Innovation & Design

Can Design Change the World?


The three-year-old Web site Worldchanging.com has quickly established itself as a source for original, sophisticated reporting on green technology and humanitarian tools and organizational models, among other altruistic topics. The editors' focus is on how people can cross-fertilize innovative ideas and collaborate on solutions to a variety of international environmental crises ranging from the quest for alternatives to Big Oil to the dearth of clean water in developing nations.

Worldchanging's executive editor, Alex Steffen, has now edited a book version of the site, Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century, which will be published in November. Part encyclopedia of socially conscious companies and movements, part picture-book (it includes gorgeous color photographs by leading photographers such as Edward Burtynsky), and part how-to instructions on becoming a greener consumer or business, the nearly 600-page volume is an invaluable resource you can use without booting up your computer (and so use electricity) to access Worldchanging.com.

And to justify the dead trees required to produce the tome—and set a compelling example for readers—publisher Harry N. Abrams printed each copy on 100% recycled, chlorine-free paper. Abrams also purchased wind credits (from www.renewablechoice.com) equal to the amount of electricity needed to manufacture the book.

Look Good Doing Good The book also serves as a snapshot of today's eco-chic, politically aware pop culture (think of Bono's Project Red initiative for proof of the current reach of the do-good, feel-good zeitgeist). And Worldchanging joins a growing wave of accessible resources aiming to educate the masses on the dire state of the environment and various international societal and political crises.

Former Vice-President Al Gore's global-warming documentary and best-selling book of the same title, An Inconvenient Truth, is the most obvious example. (It's worth noting that Gore wrote the foreword to Worldchanging.) The late-summer launch of hip, trendy Good magazine, which focuses on the marriage of socially conscious capitalism and idealism, is another.

And other recent titles, such as Design Like You Give a Damn, published in June by Architecture for Humanity, and the soon-to-be-released documentary film on climate change, The Great Warming, featuring Keanu Reeves and Alanis Morissette, reinforce the concept that popular culture is becoming a vehicle for samaritans to recruit others to various causes.

BusinessWeek.com's Reena Jana recently chatted with Alex Steffen about Worldchanging's concrete goals, the inspiration for the book, and how businesses and consumers might benefit from the examples presented in the volume and on Worldchanging.com. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow.

Worldchanging.com features dizzyingly varied subject matter, from sophisticated nanotech to DIY lamps made from discarded laundry-detergent containers. One thread is the idea is that cross-disciplinary design is the means for improving dire world crises. Why do you think innovation and design are as potent as, say, diplomacy or political or legal reform?

Actually, I think that innovation and design aren't the same thing, but part of the same constellation of approaches. We focus on people who are working on radically different solutions for many problems. Some are classic design projects. Others are about better ways of thinking, and others are about political action.

What's interesting is that many different fields are converging at this moment. We live in a culture of innovation. At this moment, across our global culture, there's a shared impulse to solve problems.

To paraphrase architect Buckminster Fuller, you don't solve problems by complaining. Why not address the problems directly rather than talk abstractly about, say, a refugee crisis?

Our book is about learning what people in fields other than your own have done and then using what you've learned to improve your own problems. Traditionally, different fields, such as architecture and automobile manufacturing, were siloed.

Product design and communications, poverty alleviation and urban planning were all separate things. But we think if we can combine approaches, we can become radically more effective. I like to refer to Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity, who uses the term "open source architecture," referring to the open-source movement in computing but then applying it to a new way to make a building.

The book aims to be a call to arms, to provoke individuals and corporations alike to act and solve a wide spectrum of arguably unrelated crises. Isn't that a bit ambitious?

An alarming part of my job is to confront how disheartening and how advanced our current crises are. There are serious climate problems, challenges of extreme poverty and epidemic disease. There are dramatic social inequities and human rights violations around the world. People are hearing those alarm bells.

I think it's not enough to be smart and talk about the problems—now it's becoming crucial to address how to change them. Our site and book are trying to disseminate knowledge from various arenas to spur imaginations and prod them to action. We hope the book will be a resource for people ready to do something and reimagine the world.

Of all the products and inventions in the book, which ones do you think have the potential to have the most far-reaching social and economic impacts?

One that is most iconic is the LifeStraw, a clean water provision device. It's easy to think of clean water in the abstract, but how do you make it possible in places where there is a lot of dangerous contamination? LifeStraw filters contaminated water instantly, so it is clean by the time it touches a person's lips. It could spark a real revolution.

There won't be a need to build purification plants, and the LifeStraw will be able to help those in most immediate need of clean water in a way that's cheaper and more instantly effective than any alternative. I also think the concept of pop-apart cell phones is going to have a huge impact. Hundreds of millions of people around the world have cell phones, and we also change them and upgrade constantly, meaning we throw out perfectly working phones and contribute to toxic e-waste.

One design problem that phone makers who want to recycle or reuse phones face is that it is time-consuming to take a discarded handset apart and put its components in the right bins before they can be reused. So phone designers are starting to design for disassembly. The idea is to make phones that will take only a couple of seconds to take apart. If the idea gets more widely adopted, we could actually move toward the ideal of a zero-waste manufacturing economy.

Green architecture gets a lot of press, and smart companies are starting to see that green buildings can not only help preserve the environment, but also help a business's bottom line—not to mention garner press. Can businesses even push themselves beyond LEED in terms of saving the environment and their own dollars?

Traditionally, environmentalists have been perceived as being antitech, antibusiness, and antiprosperity. We're now seeing a new kind of environmental movement that's interested in embracing science and technology for better solutions, and that includes businesses.

We talk a lot about a bright green economy. But the most negative force that has the largest environmental impact is inefficiency. Businesses need to get smarter about delivering what people want, without wasting resources. They need to realize that no one makes money by making more waste.

As for green architecture, LEED was the goal only a few years ago. But now people who are on the cutting edge are going beyond LEED, such as the development of totally self-sufficient, zero-energy-footprint flats in London, developed by Yorklake and BedZed. Businesses should realize that they will make more money if they push farther than LEED.

Some claim that buildings cost less up front by being built green—using materials from the site to cut down on transportation costs such as fuel, for example. I think we're now headed toward the goal of zero-energy, zero-waste buildings. Sure, it sounds really dramatic. But once we get a compelling, good example, the whole field of green architecture will shift.

Some companies don't have the resources to build a fancy new green building or develop a new green technology. What are alternative possibilities to producing "worldchanging" products?

I think some of the most impressive worldchanging designs aren't just things, but ways of thinking. The idea of car sharing from Zipcar is a brilliant innovation. A company such as Netflix does no green marketing, but it is a worldchanging business. It saves the resources that would have gone to the construction of a Blockbuster-like store.

And it saves consumers from using gas to drive to the video store. It saves plastic boxes, their manufacturing, etc. Netflix offers consumers the service they want, at a fraction of the ecological impact of the previous business model. It's important for companies to rethink processes. They don't need technological innovations. Services and not just products can be worldchanging.


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