Lego minifig character holding the 'Ctrl' key from a laptop keyboard
Business 2.0, Design, Sustainability

Finding momentum towards urban energy savings

Implicit in my recent series of posts is that the structural barriers won’t or can’t be addressed. Of course, wins of this manner/magnitude can have huge flow-on effects. So working towards addressing these remains critical and important. For example, if:

  • New building stock had sustainability as a key criteria
  • Buildings had smart meters that provided timely data to residents
  • Open data became the norm for energy usage information (i.e. system interoperability, with due security measures to ensure privacy etc.) that enabled individuals to use a variety of toolsets or “migrate” their data between systems
  • Strata managers and owners’ corporations took active steps to make operations more efficient, save money, and introduce generation capacity where suitable
  • Residents are empowered to have a more active voice in moving strata managers and owners’ corporations to express their values, whether they be owners or renters

Then we would be in a much better place—literally.

However, regardless of if this is possible, it’s going to take time. And in the meantime, what can residents do? Do they just throw their arms in the air and say “I can’t do anything (meaningful)?” Or are their options that the can exercise? Continue reading

Diagram outlining a hierarchy of attributes for a minimum viable product
Business 2.0, Design

The role of delight in a Minimum Viable Product

A few weeks back a brief post from our friend Adrian @ Pure and Applied rekindled some previous thinking about the idea of a Minimum Viable Product.

(Vladimir Blagojevic has created a terrific introduction/guide to Minimum Viable Products for those that aren’t familiar with the term.)

Adrian’s post pointed to a wonderful diagram by Jussi Pasadena (@jopas)—an adapted version of this diagram is included at the top of this post—about what I think is a common misconception as to what a Minimum Viable Product is, focusing too heavily on the basic functional building blocks of a product or service offering.

I’ve previously termed this idea as the Minimum Inspiring Product. Other’s have circled around this same concept with different terminology: Minimum Lovable Product, Minimum Delightful Product etc. In essence, I think we’re largely referring to the same thing—that while it’s critically important not to get carried away with overbuilding, it is important to include in a product or service elements that delight. Continue reading

Business 2.0, Design, Sustainability

Mind the gap

In the time I’ve been actively engaged in business sustainability, I’ve noticed that report after study after survey that shows that a majority of customers have environmental and social considerations at the forefront of their mind when making purchases. For example, this 2008 McKinsey report (free registration required to read article) highlights that “87% of consumers worry about the environmental and social impact of the products they buy”. In the Australian context, research carried out by NetBalance for the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) reports “80% consider sustainability issues when putting products in their shopping trolleys”.

Diagram outlining intention vs. action

Yet this latent desire to make ethical choices in purchasing is also shown to be missing in action, outside of a significant minority. The same McKinsey report suggests 33% make such purchase decisions (which is similar to other reports I’ve read) and the AFGC finds that only 13% of Australians buy environmentally-sustainable food and groceries from the supermarket (as an aside: this figure seems low — I’ve seen other statistics that show organic produce as being much more prevalent than this, and that these purchases would be considered “environmentally-sustainable” — something to look into further).  Trendwatching place these figures at 40% and 4% respectively (based on Journal of Marketing data).

In considering this gap, we find many stated reasons as to why intention isn’t translating into action. Most commonly cited is price — reports I’ve read (coupled with my own experience) suggest that customers aren’t willing to spend more than a 5-10% premium for “green” products, if they are willing to spend more at all. And of course products with a price premium were much more likely to feel the pinch of changing economic circumstances.

But there is more to it than that — performance is another, where “green” products are seen as inferior to mainstream products. As Joel Makower asks, why does “green” not equal “better”?  Convenience is another factor, with limited availability of green options through mainstream channels (e.g. mainstream retailers, such as Coles or Woolworths here in Australia). Each of these is noted in both the McKinsey and AFGC summaries — and each is weighted against the environmental or social benefits of the product when making a decision. The AFGC report notes that only a small number will compromise on cost or convenience for environmental factors.

So what to do? We could try to change people’s priorities, to get them to change the weighting the put on each of these factors. I suspect this won’t get very far though… As I noted in my Web Directions South presentation, a lot of successful social innovations aim to actually flip the equation — to make the more sustainable option also cheaper, or more convenient, or have better performance, rather than forcing this kind of trade-off.  Companies leading in the Collaborative Consumption space often fit this category.  Trendwatching call such products Eco-superior or Eco-easy.

