IF11: How to Avoid 3 Common Pitfalls in Sustainability Initiatives

IF11: How to Avoid 3 Common Pitfalls in Sustainability Initiatives

"The most important thing about sustainability is that it is not captured in a thing -- it is captured in the experience people want to have," said Beto Lopez of the innovative design firm IDEO.

Lopez, who is a senior product designer at IDEO and the company's global sustainability lead, talked about the pitfalls that can undermine sustainability initiatives -- and offered advice on how to avoid such snares -- at the GreenBiz Innovation Forum.

The three most common pitfalls, he said, are that people fail to recognize:

1. We try to manage our impact, instead of trying to understand how it will shape or change us.

2. We forget how much desirable experiences can drive the scale of our impacts.

3. It's not the green things we say, rather it's what customers already think, that shapes our purpose.

In outlining the snags, Lopez offered a different way to view both sustainability and innovation. That view reflected IDEO's philosophy of using a "human-centered, design-based" approach to its work.

Building on the idea that sustainability is embodied in experience, Lopez said, "Sustainability is a verb, not a noun, it's something you do ... and you keep doing it."

As for innovation, "a lot of times people get mired in their effectiveness to create products and don't really realize that consumers are dynamic," he said, adding that how consumers want to experience world and what they use to do that constantly changes.

Consider, Lopez suggested, how telephones have changed the way we experience communication. Once bulky, wall-mounted units that required operators to complete connections, phones are now mini personal computers that can be slipped into a shirt pocket and used anywhere the device can pick up a signal.

Before telephones, he said, "we had letters, and before that we had face-to-face conversations that people traveled long distances for on horses. The experience is what matters. The communication is what was driving the technology."

With that as a prelude, Lopez explored each of the pitfalls and offered insights on each point:

1. We try to manage our impact, instead of trying to understand how it will shape or change us.

The constraints that sustainability issues and goals place on innovation are often perceived as being negative. But Lopez and his colleagues consider such constraints assets rather than disadvantages.

"Innovation needs constraints to diverge," he said. "It's actually very important for the design process. It gives us an understanding of how we can explore the space. If you give someone $100,000, and say, 'Make something,' you don't know what you're going to get. If you say, 'Here's $100,000 make a jet airplane.' They'll make a very effective jet airplane."

2. We forget how much desirable experiences can drive the scale of our impacts.

"If you can make an experience desirable, that is a way to scale activity to create change; a user's [positive] experience can drive big change," Lopez said.

He pointed to insulin injections for treating advanced cases of Type 2 diabetes as an example. "The needle is big ... the experience is terrible," he said. But if at some earlier point in the diabetic's treatment, management of the disease was  accomplished in a more engaging, positive manner, then the need for insulin could be averted or at least deferred until much later.

A systems understanding of situations also can affect the scale and rate of change, Lopez said.

3. It's not the green things we say, rather it's what customers already think, that shapes our purpose.

This point underscores the need to understand what people want, value and would like to experience in order to successfully integrate sustainability into a solution or a product.

As studies have shown, when it comes to sustainability or green products, "consumers don't always do what they say or say what they think," Lopez noted.

For example, he said, "most parents who choose green stuff for their kids, just want to be better parents, not green ones." Understanding that desire brings an understanding of how to leverage sustainability into designs for products or solutions.

Lopez also reminded the audience of the importance of establishing trust.

"Consumers will never know as much as you do about a product," he said, which means "buyers will be skeptical."

"Quality becomes the issue," he continued. And the way to address that is to provide quality and create trust with consumers by also providing the experience they wish to have.

We advocate for people's experience," Lopez said. "You have to understand the human narrative. What is the experience you want to deliver?"

Photo by Goodwin Ogbuehi for GreenBiz Group.