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Humans and humanity

“Capitalism is a great technology, but a mediocre philosophy.” — REID HOFFMAN

By Kwame Ferreira, Co-founder and CEO of Impossible.

The difference between our species and the closest social animals comes down to three times the number of neurons. In large part because of it, we’ve become guardians of this planet. Guardians implies a responsibility to connect with those whom we guard. Our children, our elders, our animals, our oceans… yet most of the relationships we have on a daily basis is with products. We unlock our phone 150 times a day. We work on furniture, inside boxes. We commute in wheeled or winged containers. We sleep in products. We gift products. Products mediate our messages and connect us to each other. In all this, products and their supply chains hide the true relationship we have with this planet, each other and ourselves.

As product creators, we are pivotal in shaping these relationships. How we relate to each other is how we relate to the planet. Both relationships have become distant. We argue that empathy, as defined by design thinking, is not enough. It needs to be replaced with compassion. Compassion presupposes action. Empathy is passive.

Right now we have a weak form of empathy at the start of the creative process. This must change. Compassion needs to be the driving force that moves creativity forward all the way from problem to product. Compassion must be present throughout the whole creative process.

Charles Eames chair.

Charles Eames — I always loved his work

His travels in Mexico whilst he was trying to find a sense of direction, his slightly narcissistic approach to life. The wealthier people I’ve come across tend to own Eames furniture. To the point where it has almost become boring. If you sell your business or come across a lot of money, you will buy Eames. Especially if you have a design background in the west. It’s a massive generalization, but the point I’m trying to make is that the product and the creator have become one. The equivalent nowadays would be “Oh, I notice you are using a Zuckerberg”, or “You own a Musk.”

This melting of product and personality happens when the creator takes center stage. When his values shine through the product, as though the whole creative process was just a vehicle to productize them.

One of Charles Eames’ parables is that we must start from a pure place. When I first read it, it sounded like bullshit. Simply because it’s so subjective and personal. My pure place is different from yours. What if my pure place turns out to be harmful to others? There’s only so much you can question before you turn into a nihilist, but I disagree, I think good old Charlie was on to something, he just forgot to specify it. The reason why he did not specify it is because he was embracing a centuries-old tradition where the product creator is no different from the artist. Getting inspiration from the divine or finding his voice in his own reflection.

The whole You must find it inside yourself, is not only bullshit, narcissistic and cliché, but a sure way to keep fucking up the planet. Inside yourself you will find a variable amount of childhood trauma, experiences, for the most part derivative, a large propensity for compassion and learning, fear of heights, the lyrics to a Beatles’ song that you hum when you’re nervous, language instinct and a lot of sexuality to ensure your genes outlive you. Inside yourself you are not going to find a solution to anything beyond your individual problems.

Humanity is compassion

What you must do is broaden your level of compassion. You must focus on the values that connect you to others. The pure place is not the human, but the set of values we call humanity.

We’ve been starting the creative process with ourselves and our needs for so long now, that we can’t see beyond the mirror. We grow cities like mirrors (otherwise they would be mostly plant based). We walk around with mini mirror-like selfie devices. We’ve been building this path towards that inner pure place of the individual when the path should be outwards, towards others.

The pure place to start the process of problem solving which characterizes us, mission-driven product people, is humanity. Humanity is another word for compassion, but a more powerful one because it implies a wider breadth of values. Compassion is one, but transparency, openness and love are equally as important. It’s through humanity that we are able to better connect with the reality of others, even others who at this moment are eating krill and escaping orcas 8000 miles from where you are reading this. Or growing leaves in your backyard whilst being tickled by ants.

We advocate a methodology that augments current best practices by relying on a wider set of human values and in doing so, create products that in themselves lead to more humanity — a positive feedback loop. In other words, instead of focusing on human-centred design, focus on designing products that make us more human. Being more human simply means being more often than not, in states that surface our most admirable values. Our products need to help us on this impossible journey.

Right after you go through the visceral phase of convincing yourself and others of the selfish value of the product you’re about to create, you need to leave that space of self-centeredness and simplified convenience. Of visceral headlines and quick wins — and take the bus to a higher purpose. We use bus because it’s a part of the creative process where it’s easier to ride with others, but the important thing about the metaphor is that the only way out of a customer-centric mentality to a planet-centric one — is through humanity. You only get to escape your narrow circle of individual problems if you care, if you are open, if you are transparent. If you really want to see your values in all their beauty, prioritized.

How much empathy — has until now, been defined by you, the creator, at the start of the creative process. We argue otherwise. The amount of humanity needed, strange as it seems, is not solely defined by you, as a product creator — it’s defined by global needs and goals. Higher purposes than those defined by individual or business. Our challenge is to meet those needs and marry them with our visceral self-centered selves. In order to do so, we must look outwards more ambitiously than ever before.

Design thinking has argued that more empathy has led to better business. And it has delivered, even for companies that haven’t used it consciously or rigorously. But WE are no better off. On the whole, the products this type of thinking have created in the past 25 years, are responsible for accelerating the global emergency we find ourselves in. We argue that the only way out is through evolving empathy. So much more it almost needs a new name. Humanity.

Only humanity can help us solve for life beyond the individual customer, for communities of other humans and living creatures — and in the process be even better for business.

