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Design Is the Problem – Nathan Shedroff April 8, 2012

Posted by Arthur Che in Systems Thinking, Uncategorized.

Design is the Problem cover

Design Is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable by Nathan Shedroff is a comprehensive account of sustainability in the context of design. Above all, it demonstrates the responsibility designers carry and the opportunity that they have to craft a more sustainable world.

The slightly provocative title reflects a compelling realization that despite good intentions, design has contributed to the unsustainability of the world around us. Designers have often made new things when they weren’t necessary, emphasized low cost over durability, and designed in the name of short-lasting fads, all without sufficiently considering the bigger picture. For example, Shedroff points to the concept of planned obsolescence as an example of complete disregard for sustainability at a strategic level. Shedroff aims to turn this dynamic upside down, and calls for designers to integrate sustainability as a fundamental part of their overall processes. This initial challenge serves as a foundation for the rest of the book.

Shedroff lays out a clear picture of sustainability that clarifies it against vague concepts such as “green” and “eco.” He presents a systems-level perspective that values social and financial implications as much as environmental ones. Designing sustainably is a complex balancing act that requires us to step back, look at different systems, and see how they connect. Of course, this is easier said than done, and Shedroff provides numerous examples where looking at individual products simply isn’t enough. On the surface, paper bags might seem more environmentally friendly than plastic ones because they are biodegradable. However, when you factor in the increased environmental costs of producing and recycling paper bags, along with the significantly higher transportation costs due to weight, the picture becomes much less clear.

From there, Shedroff gives a review of sustainability frameworks, including Natural Capitalism, Cradle to Cradle, Biomimicry, Life Cycle Analysis, the Sustainability Helix, and numerous others. As an aspiring designer with little background in sustainability, I found these summaries extremely useful. Clearly, Shedroff has done his research and chosen a good variety of relevant frameworks from the field. My own work experiences have led me to an arm’s-length understanding that sustainability is important, but I’ve never learned the details and complexities of the topic. The meat of the book is extremely valuable for anyone with a similar lack of experience.

In particular, I was intrigued by the Cradle to Cradle framework (also called “eco-effectiveness”), which espouses a bar for sustainability in which waste actually becomes food for another process. For example, some manufacturing solutions make it possible for factories to output cleaner water than what originally went in. The Biomimicry framework looks at nature (which similarly has no concept of waste – everything is used by something else) as a model for developing better solutions. While the specifics of each individual framework vary quite a bit, together they provide compelling ways to examine societal, environmental, and financial factors and their respective impacts on sustainability as a whole.

DITP032: Figure 3.25

Sustainability frameworks juxtaposed

Shedroff goes on to provide an overview of techniques for increasing sustainability, divided into the categories Reduce (“less is more”), Reuse (increasing durability), Recycle (increasing likelihood of actual recycling, vs. being recyclable), and Restore (making “positive” rather than “zero” impact). As with the frameworks, this section of the book is thorough and well-organized, with excellent examples of each technique throughout.

While some may seem obvious, Shedroff frequently takes concepts a step further. For example, Shedroff uses the iPhone as an example of dematerialization, the idea of reducing materials and energy in our design solutions. Indeed, Apple has clearly stripped materials to the bare minimum from product to packaging, but Shedroff also points out that the iPhone has dematerialized other products entirely by combining the mobile phone with an audio player, PDA, digital camera, GPS device, watch, and e-reader. Integrating these together (and allowing people to have 1 device rather than 7) has an even greater impact on sustainability than the reduced physical materials of the actual iPhone.

DITP039: Figure 5.4

The iPhone - 7 devices in 1

Finally, in the last section of the book, Shedroff lays out a strategic innovation process and discusses how designers can bring sustainability into their organizations. The process is logical and well laid-out, and it reflects many of the ideas we’ve been learning about in class.

