Leapfrogging the Developed World

If the crowd will save us, and armies of developers working for good will truly save us from ourselves, then in the meantime we’re going to need better curators and story tellers to find the nuggets in the crowd and point us in the right direction.

Case in point: Nokia’s mobile application developer community, Forum Nokia, recently launched the contest Calling All Innovators and asked participants to “think in new ways about the opportunity to affect the quality of human life with mobile applications.” So, beyond just gaming and fleeting social connections to the deeper human experience. The “eco challenge” category served up nothing terribly new or that have not been presented before: GreenDrive’s fuel efficiency and route mapping application, Ticketek’s mobile ticketing concept (saves paper!), the Green Phone battery efficiency app, and the TigerMap restaurant recommender, and public transportation promoter.

But the truly world changing ideas were found in the emerging markets category:


An application called “Nano Ganesh” by developer Santosh Ostwal  provides a way for farmers in India to remotely start their water pumps, deployed on the commonly used Nokia 1100, and relying on the basic voice call feature rather than the less reliable SMS. This is a critical benefit to farmers who suffer frequent power cuts and find it difficult to get enough power to irrigate the land for seasonal crops.


The other Emerging Markets finalist was DigitalICS, a concept from Yael Schwartzman, on the graduate staff of UC Berkeley. DigitalICS enables agricultural co-ops to evaluate the growing practices of their fellow members, uploading the data to a website for reporting and analysis, and to verify adherence to standards such as Fair Trade and Certified Organic. A grassroots Dole Organic, with much greater outcome than a friendly marketing message. If deployed correctly this app will encourage growers to work together in true co-op fashion in order to adhere to standards. The app is currently in use by the Oaxacan State Coffee Producers Network in Mexico. What I like about this app is that it connects emerging markets to developing markets in a way that drives reciprocal value – the co-ops improve their conditions, and the people supporting the co-ops could ultimately have greater transparency into the food making process.

LCA Event with o2NYC

Join o2NYC as we begin a learning group whose goal is to understand Life Cycle Assessment, and to develop our skills as design professionals to provide the systems thinking approach and holistic understanding that LCA provides.


When: Wednesday, February 25th. 6-8 PM.
Where: Smart Design. 601 W 26th Street, Suite 1820.
RSVP: j at o2nyc dot org
$10 suggested donation.

As a concept, a product lifecycle makes intuitive sense. Designers conceive of a product or service, and source materials that are mined from the earth, refined, manufactured, packaged, marketed, sold, used, and then either retired in landfill, or in a better world, recycled back into the system. Cradle to cradle, here we come. In practice, knowing the full impact of a product’s impact on the environment be the first thing we do as designers when developing a new product idea. A comprehensive approach that takes in all phases of a product lifecycle is the best framework for letting us know which action to take in redesigning for green – which approach is the most environmentally friendly.

Yet as a practice, life cycle assessment is both daunting and complicated, but this may be a case of LCA reflecting the complexities of how we make things today. Lloyd Hicks and I will lead an introductory discussion about the principles and practices of LCA, the first in a series dedicated to showing designers how they can access this critical tool for understanding an entire product service system.

Space is limited. Please RSVP to confirm your participation!

Syllabus: If Products Could Tell Their Stories

Phase 1: If Products Could Tell Their Stories, To Whom Would They Speak?

1. Intro: Towards a Sustainable Model of Product Design

Discussion: Intro to Life Cycle Awareness and Life Cycle Assessment Tools, and intro to sustainable product/service development

Readings: The Okala Guide, Modules 9, 10, 11, pp. 28-37.
Shaping Things, Chapters 1-6, pp. 1-54.

Assignment due next class: Choose one product and evaluate a published, peer-reviewed Life Cycle Assessment or Analysis, for discussion in the next class. What were the system boundaries chosen by the authors of the study? What life cycle stage had the greatest impact?

2: Audience: Consumers

Discussion: Opportunities and limits to the “Vote with your wallet” theories of sustaining a consumer-led green movement. The use of anthropological inquiry to understand gaps between what consumers say they want and how they behave.

Reading: Shopping our Way to Safety. Part II: Assembling a Personal Commodity Bubble for One’s Body, Chapters 3, 4, 5, pp. 97 – 168.

Assignment due next class: Interview a consumer who self-identifies as “green,” to determine their stated motivations, and actual behavior in selecting and using green products. Prepare a one page report of your findings.

3: Audience: Citizen Activists, NGOs, Workers

Discussion: Other stakeholders involved in the creation of products and services have had a significant impact on product safety and environmental regulation.

