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Design, Wealth & Solving Problems

I had the pleasure recently of attending and presenting at Compostmodern13, an inspiring design conference. It offered an extensive and thought-provoking range of perspectives on resilience. It also offered a tremendous opportunity to discuss how dMASS strategy can be used in design to build sustainable and resilient businesses, economies, and societies. Prior to the conference, I wrote about wealth, sustainability and resilience, stating that expanding wealth for more people is the critical missing element in most discussions about sustainability and resilience. We cannot achieve sustainability until everyone has a stake in it. Recycling and alternative energy are important ingredients to building sustainability, but they are not enough. Mass poverty leads to global migrations, political instability, and many other issues that distract us from solving our underlying problems.

For me, the question has always been, “What will it take to create enough wealth to include eight billion people in a robust and sustainable economy with a fixed resource base and within environmental constraints?” Many years ago, I learned from Buckminster Fuller that wealth expands with ingenuity, only as more people are actively engaged in identifying and solving important problems.

That is why, for many decades, Fuller urged architects and designers to use their unique skills and take the initiative to solve problems on behalf of all of humanity. He wanted designers to figure out what needed to be done and then do it.

At the conference, fellow speaker Paul Polak echoed this sentiment, pointing out that a vast proportion of designers have been working for the 10 percent of the population whose basic needs are most well met, while so many unmet needs – and corresponding opportunities – exist. Polak is working with innovators around the world, designing new types of multinational corporations that can serve a large portion of the world’s population not presently served by the global economy. They will do this by learning about the needs of this population and finding new ways of solving their problems in the marketplace. The idea is to sell to the more than two billion people who earn less than $2 per day, and become $10 billion companies in the process. Polak helped start one company that deals with water, another that focuses on nutrition, and a third delivering waste management. They all partner with existing shopkeepers and they employ radical technologies and tools (like solar electro-chlorination for clean drinking water). Polak expects these companies to be in 10,000 villages within two years.

There was also an important talk from Terry Irwin, the new Head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon, about moving past 19th century ideas that focused on designing pieces of systems to solve isolated problems, and instead seeing the bigger picture, seeing the world as a single integrated system.  She asked us all to question why we frame problem solving within a reductionist view of the world, and to think about designing for complex systems -- realizing that our designs are part of a larger social, political, and economic fabric.

Finally, I was struck by one of the observations from DESIS founder Ezio Manzini concerning the inherently democratic nature of distributed systems that involve social innovations, or collaborative creation. He argued that people will cease to be passive consumers, accepting whatever is offered, and begin to take the initiative to help create what they want to see created. It's designers solving problems, not necessarily through new science or technologies, but through rearranging relationships and social structures, looking for better ways to do things.

Broadly defined, "design" is the intentional arrangement of information or energy for a desired purpose or outcome.  From this perspective, everyone at the conference, regardless of his or her training or discipline, is a “designer.” The world's innovators, whether in science, architecture, engineering, planning, business, policy, or other fields, are designers. The conference provided a real sense of the emerging roles of all designers: solving real-world problems, and giving people the tools to create what they want, in the ways they want to create it.  To find the people who exhibit new behaviors, and help them shift established patterns of work, buying, and providing services.

The conference left me feeling extraordinarily hopeful. Being in the midst of 500 designers who were willing to take time from their regular work, to use their free time, and to pay to learn how to be more effective at making the world work and making life better for people around the world should be enough to make anyone feel better about the future. It was for me.





Visibility cloak wanted: Understanding the invisible benefits of the economy

The pursuit of a working invisibility cloak - like Harry Potter's - is underway in real life.  Scientists have created a small invisibility cloak that uses metamaterials to divert light and another that uses optical camouflage technology.  But we muggles (for anyone who slept through the last decade, that's Harry Potter's word for ordinary humans) don't really need to make more things invisible - the largest threats we face today are already invisible.  So are the benefits in life.  Modern life is rife with invisible threats.  One way we have managed these threats (in other words, how we have adapted) has been to make them visible.  For example, we have buoys floating in the deep ocean that can alert San Francisco or Los Angeles about a coming tsunami.  Now we need similar innovations to help us perceive invisible economic benefits.  Because when it comes to our economy and to measurement, we are often better at paying attention to what's visible.   