DITP068: Figure 16.1

Shedroff's Strategic Innovation Process

The biggest takeaway for me in the process model is the separation (and interdependence) of the corporate strategy and product/service phases. Shedroff convincingly argues that the development of corporate strategy is where sustainable thinking can make the biggest impact. It is during this phase that an organization really decides what it wants to be and how it wants to function. For a sustainable mindset to truly take hold, it must be considered by leadership at the highest strategic levels. I think one issue Shedroff could address further is the challenge of convincing other stakeholders.  Still, the model provides a guide for how sustainability can be addressed, and uses concepts such as diverging/converging and leveraging multi-disciplinary expertise to get there.

Meanwhile, the product/service development phase is critical for executing on the established strategy. Shedroff does a great job of mapping different parts of the process to the frameworks and techniques established earlier in the book, giving designers actionable, useful ways to promote more sustainability into their design processes.

Overall, the book provides a thorough set of tools for designers, but also great value to business people, engineers, and anyone else that wants to make a better future. It presents the issues along with directions on where to look for deeper dives. Most importantly, it paints a broad picture of sustainability as a complex interconnection of systems, and demonstrates how it cannot be ignored.


The Story of Stuff April 11, 2011

Posted by dellahuff in Design Thinking, Systems Thinking.

The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard

Review by Della Huff

In The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard walks us through the materials economy step by gory step: the extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of consumer goods, or as Leonard calls it, “Stuff”. In each chapter, Leonard delves into the processes and materials involved in creating our Stuff, illustrates the environmental and social costs created (through a lot of scary data points), and, thankfully, also offers reasons to hope and describes areas which are improving – or at least aren’t worsening – and provides some viable alternatives for our current systems. One thing is for sure: after reading The Story of Stuff, it’s impossible to look at your ‘Stuff’ the same way again.

The book is meant to be a wake-up call, because as Leonard says in the book and in her documentary of the same name, “you cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely”. If we want Earth to remain habitable, we cannot keep extracting its key resources at an accelerating rate and transforming them into disposable Stuff. She shares scary statistics like these:

  • We lose 50,000 acres of trees a day globally to deforestation for the making of our paper, furniture, houses etc.
  • In the U.S., each person uses 200 gallons of water on their lawns per day during the growing season.
  • It takes 256 gallons of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt.
  • The average gold wedding ring creates about 20 tons of hazardous waste.

The book is a intentionally controversial, polarizing, and a shocking. It’s been called “an anti-consumerism diatribe” and even “community college Marxism in a ponytail.” This is because she asks a question that is very unpopular if you are involved with the making, selling, and consumption of Stuff: “Are we consuming too much?” Leonard posits that the world’s economy, ever focused on growth, now depends on consumption at an ever accelerating rate. Because of this, Stuff is made to break, to be thrown away, to pile up in landfills so that companies can sell more Stuff.

To some, this sounds like a conspiracy theory. To others, it sounds like a truth that’s just hard to hear. Many detractors have tried to discredit Leonard’s facts and figures in the Story of Stuff (you’ll find as many detractors as supporters if you google “The Story of Stuff”), but it is very difficult to discredit her basic premise that we are consuming resources at an unsustainable rate.

My biggest takeaway from book was Leonard’s overall approach to the issue of sustainability. Leonard is a systems theorist. While many activists focus on a small part of the consumer goods lifecycle (e.g. fighting strip mining, hazardous waste disposal, or wasteful transportation of goods), Leonard believes that one much understand the entire lifecycle of extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal in order to contextualize each step within the process, and to understand the incentives up and down the value chain that influence each step. Solutions must address each step of this value chain in order to succeed. This spoke to me as a business school student, and I found this to be especially relevant to our study of design: no object, system, or business model can stand alone; each is part of a greater system which must be carefully considered in order to maximize the design’s usability, efficiency, and sustainability. Therefore, the design thinker ignores systems thinking at his/her peril. To ignore the broader ecosystem leads quickly to the design graveyard.

It can be easy to quickly become depressed while reading The Story of Stuff. The data she shares on declining animal species, toxic chemicals in our food, air, and water, formaldehyde in our clothing, and toxins in cosmetics is terrifying. Luckily, it is not all depressing news. At the end of the book, Leonard presents a vision for a better world. So, while The Story of Stuff outlines everything we’re doing wrong, Leonard does her best to show that it is a fixable problem, and that there are alternatives to the consumption cycle that we have developed. She tries to show that we  all have choices in how and what we consume, and that these choices don’t require completely relinquishing our Stuff, but rather adjusting our thinking around it.

