Sustainability and Design Thinking – a marriage made in heaven

(Cross-posted from

Whilst I am, by nature, an essential optimist, I never held out a great deal of hope for Copenhagen. Like the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ it always seemed destined that narrow self-interest would obstruct agreement, and so it proved. But I’m not down about it. Perhaps now we can all forget the fallacy that achieving meaningful change requires politicians as some supranational group of mummies and daddies legislating for our safety.

In any event, changes to our system of business, in the order of magnitude required, will not be delivered by beating recalcitrant CEOs over the head with a big regulatory stick. It will only come when the penny drops that (to use Tomorrow’s Company’s words) we have entered ‘The Age of Sustainability’ and that their business’ long-term prosperity – indeed their very survival – will increasingly depend on sustainability-driven innovation.

What’s really interesting to me is that we appear to be reaching a tipping point in a number of different areas that all seem to be converging on this point.

Take the emergence and gathering momentum of Design Thinking – a phrase first coined by Tim Brown of IDEO – which is taking design out of the realm of the beautification of posters and toasters, and applying its creative, idealistic and abductive thought processes to the design of entire business models and social systems.

It’s fast establishing itself as a credible alternative to traditional, left-brain management thinking, based on the growing realisation that a) we’ve pretty much Six-Sigma’d everything to death, to the point where quality and efficiency are mere table-stakes, and b) that the ‘wicked problems’ of our age cannot be solved using merely inductive and deductive reasoning.

Top of the list of those wicked problems? Research from Neutron LLC and Stanford University cites all of the following in its Top Ten:

  • Balancing long-term objectives with short-term demands
  • Combining profitability with social responsibility
  • Addressing the challenge of eco-sustainability

And, of course, following the failure of talks in Copenhagen, you can bet your bottom dollar that these problems are only going to get bigger and hairier as time passes.

So what does this all mean?

To my mind, it means that incremental tinkering to existing business models to make them a little ‘less bad’ – as is the wont of most businesses, under the banner of old-fashioned CSR – will increasingly become an irrelevance. The real value to business – and to society at large – will only come when businesses adopt sustainability as a fundamental design value, using it as a lens to interrogate, challenge and transform existing practices, following the example of people like Ray Anderson at Interface.

And that, it just so happens, is pretty much the core thought of my new book, Live Long and Prosper: the 55-minute guide to building sustainable brands, which seeks to encourage sceptical business leaders to change the way they think about sustainability.

Bottom line? The business case for sustainability now goes way beyond simply ‘green’ and reputation management; it’s about fundamental, long-term business viability and identifying opportunities for disruptive innovation.


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