The pure place, Charlie, is not inside you, but in the compassionate drive to connect with others. Starting the caring journey from a planetary perspective will always be pure as it sets us on a path to balance. To solve for equilibrium rather than for infinite growth.

Monotheistic religions, as opposed to animistic religions where rivers had souls, did little more than deify men at the expense of nature. They broke our connection with the planet. As we became gods and all our gods, prophets and saints became exclusively human-like, it seems we lost our humanity. Whenever I hear human-centred design, it sounds like a design upgrade where humans are worshipped at the expense of the planet. But this story is now changing. There is a new generation of product creators who are starting to worship the planet in all its beauty and through worship, we are understanding it better and connecting with it more meaningfully.

The future for humanity‘s relationship with nature

After visiting a company in Silicon Valley that grows vertical gardens, mostly controlled by robots, I realized the wars of the near future aren’t going to be between humans and robots. That narrative is a distraction. The war will be waged between those who continue to deify men at nature’s expense and those who aim to protect all the other living creatures that don’t have a voice. Half the earth for us, half for human-free nature? In the rewilding wars, product creators will pick sides through the choices they make when creating products. That’s how political our craft is. We have two options, to continue to push the story of consumption and perpetual growth or a more solar punk vision of circular inter-dependence. Products are the weapons through which we commodify this planet and create distance from it. They can also be the tools through which we find closer relationships between ourselves and all other living creatures.

We’ve been waging war on the rest of the planet for at least 100,000 years. In this time we’ve brought 90% of most other animal species to extinction. For plants, the number is also significantly high. We, humans, on the other hand, have multiplied from tens of thousands to billions, and extended our life-spans by a good few decades. We are beyond dominant. Do we need more lean startup design thinking customer centricity? No, we need more humanity in our creative process so that the products and startups we create don’t become yet more worshipping altars for and by men.

In 1948, the UN General Assembly created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by representatives of diverse cultural backgrounds, it sets out fundamental human rights to be universally protected. It sets out a common standard of achievement for all peoples. We did not create an equivalent for the rest of the planet. Our self-interest came first.

In 1972, the law professor Christopher Stone published a seminal article, Should Trees Have Standing? In it, Stone argues with that there was a time when slaves and women had no rights and that, against all odds, changed and how the same is happening for other non-human living things. But why? Why this surge in humanity towards non-humans? Where does this idea that has contaminated people of diverse nations around the world, come from? This new wonderful story. The answer lies in our orbital perspective as much as in the inbuilt frustration with current status. It lies in the fact that it’s better for business.

Today, we have environmental laws that legalize quarries, logging, drilling, fishing, dumping… the consequences, as we’re measuring, have been devastating on the natural world. The legal framework hasn’t been working for everyone. Nature is dealt with as a fragmented resource management problem with purely economic outlines. But it’s changing. There is an emerging awareness that our relationship with nature needs more balance.

After decades of environmentalism, indigenous awareness and scientists’ warnings, we’ve reached the cultural tipping point. The story we want to be a part of is changing, globally. It clamors for true inclusiveness, transparency, openness and fairness.

In 2006, in Pennsylvania, the first law recognizing nature’s legal rights prevented PCBs being dumped into an abandoned coal mine. It was the world’s first. Nature went from being rightless to having rights. At least 10 more states followed suit.

In 2008, Ecuador enshrined the rights of Mother Earth (pachamana) into its constitution. Bolivia, Colômbia, India are following suit and many others are working on adopting rights-of-nature legal frameworks. The enslaving of nature created a liberation movement on its behalf. Just like in abolitionist times, the struggle is fierce to get nature to have the same rights as people. What if a mountain kills a human being, could charges be brought against it?

In 2019, Argentina moved to give the last 250 jaguars in the wild legal rights with activists asking for the whole species to be recognized. We’re still waiting.

We also acknowledge arguments against deploying human rights as a blanket protection for non-human nature. It’s a complex issue, but the drive behind this desire for equality is humanity and compassion at its best.

Karma is not, unlike what most people think, a point system based on the consequences of your actions. It’s actually the energy behind our actions. It pertains to our desire and intention. Humanity is our Karma as we create. It’s the force behind the necessary move from visceral and individual to planetary thinking. The drive behind understanding our place in nature and our role in achieving balance. We won’t be able to do so without an extreme form of empathy. Compassion. How else would you justify giving rivers the same rights as people?

We’ve come to realize, when we put our phones down, that our physical and mental health isn’t tied to nature. It is nature. The best way to preserve our species is by treating other species as though they were humans. This requires more than empathy, it requires humanity.

The creative process that allows us to create products and by consequence, breathes life into corporations and markets, needs humanity to endure. It needs a new set of values based on compassion — that sets us apart from our industrial past. If you are a product creator, the choices you make are informed by the values you embody. You must own those and bring them to the fore. You will be hired based on those rather than your knowledge of design thinking. Be more ambitious, don’t start your creative journey with empathy as prescribed by design thinking. The choices you make mean less or more people and animals have to suffer. The link is not imaginary. It’s direct, even though still hard to measure when you’re in the middle of the creative process. We will show you how.

You might also like these articles about planet centric design thinking.

Photo credits: Raphael Nogueira, Justin Jason and Coleen Rivas.

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We are a team of designers, engineers, consultants and communicators who have a passion for preserving our world. These are our stories.