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Easter Sunday Thoughts on Designing Sustainable, Non-Material Signals of Cool

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on April 12, 2009

Out birding on a beautiful Easter Sunday, I got to ruminating as I was hunting (just hunting, not the killing), how we can design systems of prestige that don’t involve consuming stuff—and ruining the planet.

Competition, of course, conveys great prestige on individuals and teams on the basis of performance. Yep, you need the best equipment—bikes, binocs, wet suits, running shoes—but mostly, you get acclaim by being the best among your peers. And you don’t need to buy a new car to be a hotshot.

Reputation also conveys prestige. That 1% of the total population participating in Wikipedia has high prestige because that 1% is seen by the other 99% as the best creators and managers of content. In birding, the rare bird spotters have the highest prestige among all birders because they often “get” the unusual bird when others do not. Don’t need much consumption in this prestige system. In fact, some of the top birders have pretty average equipment—and quietly are proud of it.

Sharing, , I think, is emerging as another category of sustainable prestige and identity formation. Robin Chase, founder of ZipCar, spoke at my Parsons’ class recently about how sharing can build sustainable prestige systems. Music sharing, of course, is a great example. Creating and managing a deadly playlist to show your friends—and then sharing the songs— can establish you as hot, hot, hot in high school (maybe college too). Again, you don’t have to consume much in this prestige game, certainly not a car. You are also share your surplus mental ability when you work on Wikipedia or any other social media network that solves problems or creates content.

Sharing surplus is a big frontier in prestige systems—or economic systems in general. I wonder if we can build a new non-material hotel system based on the extra bedrooms people have in their apartments in Paris, London, New York, Rome, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Rio, etc. linked up by a ZipCar-like software system. A real sharing venture. And you can build your status by sharing out YOUR bedroom or sharing fancy bedrooms in other people’s apartments in great cities. And not building lots of hotel buildings.

Any other thoughts on designing sustainable prestige systems that don’t involve material things?

And I did get to see some great birds—Greater and Lesser Yellow Legs, Osprey, Dunlin, Snowy Egret, Eastern Phoebes and Oyster Catchers.

Reader Comments

Barbara P

April 12, 2009 10:55 PM

I love this line of thinking and it's been on my mind a lot lately.

Your non-material hotel system idea reminds me of, where members can offer their couch (or spare bedroom) or they can find a place to sleep when they are traveling. Members are rated and feedback is shared (liked ebay sellers) for how well they hosted and/or stayed with others.

Other similar sites that come to mind: (sharing parking spaces) (recycling unwanted items)

Thanks for another provocative post.

Steffi Siegmund

April 13, 2009 1:30 PM

I totally agree with you! Wrote my thesis about how to turn products into services. Used suitcases to show, how these would have to be improved to be useful and – most importantly – desirable to share. I strongly believe in the potential of "Sharing (…) as another category of sustainable prestige and identity formation."


April 14, 2009 6:09 PM

What a TERRIBLE Idea! Opening your home to strangers just because they have money? What if the guy you just rented your bedroom to is a SERIAL RAPIST! Rentals should stay rentals and private homes should stay private. Taxis should remain taxis and hitchhiking should remain illegal.


September 21, 2009 3:19 AM

it's not that terrible an idea; there will always be people who misuse the best of ideas..but sharing, if thought out and implemented properly can be a future option in ecotourism. it's a concept similar to a bed and breakfast. What we need is a way to discern the good from the bad..not ban the whole idea


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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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