Sunday, February 26, 2012

Synthesizing Design-thinking and Sustainability

I’ve long been interested in the similarities and differences of two venn diagrams used in analyzing products, services, and systems. One diagram is used to visualize innovation values and the other is used to visualize sustainability values.

The Innovation Diagram
The first--the innovation venn diagram--holds that when we develop new products, services, or systems, there is a sweet spot at the overlap of the three perspectives of Design, Business, and Technology (1). The Design perspective is defined as a customer perspective or a human-centered perspective; the Business perspective is defined by the ability of the market to support a new product, service or system; and the Technology perspective is defined by the feasibility of technical function, that is, can we build a new product, service, or system that won’t break when we use it?

The Sustainability Diagram
The other venn diagram, visualizing sustainability values--is comprised of what is referred to as the “triple bottom line.” This trio isn’t always expressed as a venn*, but humor me for a minute. The three circles in this diagram consist of the following criteria: People, Planet, and Profit.

Synthesizing “Design” (from the Innovation Diagram) and “People” (from Sustainability Diagram)
It’s easy to synthesize the Design circle from the Innovation diagram and the People circle from the Sustainability diagram: the Design circle is made of customers and the people circle includes customers but also includes anyone affected by a new product, service, or system.

Synthesizing “Business” (from the Innovation Diagram) and “Profit,” (from the Sustainability Diagram)
It’s easy to synthesize the Business circle from the Innovation diagram and the Profit circle from the Sustainability diagram: the Business circle is made of a particular type of profit, one that maximizes shareholder wealth, and in a for-profit firm wealth is most often defined as monetary wealth, so making a lot of money is the goal. However, in a non-profit organization, the definition of wealth is broader. Certainly a  non-profit needs to make more money than what it costs to operate the organization, but its shareholders are taxpayers who, in theory, define wealth-generation as delivering value to society.

Synthesizing “Technology” (from the Innovation Diagram) and “Planet” (from the Sustainability Diagram)
The Technology circle on the Innovation diagram and the Planet circle in the Sustainability diagram are trickier to resolve. They seem too different to synthesize. But William McDounnough (2) offers a useful scheme. When he talks about products, services, and systems, he distinguishes between industrial systems and biological ones. He claims that as long as we can keep those systems separate, then we should be okay. So in my synthesized diagram, I’m resolving the Technology circle and the Planet circle with the term “Systems,” both man-made (technological) and natural.

The “Enlightened Innovation” diagram: Culture, Value, & Systems
So this is my “Enlightened Innovation” diagram. I claim that the sweet spot is where Culture, Value, and Systems meet. Culture (3) is defined by all people affected by a new product, service, or system. Value is defined by economic viability, but also by other definitions of wealth, such as health or happiness. And Systems is defined by the functionality of technological and natural systems. Of course, all of this looks good on paper. If you’re in the trenches, you know how difficult it is to resolve these perspectives, to find the sweet spot. But no one said it would be easy.


* In a triple bottom line diagram, some argue that the people and profit circle lie within the planet circle. 
(1) Tim Brown and Scott Berkun are great resources for this innovation diagram. 
(2) William McDounnough’s Cradle to Cradle is a great resource on navigating industrial and biological systems
(3) AIGA put forth a quadruple bottom line that includes “culture” in addition to society, planet, and profit

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

TEDx Talk: Make Better Stuff

Back in November I had the privilege of speaking at TEDx Rochester about the convergence of two of my favorite topics: social business and rapid prototyping. Here's the video with transcript below. Enjoy!

Hi, I’m a designer, and I want to talk to you about making better stuff. When designers make stuff, we don’t just make one thing; we make thousands of copies of it. Often these things are manufactured abroad, using poor labor practices under substandard environmental regulations.

Then the stuff gets shipped to big box stores all around the world where we buy it cheap. To top it off, this stuff that we make and then buy isn’t even making us happy. Research shows that once we reach middle class status, the stuff we buy doesn’t add much to our happiness (Gilbert). There has got to be a better way.

