I was recently reminded of this quote from designer and educator, Allan Chochinov, from his 1000 Words on design.
“[Designers] think we are in the artifact business, but we are not; we’re in the consequence business.”
What attracted me to the field of design was the scalability and potential impact of that scalability. But as I got deeper into the field of design, it became clear to me that that scalability can also be terrifying. Because when a designer designs, it’s not just a one-up. If that thing goes into production, distribution, and sales, then that thing scales and makes an impact on the environment and culture. We have to be better about thinking that through. Because what we design has consequences.
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Read Chochinov’s 1000 Words here
Jessi Baker is a technologist, designer, and founder of Provenance, a European startup that uses blockchain to track supply chain of products. Why is this kind of system valuable? It’s valuable for product companies in that it can help streamline supply chain issues. But more important, it’s valuable for customers who want transparency on where and how the companies they buy from source their materials.
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The Sustainable Supply Chain. HBR, 2010.
Sustainability in Supply Chains. McKinsey, 2016.
Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology. Its killer feature is that it enables decentralized transactions. Example: You may have heard of Bitcoin. Bitcoin uses blockchain technology to facilitate financial transactions without banks.
There are blockchain experiments in journalism, like civil, that are exploring new business models in a field whose hierarchy was disrupted by the internet. There are experiments happening in about every sector: transportation, education, healthcare. If the internet disrupted command and control systems, then Blockchain, and it’s decentralized model, promises to be the solution to that disruption.
One application of that excites me is blockchains potential to track the social and environmental ethics that are embedded in supply chains. There’s a model in sustainable product design called “Life Cycle Assessment” or LCA. LCA can be used to measure the environmental and social impact of products and industrial systems. There are a lot of variations of LCA, but to give you a broad sense of what it tracks, we might look at the social and environmental impacts of how the raw materials for a gadget were mined; how they were manufactured; distributed; used; and in the end, reclaimed or recycled.
As you can imagine, one of the challenges in communicating LCA to decision makers (consumers, citizens, or policy makers) is that there’s a lot of variation in what and how things are measured with LCA models. The lack of universal standards is often pointed to as a challenge. But blockchain might turn that challenge into an opportunity. How might blockchain LCA be more dynamic and thus more appropriate for decision-makers? For example, in California a decision-maker might want to put more weight on how much water is wasted in a product’s LCA. Yet in upstate New York, where water is plentiful, this data point might carry less weight. Blockchain can accommodate this fine-tuning. Which can be scary if used to manufacture alternative facts. But can be quite powerful if used to make the social and environmental costs of products more visible than they are now.
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From diamonds to recycling: how blockchain can drive responsible and ethical businesses
How a Seattle startup is using blockchain and virtual reality to upend the global coffee market
This is the title of a 2014 post by Inventor Sun Tianqi. In the post he asks the question: What if plants had more control over their behavior? He explores answers to this question in his robotoc and AI work. Hexa robot pictured above. See it in action here
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The Plantoid Project
When technology is taught out of context, it can only get us so far. But when we pair it with disciplines that teach effective methods for intentional change, then we can make the world better. Here are a few pairings:
- Technology + Design. Students learn to empathize with users and to employ design processes to develop solutions that give their users super-powers.
- Technology + Sustainability. Students learn models for human, biological, and ecological systems and to identify and leverage points in a system for positive change.
- Technology + Entrepreneurship. Students learn how to create and test business models and use that knowledge to inform their product development process and launch.
- Technology + Leadership. Students learn how to navigate fear, set goals, build highly functional teams, and develop trusting relationships as they work on technology projects.
What other pairings might we explore?
Designing for individuals is a deeply rooted practice in our culture. When Keeping up with the Joneses is a major concern for customers, designers and advertisers exploit that. And while it’s certainly necessary for some products, it should no longer be the default.
Media theorist Douglass Rushkoff tells an interesting story about urban vs suburban design. When he was a kid growing up in the Bronx, folks in the neighborhood would gather on the street every Friday evening for a bbq and a block party. Each person would bring a dish or something for the grill. They’d bring music or games and it was a great time. But when his folks moved the family out to Long Island, no more block parties. Each house had a fenced-in yard equipped with its very own bbq cooker.