Readings: The Okala Guide. Module 6: Meeting Stakeholder Needs, pp. 26-27.
Shopping Our Way to Safety. Part III: Consequences of Inverted Quarantine. Chapters 6, 7, and Conclusion, pp. 169-238.

Assignment due next class: Review an existing NGO or activist campaign that used tech-enabled community organizing to discuss in the next class.


4: Audience: Government – Legislators and Regulatory Bodies

Discussion: US Political appetite for regulation in all forms is increasing, in response to product recalls of toys, pet food, baby formula, and collateralized debt obligations. We will discuss the differing philosophy between recent politically conservative approaches to regulation and the European philosophy of the Precautionary Principle.

Reading: Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power. Chapter 1: Soft Power, Hard Edge. Chapter 4: Two Houses of Risk, pp. 1-19, 67-82.
Assignment due next class: Develop initial ideas of product or service systems you would like to explore, to present in class.

5: Business: CEOs, Product Managers, Purchasing Managers, Designers, Marketers, Clients

Discussion: We will identify the most powerful decision makers within an organization, from top level executives to designers to marketers to product managers. We will also review core tenets of the environmental business movement – from Natural Capitalism to the Triple Bottom Line.

Assignment: Write a one page proposal outlining the commercial benefits of your product/service idea.

6. Product/Service Ideation.

Discussion: We will conduct a Life Cycle Awareness brainstorm session, to define known system boundaries, and identify areas for innovation.

Reading: Shaping Things, Chapters 7-12, pp. 55-94.

Assignment: Group formulation. Work with group and identify and investigate specific product/service idea, outline system boundaries and determine life cycle impacts to explore.

PHASE II: If Products Could Tell Their Stories, What Would They Say?

7. Environmental Impacts. Ecological Damage- focus on Energy Emissions.

Discussion: Much of the political and media focus of the environmental crisis is focused on climate change, and on the impacts of energy emissions. We will explore the relevancy of prioritizing energy emissions in our understanding of sustainability.

Reading: The Okala Guide, Learning Eco Design. Modules 13-16, pp. 41-58.

Shaping Things, Chapters 13-18, pp. 95-145.

Assignment: identify the ecological impacts of your product/service system concept, and develop alternative strategies to reduce this impact.

8. Environmental Impacts. Human Health Impacts.

Discussion: One of the primary motivators to consumer behavior change, and NGO action, has been a focus on toxic ingredients and the desire to protect one’s personal health from human health impacts. We will identify the full life cycle implications of product development, including damage to the health of workers, and people that live in communities close to factories and recycling/disposal centers across the world.

Reading: Cradle to Cradle, Introduction, Chapters 1-2, pp. 3-67.

Assignment due for final project: Identify the human health impacts of your product/service system, and develop alternative strategies to reduce this impact, and communicate these impacts.

9: Environmental Impacts. Resource Depletion, BioDiversity

Discussion: The impact of environmental degradation on the earths resources and species gets the least attention from mainstream media, regulators, and business innovators. We will review the potential environmental impacts for those stakeholders without a voice, from the biodiversity of species to the global water supply.

Reading: Cradle to Cradle, Chapters 4-5, pp. 92-156.

Assignment due for final project: Identify the resource depletion and biodiversity impacts of your product/service system, and develop alternative strategies to reduce this impact, and communicate these impacts.

10: Social and Economic Impacts: Workers, Cultural Diversity, and Fair Trade, and Investment.

Discussion: One of the weaknesses of the LCA method is that they omit the social impacts throughout the product development process, because the impact to workers and local community members, beyond human health, is hard to quantify. We will discuss a framework for exploring the social sustainability of product/service systems.

Reading: Cradle to Cradle, Chapters 6, pp. 157-186

Assignment due for final project: Identify the social impacts your product/service system concept, and develop alternative strategies to reduce this impact, and communicate these impacts.

11: Final Project Presentations

12: Final Project Presentations

Selected course readings:
McDonough, Michael, Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way We Make Things. North Point Press, 2002.

Sterling, Bruce, Shaping Things, MIT Press, 2005.

Shapiro, Mark, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007.

White, St. Pierre and Belletire, The Okala Guide. Coursework on Life Cycle Analysis, IDSA, 2007.

If Products Could Tell Their Stories

I’ll be teaching a class as an adjunct professor on my favorite subject at NYU’s ITP school this winter term: If Products Could Tell Their Stories – Towards a Model of Sustainable Design.

Thanks to Tom Igoe, at ITP, for his encouragement. And precedent – his book:

Made me think – if products can now talk, thanks to  technology becoming cheap enough and small enough to embed everywhere, then products will be able to soon tell us the truth about where they derive.