As a designer and a want-to-be anthropologist, I believe that objects & products--that STUFF--mediates human relationships in both negative and positive ways. So when I say MAKE BETTER STUFF I mean stuff that strengthens our relationships with people in our communities and stuff that creates local jobs.

It’s NOT easy to do. But it IS getting easier. So I want to point out to you two encouraging trends. One is about meaning. The other is about means.

Businesses increasingly want to offer meaningful products for two reasons:

1. more customers want them

2. creating them is rewarding for employees

Tom’s Shoes, Method Soap, and Patagonia are large firms that make meaningful stuff. But I want to illustrate this phenomenon of meaning closer to home using one of my favorite examples: the local food sector.

The number of farmers markets in this country has doubled in the past five years. Not because the food is cheap or convenient, but because more customers now want relationships, both personal and economic, with the people making their food and their stuff. And the farmers and makers? They aren’t getting into these businesses to become millionaires. They do it because they want to do work that is meaningful. Now, the business model of the farmers market is not fully evolved, but it’s a good start to building an economy around better stuff that builds meaningful relationships.

Which brings me to my second point: THE MEANS.

I cite the local food sector as a venue for better stuff, but meaningful markets can be hi-tech too. Engineers here are probably familiar with rapid prototyping tools like “3D printers” and “laser cutters.” Having these tools is like a having a mini-manufacturing plant on your own desktop or garage. Engineers have used them for years to make and test prototypes of their designs.

What’s new about this technology is that it’s becoming remarkably accessible. Just as music production software is readily available now, anyone with an internet connection and a camera phone can now upload a drawing of a product to a manufacturer in the location of their choosing that will manufacture that product on demand.

And then of course the internet is an effective tool for marketing, selling, and distributing product. Ponoko is one of several platforms where we can already do this. When I want to buy a gift for my friend in California, I no longer have to go to the big box store and buy her something that was made halfway across the world. Instead, I can get online, design something of my own or pick something out, and that thing can be “printed” by a small manufacturer in her neighborhood and delivered a short distance to her home. The product is meaningful because it’s made just for her, by a small manufacturer and business owner who lives in her community who has the means to make and deliver product.

Now that’s a simple example but the last industrial revolution started in a simple way too, with textiles. So I’m here to ask of you, when this technology becomes ubiquitous, let’s not mess it up. Let’s not repeat the 20th century mistake of manufacturing ourselves out of jobs. Instead, let’s make stuff that creates jobs and strengthens the relationships between makers and customers in our own towns and cities.

We live in a time when there’s an increasing demand for meaningful products. And we live in a time when more and more of us have the technological means to create and distribute these products. So please, MAKE BETTER STUFF.  

MAKE BETTER STUFF by Xanthe Matychak is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

NOTE: I used a photo by Ed Burtynsky in the slide presentation for this talk.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pitching to the Crowd vs VCs

It used to be that if you wanted to start a business, you had to write a detailed business plan and pitch it to Venture Capitalists. It’s not uncommon to ask a VC to invest $100k for start up costs. What would she want in return? Well, only 40% of your company. So the pitch you make to a VC has to have a certain level of granularity and probably a lot of spreadsheets. Great ideas and passion are important, but you have to be pretty confident about every one’s Return On Investment for two reasons: 1. $100k is a lot of money and 2. That VC now owns 40% of your business.

But more and more we’re seeing entrepreneurs raise money on crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter or Indie GoGo. On these sites, you aren’t looking for one dude to invest $100k. Instead you are asking 100s or 1000s of people for small contributions of $10, $50, or $100. These people won’t own a percentage of your business. They’re just helping you get started because it’s a fun thing to do. And if you doubt that people can raise start-up money this way, just go to the “best funded” link on Kickstarter.

My question is this: What does this shift from pitching to VCs to pitching to the crowd mean for how we pitch or teach students to pitch? If crowd-funders don't care about your spreadsheets or ROI, what do they care about? What makes them sign in to their paypal accounts to make a contribution?

image: where George Eastman's mansion (left) connects with The Eastman Museum (right)