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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.





Designing Wealth: The Missing Piece in the Sustainability Puzzle

This article was orignally published at It is impossible to build a sustainable or resilient society without expanding wealth. Things like renewable energy and materials, recycling and other methods of resource recovery, or collaborative consumption are essential ingredients for sustainability, but they are not nearly enough. Without a concurrent, dramatic expansion of wealth, there will be continued recession, economic hardship, and political destabilization, which are certainly not the ingredients of a sustainable society.

Most of us advocate environmentally sustainable strategies because we know they are essential. But how many of us ask ourselves what it will actually take to create enough wealth to include eight billion people in a robust and sustainable economy? The scale of the problem just seems too large. But it’s one we urgently need to focus on. How do we generate much more wealth for more people with a fixed resource base and environmental constraints?

During the last 150 years, we successfully expanded wealth to billions of people. Today, more people have access to food, shelter, and education than our ancestors could have imagined. But this expansion has been resource intensive and, ultimately, unsustainable. Businesses and the economy as a whole are already feeling the pinch of resource demand exceeding supply. The resource base simply isn’t available to meet the needs of a growing population, at least not if we continue to think of wealth and resources in the same way. 

The primary solutions typically offered have to do with recycling, recirculating, and reusing resources, using renewable resources, and becoming more efficient at using resources. The reality is that no matter how good we get at recycling and waste management, and no matter how efficient we become, the more resources we use, the more we lose as waste and pollution. Each time we recirculate resources, we lose some of them. Becoming more efficient doesn’t fundamentally change the relationship between resources and wealth creation. Wealth expansion has to accelerate at a rate much faster than increases in the rate of recycling or gains in efficiency. In other words, we must do much, much more with much, much less.

Here’s the gigantic missing piece of the sustainability puzzle: wealth production isn’t really dependent on how much more resource mass we mine, but on how much more wealth we can mine from the available resource mass. Wealth is security, freedom, options, and opportunity. Wealth is weightless and invisible.

Today, most of the products we make and depend on every day are actually mostly waste. Think about toothpaste for a moment. Why do people need it? The ultimate benefit of toothpaste is oral hygiene, or healthy teeth. What if you could eliminate the fillers, packaging, and all of the other resources associated with manufacturing, delivering, retailing, and storing toothpaste? There are scientists working today on a semi-permanent biofilm that will prevent tooth decay. Others are working on an enzyme that keeps teeth healthy. There are countless products that are material whose benefits could be delivered in an entirely different, weightless or nearly weightless way—vaccinations with dissolving needles, packaging that’s integrated into products, bacteria-safe surfaces without chemicals.

How can we get the most wealth with the least amount of resources, even without many of the physical products we associate with wealth? Through smart, intentional design focused on reducing resource mass and delivering more value.

We need to design for naked value—for the benefits that people seek, stripped of as many of the resources used to make and deliver products and services as possible. When we recycle resources, we need to reinvest them to produce much more wealth. When we redesign products and services, we need to design to harvest more benefits—more oral hygiene, more health, more safety—from each ton of resources used. This is how we will succeed in producing much more wealth with a fraction of the resources per capita currently needed.



Bubbles, booms, and busts: What’s the alternative for making real wealth?

Why do we keep experiencing bubbles, booms, and busts?  It has become so routine, analysts are looking on the horizon for the next bubble - and bust.  The reason why this cycle seems to be happening more often is simple:  it is getting harder and harder to create wealth by producing things that use material resources.  Resources are becoming more expensive and their supplies less reliable.  It is much easier to make money by gambling on what might happen to the resource supplies and the companies that use them, than it is to make money by investing in the companies creating useful products that generate real benefits for people.

We now have a vast segment of the financial products industry engaged purely in speculative trading.  While money changes hands with increasing frequency and GDP rises, no real value is added.  When I say "value," I mean actual benefits that enhance people's wellbeing.  Billions of dollars are circulating without creating wealth.

Remember, wealth is ultimately about security, not money or GDP.  It is the ability to survive for a longer period into the future under a wider range of conditions.  In real estate, wealth is not about an artificially inflated home price.  It is about the benefits that a home provides: security, safety, comfort, sanitation, and tools to manage risks, meet your needs, and survive.  It is about the home's functions.

As long as resource supplies needed for making products contract while demand for them grows, the frequency and intensity of bubbles and busts will only worsen.  But there is a simple alternative to this economic cul-de-sac.  The future is about delivering more benefits with much less mass.  In a crowded and resource constrained world, this is how value will be defined.

Businesses need to deliver much more wealth, or benefits to people, with fewer tons of resources.  Governments need to set policies that encourage resource performance.  Businesses that improve resource performance in their products and operations will reap more revenue with a lower cost of sales and will gain a competitive advantage.  They will also enhance their brand and asset value.  As byproducts, they will reduce environmental impacts and associated risks, as well as contribute to improving the national trade balance, controlling inflation, nurturing development, and reducing global conflict over control of resource reserves and distribution.  This is a sustainable strategy, both for businesses and for our collective future.