Our economic activity is essentially about survival, about being able to manage risks, stay healthy, and find ways to renew our minds and spirits (recreate).  These are the ends of economic activity, the goals.  But our most important economic indicator, GDP, focuses on the means.  It's easier to measure the monetary value of a car than the benefits that car provides. 

If you have a car, it's probably because it's a tool you can use to get to work, to the doctor's office, to the grocery store, and to your favorite activities.  The value in that car is not in its price tag, it's in its use as a tool for managing risk, maintaining health, and for recreation.  We do need to consider the visible, tangible aspect of the car, but not in the way we are now.  We need to measure its mass.  And then we need to consider the invisible, intangible benefits of that car.  Finally, we need to understand the relationship between the visible and the invisible - between the mass of the tools we use (cars, houses, electronics) and the benefits those tools provide.  Our aim should be to create the most benefit possible with the least mass possible.   

There are several organizations working to illuminate the invisible aspects of our economy and to develop alternative indicators (you can find links to some of them here and here), and more nations are exploring ways to measure well-being.  But we're not quite there.  We need to make the connection between a measure of benefits and an indication of the resources (mass) used to create those benefits.



What is wealth?

What is wealth?  It's a question that's been on my mind a lot lately, and I'm sure on many others. Howard used to ask his Wesleyan and Yale students the question each year, and he kept a record of the responses.  Some version of "plenty of food and water, a house, an education, and a car" always came up first, followed by similar descriptions of material things.

In a New York Times column last year, psychologist Dan Gilbert explored the link between happiness and wealth.  He noted that the idea that money buys happiness is "entirely correct," up to a point.  So you might think that today, when we have more of material things than our grandparents did and "Middle-class Americans still enjoy more luxury than upper-class Americans enjoyed a century earlier," we'd be downright jolly.  But we are in a collective funk.  Depression and sadness are up.  Happiness and smiles are down.

Gilbert points to uncertainty as the cause of our malaise, citing research that has concluded, "human beings find uncertainty more painful than the things they’re uncertain about."  We fret about the Dow going down, but we don't know if it will.  We're more vulnerable to what might happen than what we know will happen.

Howard's students knew what Gilbert was talking about.  After defining wealth with words related to money and material things, they brought up more sophisticated ideas, like "freedom to choose among options for the future" and "security and freedom from fear of losing what you have."

Wealth is indeed about security.  It's the ability to survive for a longer period into the future under a wider range of conditions (a definition that also describes biological adaptation, as Howard notes).  In some conditions, having more material things help us do this.  More is better.  Under other conditions, more material things can actually diminish wealth.  Using more resources can create enough unintended and harmful consequences to reduce our options for the future.

Let's say you buy a house.  It shelters your family from storms and other threats, it provides a place to store food and other goods for some time, it has a water supply, a sanitary method to deal with waste, a heat source to keep you warm, and a power source for light, refrigeration, and other amenities that provide you with all kinds of benefits.  It's also roomy and well appointed.  It's the most house you could afford based on your salary.  Living in it makes you feel pretty rich.  Now let's say you have to take a pay cut or reduce your hours, and you start struggling to pay your water bill or power bill, or to even buy groceries.  Eventually, the whole house is at risk.

If you lose the house, what do you lose in terms of wealth?  The house isn't the wealth.  Wealth stems from the benefits the house provides.  Those benefits don't necessarily have to do with the size of the house or the thickness of its walls.  They have to do with your capacity to control your environment in preferred ways, to manage risks, meet your needs, and survive.  Losing the house and going bankrupt is a huge blow to wealth because it means an uncertain future, more risk, and fewer options.  You would have been better off focusing on long-term security, on your ability to continue for a longer period under changing conditions, than buying into the false sense of security that the big house delivered.

The same concepts apply to the economy or to our society as a whole.  There is a relationship between wealth and material resources, but it's conditional.  It's not a law of nature.  What really matters is the benefits we derive from using resources wisely - nutrition, health, protection from the elements.  In the past, when there were fewer people, vast supplies of easily exploitable resources, and few noticeable environmental impacts, we found that using more resources nearly always gave us more benefits.  But, we're entering a new era.  The key now is to use fewer resources to produce drastically more benefits.