“Design for individuals” influences how we connect with one another. For example, I have a newish car with a real-time average MPG gauge on my dashboard. I track it and lighten my foot on the gas pedal to burn less fuel. It’s kind of fun, like a video game. But the driver behind me has no idea what I’m doing. They think I’m just driving slow and they are annoyed with me. But what if the design of my MPG gauge weren’t for my eyes only, but for the cars and drivers around me (displayed on my rear window or something). Then they’d be in the game too. The could use my gauge to burn less fuel in their cars. This public visualization of real-time behavior would help us work toward a common goal.
More consumer technology should be designed for community. More design should help people engage in, and get feedback on, collective positive impact. We have the technology. Let’s use it to its full potential.
There are many examples of turning old things into new things. Sometimes this transformation takes a lot of processing (like turning soda bottles into performance gear) and other times just a little (like turning a milk carton into a birdhouse). This process above by designer Kodai Iwamoto is right in between. Old pipe is cut to size, heated, blown into a mold, and released. The results are gorgeous with the shape and function of something new while maintaining visual artifacts that signal the object’s past.
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Making a Noguchi Lamp
Yesterday I went to a kick-off meeting with a new group that I’m working with. I was excited as we went around the room and introduced ourselves because it was clear that the project organizers had put significant effort into gathering a diverse set of people for this group. Yet as we started to dig into the work at hand, I quickly saw how challenging it is to have that range of voices in the room.
The meeting organizer impressed me when he paused the group to say, ‘We’ve gathered this team with this wide range of perspectives because we want push-back. We want reality checks. We want debate. Radical honesty and transparency is necessary for the success of this complex project that we are taking on.’
I agree with my whole heart. Yet, I recognize how challenging it will be to mediate that diversity. It’s a lot of work. It’s hard work. Thankfully there are many models that help us navigate complexity. Roger Martin’s Creating Great Choices is one model that works well (when faced with a seemingly either/or decision, explore alternative solutions that challenge and resolve that false dichotomy).
So this diverse group is in good hands. I appreciate how the meeting organizer explicitly stated the importance of diversity to the project. This transparency, along with the clear project scope and deadline that we have been tasked with, positions us to explore a wide range of solutions and equips us with tools for making smart decisions.
I’ve been working on an illustration of a poppy. I chose the subject somewhat randomly. But as I was drawing yesterday I started to ask myself why I’m drawn to poppies.
It’s because they are a symbol of seemingly impossible resilience. The flower is large and bright and spreads it’s paper-thin petals widely. And all of that sits on top of a long, thin, and winding stem. A poppy appears to be delicate and barely balanced, but if you’ve had poppies in your yard, then you know that they can take quite a beating and still stand tall.
I don’t know anything about their biological and mechanical makeup, but I’m guessing that poppies have just the right material and structure in just the right places–the places that take the most stress in a storm. This is resilience.
Our lizard brains tell us that we need to build walls around a system to protect it. Walls keep out the bad stuff. But they keep out the good stuff, too. So let’s think beyond walls to identify the pressure points where a system is likely to break then design flexibility and resilience into those points.
The work of modernist designer Dieter Rams is the inspiration for many products today most notably Apple products. The modernists strove for “timelessness” in their designs so it comes as no surprise that Rams’s visuals hold up.
But for Rams and his contemporaries, timelessness was more than just a look. It was about durability. They believed in high-quality products that lasted a lifetime. Throughout his career, Rams lamented the wastefulness that he saw around him. From a talk in New York in 1976:
“I imagine our current situation will cause future generations to shudder at the thoughtlessness in the way in which we today fill our homes, our cities and our landscape with a chaos of assorted junk.”
Indeed. Rams’s values about wastefulness and sustainable design have only grown stronger. I like to imagine him leading a consumer electronics team today. Surely he wouldn’t stand for the disposability that is designed into today’s electronics. As a systems thinker who cares about the consequences of the choices that designers make, he’d find a timeless solution. Not only one that looks beautiful, but one that gets better with age.
For more of Rams’s thoughts on sustainable design, read this interview from 2015: If I Could Do It Again, I Would Not Want To Be A Designer