I’ll be using this website to help catalogue all of the frameworks, models, thoughts, and design examples of sustainable design thinking that will drive behavior change both from consumers and manufacturers. The focus is on how things get made, and then designing in ways for people to use products so that as “consumers” they understand the impact of the consumption.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with several ITP graduates as designers and technologists, and I love the fact that the school emphasizes getting dirty with technology, taking things apart, and prototyping to get to solutions.

Here’s the course description – I’ll be posting a detailed syllabus and further discussion about what we’ll be learning.

Is there lead in my nephew’s toy? Does my new HDTV have a much greater impact on global warming than my old TV? When I finally recycle those old cell phones and computers that have been collecting dust in my closet, where will they be taken, and will anything or anyone be harmed as they are recycled? 

Without answers to these questions that people are seeking, there are limits to the role consumption can play in our shift to a more sustainable economic model. As product developers, designers, tinkerers, and technologists, we have the means to uncover these answers, and communicate the backstories of the things that we make.

The objective of this course is to explore sustainable models, methods, and practices of both production and consumption. The class explores an interaction design model proposed by Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, in which he implores, “Designers must design, not just for objects or for people, but for the technosocial interactions that unite people and objects.” Additional content exposes students to the relationship between production, consumption, and impacts to the earth’s ecosystem and human health. Students learn how to analyze product/service systems and life cycle thinking.

Students also are asked to investigate and communicate a product backstory to an existing product. The final exercise of the course involves the creation of a new product/service system that provides a framework for users to affect and modulate the environmental and social impacts throughout their relationship with that object. Class participation is required and group projects are encouraged.


Proposal for 2009: The Product Truth Act

It’s about binkies.

Avent Soothie

Avent Soothie

I’ll take the risk of being a mom blogger, now that I am a new mom, for this post alone. As much as I’ve been aware of the difficulties required in finding out the truth about products, their materials, manufacturing methods, and backstories, there’s nothing like the experience of new motherhood to drive this point home so painfully.

The binky story:

While waiting in line to vote on  the great big day of Change, my brand new daughter began to vocalize her desire for a binky. She’s just that kind of girl, a new consumer, interested in self-soothing through the use of a binky. We chose a simple model – Avent, a division of Philips – shorthand for Dutch, and usually shorthand for trustworthy EU standards of product manufacturing. I took the opportunity of my child’s first act of consumption to investigate further, and decided to perform a rudimentary life cycle  analysis on her binky, and contacted Philips to learn more about how the product was made.

I was shocked to receive this response:

Thank your for contacting Philips AVENT.

We are coming out with bpa free soothers. The one you have has bpa in the handle and shield. The nipple is silicone.


Thank you,


Avent Consumer Care

Philips Consumer Lifestyle

I hadn’t even inquired about BPA. Sure, there were warnings of melamine in baby formula, and the threat that plastic toys produced before February 2009 may still be laden with phthalates. But BPA??? In a Binky? From a EU-based company?

What’s happening here? BPA will be banned from my water bottle, what’s it doing in a baby product? One explanation is offered by Mark Schapiro, the author of Exposed, The Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power, the US, under many years of an anti-regulation agenda, has become a toxic dumping ground for global companies who can dispose of questionable materials cheaply on the shelves of our big box retailers.

After so many years of lax consumer safety regulation under the current administration, it is critical that the green debate and action plans includes not just grand schemes for reducing carbon, but also an all inclusive plan for making binkies safe for babies everywhere.

The environmental debate can’t be a zero sum game, trading “independence from foreign oil” for “Green jobs” or “safe products”. We got into this gigantic economic and environmental meltdown because we’ve lost an understanding of how things are made, and we fail to see that everything is connected.

So before we begin any major multi million dollar investments in this supposed green collar economy, I propose a rethinking of the consumer product safety act to focus on product history, with a simple idea – all manufacturers, everywhere, who sell their goods and services in the USA, must print on the packaging: this is what its made from, this is where it was made, and here’s the estimated environmental impact of the thing that we are selling.

We can start industry by industry, phasing in a product transparency standard, and insisting that the once proprietary information of product materiality and process become available for public view. Whether you’re making binkies, alternative energy, or packaging collateralized debt obligations, you will soon be responsible for what you’re making, what it’s made out of, and how it got here. It’s what we lost at the dawn of the first industrial revolution that must finally be undone as we launch the next phase. I propose this idea as the Product Truth Act, and suggest that we would not be suffering from a global economic meltdown if we simply knew what was in the binkies that we continue to sell.