Bridging the gap

But why aren’t more companies doing this? Why aren’t there more products like this in the market? I think part of the challenge is that when companies are considering sustainability factors in their products, they focus on specific attributes of products, rather than thinking more holistically. What this means is that their consideration only extends as far as lessening the impact of certain ingredients — e.g. substituting an eco-friendly alternative as a key material or ingredient in a product.

Often this results in a more expensive product that doesn’t perform as well as the mainstream alternative. But more importantly, I think it misses the bigger opportunities of taking a sustainable approach to business – the kind of opportunities outlined by leading thinkers like Makower, Gil Friend, Paul Hawken and William McDonough.

These opportunities require a more holistic approach that considers the broader context in which a product or service exists. In Natural Capitalism, Hawken, Lovins & Lovins call this “whole of systems thinking”.

For those familiar with design thinking or service design approaches, this will be a familiar theme — core to these practices is assembling multi-disciplinary teams that take a broader contextual view (informed by design research) to uncover opportunities for rethinking the role of organisations and the products and services they provide that can create whole new classes of products (or, perhaps more accurately, product service systems).

Diagram outlining how design thinking/service design can connect intention with action

The iPod/iTunes ecosystem is an oft-cited example of the possibilities of rethinking the system, rather than innovating purely on product attributes (while this isn’t explicitly for sustainability benefits, it does demonstrate the concept in practice).

In Blue Ocean Strategy, authors Kim and Mauborgne suggest a similar approach in their guide to formulating a successful product/business strategy. They reference this as an opportunity for innovation — without considering sustainability as a factor. However, it seems clear to me that the same principles are at work in books like Cradle to Cradle and Natural Capitalism, and are also cited in papers on design thinking in business (as I covered in more detail in my paper on Design Thinking and Sustainability).

This, I believe, is where design thinking and service design can play an enormously positive role in progressing sustainability. As it inherently takes an innovation frame, it is appealing to business. However, the opportunities for including the building of social capital and environmental benefits in the broader contextual frame of reference are huge — creating significant wins for business and society simultaneously.

Business 2.0, Design, Social media & networking, Sustainability

Participatory Design Conference 2010

As I hope is obvious from our work and the posts on this site, we’re very passionate about engaging people in the process of design, so we were  delighted to be able to contribute a small something to the participatory design community as a sponsor of the Participatory Design Conference for 2010, being held in Sydney (in part co-ordinated by our friend and colleague @pennyhagen).

The “prototype” programme is now up, and it’s looking like it’s going to be a great set of sessions.  And the industry day seems like a great opportunity for those of us in the design field to connect with the academic world of participatory design.  I know that I’ve certainly benefited tremendously from the academic literature on the topic (esp. during the preparation of my recent paper), so am looking forward to more cross-pollination of ideas at the conference…

Design, Sustainability

Report on design thinking and sustainability

Posting has been light here the past few weeks, partly due to most of my writing energy being focused on my project report on Design thinking and sustainability (PDF 1.5MB), my first major assessment for the Master of Sustainable Practice postgraduate degree I’m currently undertaking at RMIT.

The summary of the report is:

Media coverage of the impact of ʻdesign thinkingʼ – also described as ʻhuman-centred designʼ or ʻservice designʼ, among other terms – on business and society seems to be on the increase, with much of the discussion focusing on its application to innovation practice.

Simultaneously, the need for business and public services to integrate socially and environmentally sustainable practices is becoming more urgent and important to address pressing issues such as climate change, resource scarcity, environmental degradation and growing social challenges and perceived deterioration of community.

This paper briefly explores the impacts of design on business before providing a working definition and overview of the key themes of design thinking. It then outlines commonly recognised environmentally-focused sustainable design principles and considers how design thinking could be applied in support of these.

Although a (non-exhaustive) review of specific examples of design thinking applied to environmentally sustainable objectives was undertaken in preparation of this paper, such examples are relatively few. As such, while specific examples are touched upon, the primary focus of the paper is on the potential application of design thinking in this context.

While academic in tone (it is a uni assessment after all) and relatively long (20+ pages), I thought it might be of interest to some readers of this blog given the topic/focus.

As is often the case with this sort of things there are elements I’d improve/extend if I had more time – particularly I’d like to provide more than just passing comment to the link between sustainability and innovation – but I do hope the result provokes some interesting and beneficial dialogue.

I’d also like to publicly thank the following folks for their support through inspiration, conversation, experience and pointers to examples and resources before and during the preparation of the paper: