Design thinking is killing our home planet

Jul 22 · 5 min read

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” — HANLON’S RAZOR

By Kwame Ferreira — Co-Founder and CEO at Impossible

Through creative processes, we create products, both digital and physical. We create with the customer at the center. We dedicate all our energy trying to satisfy the customer. We call them humans, users, targets, people… and we solve their problems. Whatever these may be.

We’ve become so good at it that we discard and disregard everything that is not relevant to solving customer problems. Do you want a car at your door in 3 minutes? But of course. Your food delivered to you in 20 minutes? We can solve that. A new shiny phone with a bigger screen? Coming right up. From afar, it looks like we are appeasing a bratty toddler by indulging their every whim. Anything to not have to deal with a tantrum.

The planet, the stage upon which all this takes place, is usually an afterthought for when the product gets market fit. We often don’t think planet fit until the business makes it. That’s when businesses tend to offset their negative impact, start auditing their practices and looking at balancing their footprint.

We argue that it’s usually too late. That we are in this mess because of this type of thinking, or not thinking. That we need to reverse the creative process.

Design thinking. Evidence based design. User centered design. Human centric design. Emotional design. The list goes on, yet for the most part they speak to the same end goal. These methodologies have become so honed at creating products, both digital and physical, which are sexy, addictive and irresistible, that we can’t stop making and buying more of them. They do solve problems for the individual. Unfortunately, the better they become at solving individual pain points, the more problematic they become to the rest of the planet.

Design thinking is an extremely successful methodology, through which businesses have found a way to improve their products by giving customers what they desire.

We product lovers, anchor our creations on human experience. Usually visceral human experience. We look at a problem space from the perspective of a suffering customer for which a drug must be engineered. If we can solve it for the customer, then the business behind the solution will own the solution and will do well.

Customer-centric quickly became rebranded as human-centric in the late 2000’s. In reality, it is more of the same. A methodology that goes to the core of what it means to be a human, according to a market-centric logic of the twentieth century. In fact, what design thinking has been doing is reducing our humanity to individuality.

Design thinking is not evil. It can and has been used for the greater good, if the business using it is that way inclined. The problem is it does not change the fundamental nature of businesses — if businesses aren’t already forces for good to start with. Design thinking just focuses on optimizing creative processes through a more customer-centric approach. Now a sexier, rebranded human-centric approach. Design thinking is industry agnostic. Gun manufacturers will use design thinking to create better guns, and they do. As product creators, the design thinking that we want should not only create better guns, but reframe the whole business as a force for good. That is our ambition for Planet Centric Design.

Design thinking and all its derivatives start at the individual level, not at the planetary level. We start by observing and understanding human behavior and experiences. But, in order to go from Individual to Planetary, you need humanity.

Caring for something beyond oneself has to come at the beginning of the creative process, not at the end.

Humanity is the value system by which humans transcend their individuality. Their natural short-term thinking. As a value system, it is what connects us to other living beings on this planet and to a sense of responsibility hailing from our overwhelming power. Observing customer behavior in order to solve for the individual is, we argue, short-sighted.

Design thinking has been hailed as the silver bullet for corporate creativity and innovation. Companies who don’t want to be left behind in a highly competitive environment turn to it as a way to innovate internally. They turn to it to put the human or customer at the center of their focus. The human being with a set of problems they are willing to pay for. Solving for what the customer is willing to pay for.

For centuries we haven’t thought about what happens to products after they are used. We learned how to put the individual at the center but we treated the planet like a garbage bin because we have been unwilling to look beyond the immediacy of customer needs.

What if there was a better way to innovate? One that puts the planet rather than the human at the center. One that would extend the customer-focused approach to all life, converting us into guardians rather than tyrants. A methodology that would invite us to step forward towards others and look at the big picture. Solve for more than the customer, more than the individual. Crazy idea? Ideas contaminate people and change our behavior. Design thinking has done so. It has made products more efficient and profitable. The challenge now is to make them more planet centric and in the process, regain the balance our home planet needs to sustain all life.

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Photo credits: Nick Fewings, Kelly Sikkema and Red Zeppelin.


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