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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.





What Is Naked Value?

This article introduces some ideas explored in detail in Naked Value: Six Things Every Business Leader Needs to Know About Resources, Innovation & Competition. Contact dMASS Inc. for more information (info at At one point while we were writing our new book, Naked Value, we used the working title “The End of Products.” But we knew the title wasn’t quite right. We weren’t simply talking about the shift away from selling products to providing services. And while we were observing more and more physical products being replaced by invisible innovations, like the change from CDs to MP3 files, we also knew that physical products wouldn’t disappear altogether. We saw something bigger going on with innovation.

Innovation is moving in a clear direction, and it has been moving in the same general direction for a long time. The difference today is that several factors are forcing companies to innovate in this direction to stay competitive - factors like population growth, increasing demand for resources, resource supply uncertainties and price fluctuations. Meanwhile, scientific knowledge is exploding. Discoveries in biology, nanotechnology, and materials science are opening up enormous possibilities for creating products that do better with less.

This isn’t simply about increasing efficiency or about managing environmental constraints. It’s about a different approach to delivering benefits to customers using the least amount of resources possible to manage risks, control costs, and differentiate in the marketplace. For  example, what if you could take the most resource-intensive aspect of your product and not only reduce the waste associated with it, but eliminate it entirely while retaining your product’s functionality? What if, instead of improving an existing product to capture a small share of the market, you established a new market with a product that delivered the same benefits in an entirely new way with a fraction of the resources? What if you could design a product that delivered exactly what your customers needed without anything they don’t need, and in doing so you were able to stop purchasing many of your company’s inputs?

As we talked more about these ideas, we started using the phrase “naked products.” We talked about stripping away resources from products. But we eventually realized that products shouldn’t necessarily be the focus. Products are delivery mechanisms; they deliver benefits. The real focus should be on value. That’s what matters to customers, companies, and investors.

Value is fundamentally about the relationship between the amount of benefits customers receive and the amount of resources it takes to deliver those benefits, everything from mining raw materials for a product to the fuel it takes to transport it. Anything a company can do to increase benefits (move up the Y axis on the chart below) or decrease resource mass (move across the X axis) is consistent with the direction of innovation. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to reduce mass by increasing toxicity; that would have a negative impact on benefits.

So what’s the ultimate aim for product innovation? That’s what we wanted to define. It’s not simply about eliminating waste, or even eliminating products. It’s about naked value: the most benefits with the least amount of resources. It’s what every company should work toward in product innovation, whether redesigning an established product or developing a new one.This can be a complex topic. We thought a lot about how to articulate the most important trends, the most interesting examples of product innovations, and the most helpful strategies for businesses in a concise, easy-to-digest format. That’s the thinking behind “Naked Value” and it’s what you’ll find when you read the book.



The Next Generation of Sustainable Business and Competitive Advantage

This week, released our second video, "Value Matters: Innovation Has Direction." The short, animated video reveals the direction of innovation and what it means for businesses and sustainable design. In it, I offer a simple method for companies to align business and environmental goals and a new way to think about products. I make the case that any sustainable business must be built on the basis of increasing resource performance, or harvesting more wealth out of fewer resources. Since our founding in 2010, the dMASS team has acted as a "scout" of sorts, tracking research and innovations for doing better with less, building a repository of advances in science, technology, design, and business strategy, and describing significant implications for business.

What we have found is breathtaking. In every industry, there are seeds of a new design revolution. Innovation is moving in a clear direction.

Resource performance is the key to our future. It is the key to creating successful businesses and to developing sustainable economies.

As I travel and speak about resource performance, what I tell business leaders is this: no one wants your products; they want the benefits from those products. Every company needs to be focused on benefits and resources, not products and waste. There is unlimited opportunity for those who understand what their customers actually want and who figure out how to deliver it with as few resources as possible.

Recent actions by businesses and research organizations worldwide reflect the growing, strategic importance of resources. Companies are seeking ways to reduce the amount of energy and materials needed to do business while continuing to grow. You can see it in countless advancements in areas from biomimcry, to cradle-to-cradle design, green building, nanotechnology, 3D printing, energy harvesting, and sustainable development. And you can see it in the growing instances of companies investing in new methods to deal with water and materials shortages.

We are working on a book that cites many examples of resource performance to help businesses: address the challenges of competing in a resource constrained world, identify unexpected competition, design products that leverage new materials and technologies, and improve profit, all while being responsible global leaders. I also have a number of speaking engagements planned in the coming months to talk about resources, waste, and innovation.

I have had many opportunities to work with forward-thinking companies over the years. Today as I travel around the country, I look forward to renewing old relationships and establishing new ones. Resource issues are real and they are urgent. Through our articles, books, videos, and presentations, we aim to reach as many people as possible with dMASS ideas and to alter the current approach to resources and resource performance. I believe that business leaders and designers are the "trim tabs" that will enable significant change. I welcome invitations to speak with you and your colleagues in person.