A case for planet centric design

by Kwame Ferreira

I plead guilty

Late last year I had a realization. We, designers and engineers, are greatly responsible for the current ecological nightmare we live in. We’ve helped tip the scale. The human sphere is dominant. The biosphere is dying. Convenience trumps conservation. Wait, what? We designers and engineers? Responsible? Yes your honor. I plead guilty.

Shiny objects

The products we’ve been helping create and market are so delightful, so engaging and addictive. So well manufactured and desirable that we can’t help ourselves. We buy more and more. They are also very seasonal, won’t last very long and surround themselves with a marketing machine that is purely data driven. Hard to escape. It is our success at creating these amazing products that is killing the planet.

You get the gist, as a creator I am the killer. Pollution is a design and engineering choice, not a consumer consequence.

The ‘buy less’, ‘make it last longer’, ‘source responsibly’ message is not compatible with Amazon prime, Deliveroo, the iPhone or most fashion items. That’s ok. They were not designed with the planet in mind. They were made for crying babies.

The crying baby

Putting the user at the centre of the creative process is only logical. We are after all creating for users. Design thinking continues to make perfect sense. The issue is that as we get better at user-centered thinking we accelerate our and other species’ demise.

Design doing, or a more evidence based approach adopted by many practices, makes for a more efficient way to get to products and market fit. What about planetary fit?

The products that user centered methodologies create are solutions to users and by default to businesses, but create a problem for the rest of the biosphere.

When you put the crying baby, (which is how convenience driven users behave), at the centre of your creative process, you are going to have to work very hard to make sure you have a solution that makes them happy. It’s hard work. You don’t get to the perfect iPhone bevel overnight. It takes real r&d and years of investment. Do designers really need to have the extra burden of the ‘planet’ to deal with? Their job is hard enough as it is. All those crying babies to satisfy. The convenience bar ever higher.

We know that if you give in to a crying baby all the time, you are not going to fix the situation. But yet we do give in. We suspend our humanity for simple short term thinking.

Hope

No ground breaking service has ever started in a workshop with a blank business canvas. If you don’t have a problem you need to solve, look for one. No toolkit will help you in this.

Once you’ve identified the problem, then some structure can help. That’s why designers rely on toolkits and frameworks and a whole bunch of post its.

If your solution brings balance to the planet, it will add more value to the user. Duh, so you love your car, but if in the long run it gives you lung cancer, then it’s not really valuable, is it? Most of the products we use, whether imbued by planned obsolescence or not, are the consequence of our short term thinking. In that sense they are natural. Nature, in a Darwinian sense, does not do long term planning.

We as a species however, are defined by long term thinking. It’s what sets us apart. Planet centric thinking adds that long term, planetary layer to product development. By doing so it’s actually making your product more human. It makes it more in tune with the need for planetary balance. Good for everyone. We hope.

Fixing flowers

If you want to fix a flower, you fix its environment. The same goes for products. If we want to fix them we must change the manner in which they are created, not make them shinier.

Recycling is not convenient. It’s an actual pain. Yet we do it. Because we care.

Planet centric design is adding this thinking and doing to the design process. Yes, it adds another layer, a planetary one, but in the grander scheme of things, it will give purpose to your creativity and problem solving nature. Purpose to your products.

Alignment with the UN 17 goals

After a few decades of just doing, creators are now turning towards doing with purpose. What does this mean? Well, they are simply getting pickier about what problems need solving.

The UN’s sustainable development goals are a good start. Yes, they are very high level. It’s up to us to narrow down to specifics. This back and forth journey from big planetary picture to focused user centric product is new and exciting. Having global goals as a big picture, helps us in our journey towards balance. Seriously, check them out. If time is all we have as individuals, which goal are you and the business you are creating or working for, dedicating time to?

You’ll realise the goals are conveniently phrased to accommodate most activities. The focus required to solve them however, must come from us as we create new products, businesses and manage our resources.

Equilibrium

“Hello world”, I’ve always loved that statement. That first simple program where we humans tell computers to say hello, to the world. It’s no longer enough to acknowledge its existence. “Hello world. How can I help?” is now more appropriate.

The planet will be fine irrespective of our survival or demise. Our goal as creators is to strike an equilibrium between the human sphere and biosphere. A balance that is needed for our survival as well as enjoyment. We need to work as a species to achieve a balance within this planet. Designers and engineers play a central role in this. In ensuring the complexity we have created does not destroy us and other species.

Now go create for the planet.

Download the open source Planet Centric Design toolkit.