Reframing our Consumer-Based Economy
Professor Eric Wilmot Challenges “Human-Centered” Design
By Eric Wilmot
Issue 2 Winter 2009
The Shift from Human-Centered to Resource-Centered Design
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 have given rise to a challenge — does our economy need to be solely focused on spurring consumption in order to survive?
The modern green response to these new environmental and social pressures attempt to make things better through new or altered methods of consumption. We have seen an explosion of proposed solutions ranging from recycled paper, hybrid cars, green cleaning products and energy-efficient electronics as purported solutions. This, unfortunately, is flawed logic — digging slower will not stop a hole from getting deeper. There is incredible economic opportunity if we learn to re-frame problems, seize opportunities and design solutions by looking beyond the consumption-oriented economic model. The solution lies in how we think as consumers instead of solely on what we consume.
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 wellbeing of our economy is not separate from the health of our natural resources. Globalization took hold after World War II, with the goal of integrating global powers for shared economic security. The 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.
While businesses circles slowly recognize the need to adopt environmental and social issues into their corporate policies, the solutions continue to be framed through the lens of consumption. We develop new solutions using the same model that created these complex ecological problems. As designers we should focus on the product lifecycle vs. just on the immediate product itself.
Taking a “triple bottom line” (i.e., economic, social, environmental) approach, how might we start to discover new opportunities that generate wealth without destroying our planet? How might we frame problems to provide more holistically responsible solutions that will continue to drive economic growth?
By placing human needs at the center of the equation, we inherently place our 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.
To Err Is Human-Centered
To understand where we need to go, it is important to understand how we got here. Contemporary design and marketing practices have emphasized “human-centered-ness”. 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 system. 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.”1 Human-centered does not have to be antithetical to a triple bottom line approach. As designers we need to drive the change in thinking and create a new paradigm.
Breakthroughs and Paradigms
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 what we consume.2 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.
This concept of true pricing has been presented by pioneers like Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, Janine Benyus, Ray Anderson, William McDonough and others 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.
From Human-Centered to Resource-Centered Design
By placing human 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.
The impacts of our short-term mindset should be obvious, yet we still struggle with defining sustainability in the context of an economy that is 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. Taking a long-term approach is not mutually exclusive from developing what is good for the planet and for us. Resource-centered design is based on sets of concentric circles, where we develop products that provide long-term benefits to our ecosystem and meet our immediate needs.
As consumers, we are used to buying products from distant places, in parts of the world that most of us will never see. We buy foods with an increasingly disparate understanding of where that food comes from, or whether it is even healthy for us. And in our pricing models, we have eliminated the true ecosystem costs for many of the things we use.
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 and in our thinking about the product.
Similarly, built into the price of most consumer products are the costs of making the widget. However, we ignore the costs that future generations will have to pay to deal with hazardous materials leaching into the landfill soil. A perfect example of an “out of sight — out of mind” mentality. When designing products, we should consider the materials; their immediate use, their long-term use and their after use.
We have become a culture driven by convenience-driven solutions that make our lives easier 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 developing 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 “AH 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
Suppose we receive a brief from a new potential client:
A global company requests your 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.
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
The client in this case is not a Fortune 100 corporation, but instead, the Ocean. It harbors the base of our food chain, absorbs around 30% 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 outweigh any corporation’s spreadsheet accounting. And if it were to rise (as is expected) due to melting of remaining Arctic and Antarctic ice, huge populations and cities will be forced to move or spend enormous amounts on infrastructure. Clearly, the Ocean cannot write a check to pay for consulting services, but to neglect our duty to realize the costs these impacts have in our accounting is either arrogant or naive.
The human dumping of waste 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.
Reframe the Opportunities
Let us look at how we might start framing challenges as business problems rather than approaching them from a human-centered perspective. Let us create opportunities by redesigning our human-centered products and industries so that they respect our environment’s capacity to support us. We will consider the Ocean as if it were a client. Cursory research discloses some startling news and statistics:
1. The global phenomenon of dead-zones is growing as a result of fertilizer run-off.
2. The tides present a viable option as a “motor/engine.”
3. Ocean captures 30% of carbon emissions and rising toxicity levels present an ever-increasing threat. What is the cost of dropping the 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 waste 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.
This approach gives us a new set of rules to reframe stakeholders and to challenge our thinking.
Reframe the Consumers
Another way to discover new opportunities is to expand and challenge our definition of stakeholders. In the example of the Pacific trash vortex, this magical plastic flotilla has a ratio of plastic-to-phytoplankton of 6:1. Phytoplankton represents the base of the ocean food chain, and like plants on land, uses the photosynthesis process to convert CO2 to the oxygen we breathe. In the most polluted areas, reports have recorded ratios of plastic-to-phytoplankton at 48:1. While this sounds shocking (and it is), the real impact story comes in the understanding that in compromising the oceans 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 who 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 Strategies
It follows then, that through these exercises of reframing the opportunities and redefining stakeholders, we should begin to see unique strategies to employ, moving away from human-centeredness. Here then 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 sapiens’ needs within it. Moreover, this approach of solving problems bolsters 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.
Let us illustrate this as potential within the context of our client’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? We believe that there must be a better way; we need to explore new ideas.
Conceptually, we have re-imagined the direction of design. The insights from our “Ocean-as-Client” example lead us to ask — “how might we?” and “what if?” Sure, there is no silver bullet. And just like in business, some solutions will be incredibly successful, and others will fail. But that does not stop the entrepreneurial spirit from developing new ideas every day.
We know there is 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.
What if we could envision floating phytoplankton flotillas/farms at scale? Think of them as floating carbon sponge factories launched throughout the world. No power needed to propel them; solar, tide and wind technologies could be utilized to power tracking and safety onboard devices. (See the gallery above for a visual depiction.)
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, or perhaps NOAA maintains them. The details of the business plan become the new design challenge, and the nature of the solution is groundbreaking. We have 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. 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 make the world a better place.
About the Author:
Eric Wilmot has a background in industrial design, architecture and business innovation. A writer, teacher and consultant, he helps leading brands and innovation firms on issues of sustainable product and service development and brand strategy. Eric has co-taught the Design Management course for the Pratt Design Management Program. He lives in New York.
> Ecological Load Factor (ELF) in brief at What-if-Concepts.blogspot.com
> Esslinger’s slide presentation on ELF is available on SlideShare.com
> Tools for creative reframing available at MindTools.com
1. Norman, Don. Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful. Interactions Magazine, 2005.
2. Esslinger, Hartmut. A Fine Line: How Design Strategies are Shaping the Future of Business. Jossey-Bass, 2009.
> Read about how Patagonia chronicles the footprint of their products.