If Products Could Speak

I want to give products a voice. When I look at a pencil, a mop, or a smart phone, I most likely don’t know where in the world these objects came from, what they are made out of, who created them, nor do I know who or what was affected in the making of these things. The more I become aware of the impact that products make on our health, our society, and our ecosystem, the more I want to know the answer to these questions.

Since the start of the industrial revolution, we’ve moved further and further away from the materials, means, and methods of production. While this has been a seemingly inevitable trend of a global, outsourced, flatworld, branded economy, sudden awareness of environmental and social issues has people asking pointed questions about how things are made. I’m curious about the role that technology can play in reconnecting us back to the material process, and in exploring tools and frameworks that give us an understanding of our unique role in impacting product and consumption on a greater scale.

I alone can’t give products a voice – I’ve tried. These are hard stories to tell. They are carefully hidden, secretly guarded, and sometimes the truth is too scary for manufacturers to reveal. Instead, I’ve learned to write about products and greener design methods (Inhabitat and Core77), teach about product lifecycle to designers and product creators (Columbia, Pratt, and ITP at NYU), and help develop communities (online and offline) where people talk directly to companies (Toyota, Nestle), and where designers talk to each other about how they are making things (o2NYC and Designers Accord). I’m always looking for collaborators to help tell these product stories.

The Crowd Will Save Us

How the Green Movement Taps Participatory Networks to Drive Innovation.

Over at Core77 – Published way before Crowdsourcing took over the world!

Before environmental issues became part of the mainstream, the role of a designer was already starting to get much more interesting. Product innovation used to be the exclusive purview of R&D, where scientists and engineers tinkered away on technology-centered, proprietary advancements. Designers were left to style products for consumption and marketers worked further downstream to stimulate demand.

The emergence of more user-centered-thinking has given designers an influence well beyond the old drafting table. Upstream in the product development process, designers can now leverage tools like ethnography and sophisticated needs analysis. When given the opportunity, these methods drive the whole development process towards more meaningful and commercially viable innovation. These user-centered methods are the precursor for solving the green problem.

On the other end of the chain, the consumer has not yet been fully blended into the process, so the benefits and value of these new design approaches are less understood, and even prompt some level of suspicion. The way we go about asking these questions, and translating consumer needs back into business and design requirements, creates a wariness that has been uttered by some of the most optimistic proponents of green business. Do consumers mean what they say? Do they really want a greener future if it means dramatically changing their way of life?

Consumers Won’t Compromise 
For several years, I have had the luxury of pursuing this question, tracking environmental attitudes over time to uncover innovation opportunities across several industries. This work has been both encouraging and terribly frustrating. On the bright side, awareness of eco issues and interest in environmental lifestyles has risen dramatically, particularly so after Hurricane Katrina, An Inconvenient Truth, and most recently higher gas prices. But there is still an alarming gap between those who say they want green options and those that actually buy into or try to live a greener lifestyle.

I realized that the nature of this challenge requires constant, ongoing conversation between all the elements. Even a successful human-centered approach to the fuzzy front end completely drops off when we hit the conveyor belt process for product development.

Recently, I was invited to participate as a Speaker at the Greener by Design conference in Alexandria, VA, with innovation culture and systems guru, Robert Shelton. Our talk focused on the encouraging shift towards more open models of innovation, where knowledge is shared both inside and outside a company’s walls to solve for the complex and daunting challenges that we face. This praise for the widening of knowledge networks emerged as a theme in many different conversations throughout the rest of the conference. More and more companies have begun to shift sustainability from public relations statements and corporate social responsibility promises to actual product development and marketing activity–a way to create real value. Facing up to climate change will require a major redesign in the way we bring things to market.

The caveat? Over 50% of consumers want greener, more natural housing cleaners, but only 5% actually purchase this category of product: consumers do not want tradeoffs. Clorox’s Green Works is one company that embraced this gap. How did the Green Works team aim to get past the 5%? When choosing household cleaners, green-leaning consumers are looking for proven efficacy, broad availability, comparable price, and a brand they know and trust. They’re not willing to settle for a product that performs less than a more eco-unfriendly alternative. Clorox Green Works accepted these constraints and delivered a natural product that passed blind performance tests–in partnership with the Sierra Club. Despite initial external skepticism that a brand like Clorox could succeed with a natural product offering, the good word got out and sales results have “far exceeded expectations,” according to Kohler.

The “no tradeoffs, no compromise” approach has served as a mantra in many companies and across industries when challenged with comprehensive green innovation. But there’s something missing in this stark consumer win-it-all equation: Consumers are not part of the conversation and they know it.

I have spent a good deal of time sitting down with these emerging green consumers and many themes come into to focus. When asked to take the time to give their real opinion about their lifestyle, they reveal an untapped desire to participate in the process to be more than just a stat about consumption and purchase behavior. When you move the conversation beyond price and performance benefits to engage people in the challenge of designing a green future, they want to do so much more than just vote with their wallet.

Unleashing the Innovator in Everyone
In fact, I found that once on the topic I could not get these consumers to stop thinking about innovation and the role they should play in the design process. One-on-one interviews, blog studies, and focus groups all inevitably turn into green therapy sessions. People wanted to dissect how they chose to eat their food, build their home, rely on transportation, raise their children, and create meaning in their lives. When the conversation shifted to how we could live more sustainably, the real ideas would begin to flow.

While it was personally gratifying to be a part of these discussions, I found that my role as a strategist and researcher had major limitations. It was costly to send someone like me around the world, burning jet fuel, to have deep conversations only to fold these insights into traditional briefs on brand and product development. At the same time, every industry started getting green religion and claiming a green message. But the old compartmentalize structure was still in place, which resulted in confusion all along the chain, the initial pleasure and fascination with the complexity of the problem devolved into fatigue amongst the newly green converts at the consumer and corporate level.

The roles of designers, product development specialists, and marketers should never have been as segmented and will never be again. Participation is the key to innovation…

I realized that the nature of this challenge requires constant, ongoing conversation between all the elements. Even a successful human-centered approach to the fuzzy front end completely drops off when we hit the conveyor belt process for product development. Ideas once sensibly vetted are suddenly forced to move lock step through the phases required for launch, and often get watered down in the process. This is in fact where the activity of greenwashing occurs–good intentions turn into skepticism, compromises, and incidental innovation. How do we create a system that provides more interaction, iteration and a feedback loop?

Green Design Meets Online Community
Appropriately, consumers have created their own solution to this need for a more consistent and direct ongoing conversation. The rise of web-based communities and social networks are the very thing necessary for everyone to participate in these experiments. The green design challenge has only just begun to take advantage of these naturally evolved communities. The encouraging beginnings can be seen in emerging non-profit gatherings of designers, as well as companies providing their own access points to creators, inventors, and consumers.

The green challenge is now the innovation catalyst for a whole new way to do business. To fix the destructive and even alienating industrial chain of production, we have to blend the relationship between consumer and producer. We need to envision a new way to work, play, and live–a new way to create our own future. The roles of designers, product development specialists, and marketers should never have been as segmented and will never be again. Participation is the key to innovation; evidence of this growth can be found in the creation of new communities, from designers to consumers:

Open Architecture Network 
On the not-for-profit front, Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair dedicated his TED grant to launching the Open Architecture Network. Architects and designers around the world submit concepts and collaborate on sustainable architecture ideas for solving the global housing crisis. The network, which has more than 9,100 members from 104 nations share ideas and respond to eco and humanitarian challenges. In the past, an individual architect would not know how to propose solutions to the post-Katrina or post-tsunami housing problems, yet now they have a place to apply their altruistic and creative energy.

The Designers Accord
Valerie Casey of IDEO launched the Designers Accord, a commitment by corporations, educational institutions and designers to principles of sustainability. The group has seen its adopters skyrocket globally from 3,500 designers signing up in January of 2008 to over 100,000 designers, from 100 countries, joining by June of 2008. I serve on the board of this young and fast growing not-for-profit, and our goal is to open the conversation to share ideas and methods, more efficiently build environmental literacy in the creative community, and then take action.

Dell: Ideas In the commercial sphere, Dell launched the ReGeneration blog inspired by their IdeaStorm website. Started as an innovation tool, the goal is simple: Ideastorm is, “for you, the customer to tell Dell what new products or services you’d like to see Dell develop.” Customers vote on the most popular ideas, and Dell shows progress and how the company is innovating based on this feedback.

Dell’s ReGeneration platform reaches beyond tech-savvy customers to engage the creatively inspired environmental community, with great success. A Facebook Graffiti campaign engaged online digital artists, and a competition that asked designers and “all peoples of the earth” to create concepts for refreshed approaches to green computing technologies.

Toyota Heya
A project I’ve been involved with, Toyota’s Heya community, has similar collaboration goals. “HEYA” means “room” in Japanese. HEYA is a place to share ideas, an online conversation that leads to new thinking and projects.

Toyota invites members to participate in company-led projects, such as concept car development for the SEMA auto show. Members propose personal projects that arise out of the community discussion, such as an “Art for the Earth” exhibition that raised awareness for environmental issues, which Toyota then funds. What is innovative about this program is the community’s genuine spirit of reciprocity, and mutual interest in a creative and collaborative outcome.

The Groundswell
These examples illustrate what can be done to tap the creative, proactive energy of smart, visionary people around the world to solve these larger challenges. Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research calls this The Groundswell: “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other instead of from companies.” In this context, progressive brands provide a service of creating platforms for people to connect and collaborate with the people inside and outside of company boundaries.

Value creation is limited when people inside of companies are limited to their department, their role and their phase gate in the innovation process. When value creation is opened up, consumers are happy to supply ideas, content, taste, social acceptance, and emotional drivers that ultimately lead to behavioral change. These participatory models demonstrate a path forward for sustainable innovation.

Not One of Us Can Solve This
While I focus on the consumer-led front end of the process, the open model of innovation is a much wider field, inspired by the open source movement. Google is the best example of a company that has created value by opening up the platform of their product, a strategy that works best for software and new economy business models.

Even companies locked into the industrial economy can also adopt open innovation, connecting the corporate value chain to partners, vendors, suppliers, and emerging entrepreneurial ventures. Sustainably minded companies invite community stakeholders, third party auditors, and environmental NGOs into the innovation process to vet green standards, develop workable solutions, and verify claims.

Jeff Renaud, Director of GE’s ecoimagination described their partnerships with companies large and small to develop technology and services, such as their relationship with A123 Systems to develop a plug-in hybrid battery P&G expanded their connection of InnoCentive’s network of 140,000 creators, scientists, and business leaders to help meet their innovation challenges. IBM inspired the creation of the Eco Patent Commons which commits environmentally beneficial ideas to be shared with a cross industry community.

The message here is that competitive, formerly closed companies like GE and P&G have realized they cannot go it alone. And movements like the Designers Accord, and the success of companies like Dell and Toyota prove that the groundswell ready and waiting to be engaged.

For designers embarking on their first green project, or suffering fatigue or from an overwhelming sense of exasperation that you haven’t yet changed the world, remember that we’re all in this together. Experiment with these platforms for participatory design, and see what big ideas you co-create with the crowd. Open innovation is our driver for sustainability.