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Designing Sustainability: It Is Not About Bamboo Versus Plastic

By Karla Schlaepfer
sustainability, shedroff, apple, iphone, simplicity, innovation, interview

We met with Prof. Nathan Shedroff in his office at the California College of the Arts. He is among other things, the game-changing author of many books, initiatives and the Chair of the Design MBA programs. This  Design MBA program, now eight years strong, continues to be one of the best business degrees for innovation in the world. It offers new ways of integrating the learning of pragmatic skills with outside projects and working with real companies and organizations headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What follows is an short texted excerpt of our fascinating 2.5  hour recorded interview with Nathan the Professor, Philosopher, Businessman and Visionary!

This part of the interview focuses on the business design of sustainability and simplicity.

In Germany there is a market for products and services that are ecological and socially sustainable. What are some best-practice examples of some design products, experiences that fulfill these criteria?

That’s a great question! I’m not sure that there are ever really best-case examples because anything you offer could always be better in terms of sustainability—either on the ecological, social or financial impact side. Even the people in the sustainability industry are kind of terrible at acknowledging where their products have great impacts, because the impact could always be better. So, people on the outside are often pointing their fingers at you and criticizing that you call something “sustainable,” but it’s still made by 13 year olds or something like that, and it is true. But, this is still better than conventional practices. So it’s difficult to have a conversation about what are “best practice” examples, since any examples you chose are going to have some downsides. I don’t think anyone has ever made anything in the history of the world that could be considered really sustainable. [Nathan pauses here and reflects..] Other than food, perhaps. With that in mind, there are definitely some trends that are important.

One trend is to get rid of using certain kinds of materials, like PVC. Another is  to simplify things. I prefer the word clarity over simplicity. Most people don’t want to live in a simple world. They want to live in a clear world. Simple means you have few choices, none of which really suits you. As opposed to a complex world, where you have a lot of choices and it’s clear how you can maneuver through them so you are not overloaded. When we can make something more simple by reducing the number of parts or materials or the number of ingredients, they tend to be more sustainable products and services and when these fit people’s needs better (and clearly), they’re simultaneously more desirable. It’s not about bamboo versus plastic.

The other aspect of any product or service that tends to be more sustainable are things that have been considered in a systemic way. How do you consider the rest of the system that supports this and deals with the consequences after its life? That’s why sustainability and systems-thinking are so important for our program. Take a choice as simple as paper or plastic bag? There is no agreement in the sustainability world about which is better because, on both sides, there are plusses and minuses. The only way to decide is to look at the whole system and consider which aspects are better in which ways. When you get more complex products like this [holds up an iPhone], we’re talking about a product with hundreds of materials and hundreds of parts, it gets exponentially more difficult.

Reminds me of my iPhone and my problems with the battery that needs constant recharging.

NS: You can take any phone, not only an iPhone, and there are materials in here that are toxic, materials that are difficult to mine, and there are issues of construction. A smart phone as a category is a problem. You can’t really ever say that they are sustainable products. However, that doesn’t mean that you should not have a smart phone or that there aren’t better or worse smart phones. The interesting thing from a sustainability perspective is that, these products are  de-materializing a lot of other products, like watches, alarm clocks, GPS devices, cameras, etc. This is the most popular camera in the world! [Nathan holds up his IPhone]. So, even though there are problems with this category, it’s net sum, compared to where we were 20 years ago, is awesome. Other devices, like remote controls, are getting dematerialized. So from a physical, material standpoint, and probably an energy standpoint, these are probably the best things ever!

Questions by Karla Schlaepfer + Martin Welz