment in the mid-1990s (which their CFO will tell you was a good business decision, as well as a good environmental decision.)

A big next step: zero footprint housing and communities, like England's BedZed, with a goal of using no more energy or water than what falls on the site, and nothing non-beneficial leave the site.

What's next? I say: Design for Zero.

"Design for Environment" is a fine idea, but (like Lily Tomlin's character in The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, who mused "I always wanted to be somebody; maybe I should have been more specific!") let's be more specific about "design for," beyond even design for recylability and manufacturability and disassembly. Since "design" is always a process of creating things and processes that meet stated "conditions of satisfaction" or design constraints," it's helpful to be clear about what those conditions and constraints want to be: zero waste (or zero non-product), zero net carbon emissions, zero toxics, zero injuries, zero defects, zero runoff.

Impossible? of course not. Difficult? No doubt. But that's exactly where innovation gets interesting: clear specification of the parameters for breakthrough, and then small steps and large leaps in that direction. You may not get there, but you certainly won't if you never ask.

As I wrote in "What is it about 'zero waste?'":
Here's the good news: The technical challenges of sustainability are relatively straightforward, if the problem is framed correctly -- and "zero," as Dupont and others are finding, provides an unusually clear and powerful frame.

Here's the bad news: People need to change their fundamental thinking about these problems, and that's not as straightforward. In fact if you've ever tried to change a habit of your own - much less someone else's- you know how hard it can be.

* * * * *

Got A Question?
Send your questions about environmental management issues to Exper[email protected]
We can't guarantee that we'll answer every question, but we'll try.

Want more "Ask the Experts"? Visit our archive.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is president and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc. -- offering advisory services and tools that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise. Sign up online to receive his monthly column via email. Read Gil's blog here.