As Leonard says, “It’s not like gravity that we just gotta live with. People created it, and we’re people too. So let’s create something new.”

If you’re interested in watching the 20 minute documentary, which has reached over 10,000,000 viewers in over 200 countries, you can watch it on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/storyofstuffproject#p/u/22/9GorqroigqM

You can also check out the eponymous blog at:


Design from nature March 28, 2010

Posted by David Cooperman in Design-related Books, Systems Thinking.

A review of Biomimicry by Janine Benyus

In several of the design lectures I’ve attended over the past few months, the speaker has pointed to the desks and lights and computers in the room and claimed that everything except nature is designed and is thus the domain of the designer. Biomimcry is an ode to the design genius of the natural world and a call to society to make use of the elegant solutions that living things and ecosystems can offer us.

This book makes a strong case for devoting more of our resources to studying biological models for energy generation (photosynthesis), farming (diverse perennials), disease treatment (plant-derived drugs), computing (protein communication), manufacturing (room temperature, non-toxic, and waste-free), and business models (the closed-loop efficiency of a forest). These are big ideas that would cause huge changes in human society. Benyus makes them inspiring and accessible by introducing us to the researchers at the forefront of each of these areas.

As an environmentalist, I found the real beauty of a biomimetic approach to be the following: solutions that work with the planet by design are invaluable as we attempt to reign in our polluting, resource-intensive ways. Biomimicry is thus a powerful approach for sustainable design. Indeed, many of the ideas that Benyus highlights have gained traction in the 13 years since Biomimicry was published. Nanotechnology is now a household word, and books like Cradle to Cradle have further articulated the biomimetic approach to a product’s lifecycle. Most large corporations have completed at least partial lifecycle analyses of their major products. Broad substitution of natural processes and products for petroleum-based synthetics has not occurred, however, pointing to a continued need for expanded biomimetic research.

Benyus presents biomimicry first as an engineering approach. Nature has it figured out when it comes to producing energy, food, houses, medicines, and knowledge storage devices (brains). Re-engineering industrial society in nature’s image is thus a great idea.

She expands her definition of biomimicry to include a deep respect for the natural world as not only a source of knowledge but also as a support system for human society. We can’t just plug in nature’s solutions where they will drive profits. We must also design within nature’s limits and thus away from our oil and coal-fueled, throw-away economy. Only by respecting nature and opening ourselves up to its intricacies and limits will we as designers find truly sustainable solutions.

So how does a designer balance the human user’s needs and wants with the long-term health of the planet? In many cases, as Benyus reports, the models we find in nature are truly elegant solutions for both. Problems arise, however, when biological models conflict with human social and economic systems. For example, the carpet company Interface had to fight an uphill battle to convince customers that it was more sustainable to rent carpet tiles, which would be replaced and recycled if damaged, than to simply purchase carpet. People resist change, and making the switch from human-made industrial products and systems to nature-inspired alternatives will hurt a lot of egos. Harnessing and imitating nature’s ingenuity means admitting that we might not have all the answers, that we might not need to design everything.

And yet nature cannot show us how to navigate human social motivations. We might marvel at redwood forest, but most of us wouldn’t want to live in one. Our aesthetic includes modern architecture and paved cities and chemically supported cornfields. Thus biomimic ‘engineers’ need designers at their sides. A designer’s ability to empathize with users, distill out their needs, and incorporate those into a user experience is essential to adoption of nature’s beautiful design solutions.

At the same time, I think that designers would benefit from reading Biomimicry because it opens the door to nature’s astounding body of work, all of it in place long before humans showed up and decided to make buildings, plastic toys, and computers. Design usually exists in the context of the built environment and the industrial economy. This is where our clients live. This is how we tend to define our profession. Biomimicry (and E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia) shines a light on the appeal of the natural world. We are drawn to that redwood forest, and the designers who can understand that attraction will facilitate the transition to a more sustainable human existence. It is both humbling and inspiring to think about the beauty of nature’s designs and their power to improve society—with our help.

Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows December 15, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Systems Thinking.
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I feel somewhat ripped off after reading this book: its content is so valuable that it’s almost a crime to read it and not spend the next several months unlocking its mysteries. Presented at a fairly high level, Thinking in Systems helps the reader map out systems (defined as interconnected sets of elements coherently organized an ways that achieve something) in an effort to truly diagnose problems, be they societal, business, familial, etc. The author describes the essential elements of any system (stocks, flows, and feedback loops), discusses common system frameworks (renewable vs. non-renewable stocks, competing feedback loops, etc.), and also enumerates numerous system traps that recur again and again (the tragedy of the commons, the drift to low performance, escalation, etc.). The book is so jammed-packed with such frameworks and mnemonics, I felt dizzy when I finished it.

The book is called Thinking in Systems: A Primer for a reason. Meadows does a fine job of helping the reader conceptualize systems and their different parts. But practice is definitely necessary here: it can be harrowing to even start to map out a system in the way she describes: where does one draw the boundaries? How deep should one get? The goal of systems thinking is to accurately depict how systems function, in an effort to rightly describe why certain outcomes happen. The problem is that there are a lot of assumptions that one need make about the amount of detail to map out, the causality and connection between certain elements, the relative importance of others, etc. In some ways there’s a chicken-and-egg problem: to map effectively, you need to know how elements interact, but in many cases system mapping helps you determine how the elements interact. This is where the practice comes in. Meadows does warn us that models are never perfect, and reminds us that one has to start somewhere. One rule of systems thinking is that systems can change over time; we must then be prepared to adjust our own models during the process of their creation.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell December 15, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Outliers, Systems Thinking.
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Gladwell starts off with an interesting premise. Outliers—those with seemingly extraordinary abilities or success—can be explained by looking at the environment in which they were raised, the opportunities they were given to excel, and the amount of time they put into honing their crafts (whatever they may be). He spends most of the book citing examples that fit the theory. The Beatles’ meteoric rise to fame was due in part to the thousands of hours of live playing they did together in Hamburg Germany before they made it big in England. Bill Gates was the fortunate victim of a lot of circumstances that gave him more time on a computer as a young man than almost anyone else alive. Robert Oppenheimer, with a genius-level IQ goes on to run the Manhattan Project, while Chris Langan (who?), also with a remarkable IQ, bounces at a bar in Colorado—the differences apparently due to how much social interaction each was given as a child (the more you have, the better able you are to use influence, which you use to be your advocate). There are a host of observations in the book that seem to prove that if you’re at the right place, at the right time, and have the necessary skills in place to take advantage of the opportunity in front of you, you too will be an outlier.

While I enjoyed the read tremendously, I think it actually posed more questions than it answered. Gladwell has convenient examples that fit his hypothesis; their sum total paints a fairly convincing picture of nurture over nature. I guess I can’t blame him, but there’s very little alternative hypotheses presented for him to disprove to make his own point stronger. There’s a reason he’s considered a “pop sociologist”: guess that’s one of them. Also, retroactively we can look to see why someone became what they did: because of the time they spent honing a craft, the encouragement they received to hone it, the “big break” that allows them to put it into practice. But how do we mold our lives now to make that happen for us? The lynchpin is the big break; and, unfortunately, we may not get it. So, Outliers is not a “how to” manual (although one can glean elements to put into practice), but more of a “how they did” retrospective. Oh well, guess there’s a reason I’m in business school…

How Sanjay Jha Overhauled Motorola’s Culture November 8, 2009

Posted by Admin in Systems Thinking.
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Any prediction of Motorola’s impending resurrection is probably premature.  However, their quarterly results look promising.  This recently published NYT BITS column interviews the new head of the cellphone division, Sanjay Jha, on some of his initiatives.

–Posted on behalf of Tom Lee, UC Berkeley

Henry Blodget on the Financial Collapse October 20, 2009

Posted by Sean Simplicio in Systems Thinking.
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Hey all,

Related to the start of our Systems Thinking section of the course, here’s an interesting take on the origins of the financial collapse, in which the author cites a systemic problem in the financial industry in which the whole is certainly not the sum of its parts.