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Painting of The Three Dutch Women by Pablo Picasso 1905.
The Three Dutch Women (Les Trois Hollandaise) by Pablo Picasso 1905.

When problems become goals

By Kwame Ferreira

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” — PABLO PICASSO

When creating products we define their experience, even forecast sales, some say 80% of its environmental impact is determined at the design phase even though there is little evidence this is accurate. Whatever the number is, it will be high. Very high. We know it is having a environmental and societal impact, yet we don’t consider it a problem to solve as we design the product, unless the product is being designed to solve that specific environmental or societal problem. This happens because product creators think in one dimension. They are solving one problem. We argue that a mindset shift towards a goal-oriented approach at the design phase is likely to be more impactful than the lean startup approach of solving one problem at a time. We will have to measure this, but the thesis is strong enough to merit trying it — as it ensures that whatever the product, its impact ambition will be set early on as opposed to offset later.

There was a time when we were constantly asking what problem we were solving when creating products. You’d hear it when pitching to venture capitalists. What problem are you solving?

Then came the time, coinciding with a mix of overproduction of elites and the ecocide going mainstream, when the questions shifted from problem to purpose. They came in the form of a Why? What are your values? A new generation of stories surfaced. Everyone was wanting to save something — whales, turtles, monkeys, mountains, forests, oceans, humans…. Well, purpose is not enough. If we are to enact real change, we need goals and transparent ways of meeting them. Purpose is about intention, and we know the world is filled with good intentions. Goals however, set ambition and a true orbital perspective. Measurable key results ensure we mean what we create.

Escaping

Before we escape this planet we must escape the tyranny of the individual user.

Some would argue that the present course is the true course to guarantee our species’ survival. By growing at an exponential rate, not only in numbers but in sophistication, we are killing our home planet, but we are also creating the necessary means to shoot ourselves into the stars and perpetuate life beyond this beautiful rock. By staying on this planet, by trying to find balance on it, we are no safer from the cruel randomness of nature. An asteroid. A major volcanic explosion. Another presidential tantrum. Instead of trying to fix every problem within it, we must escape this planet in order to preserve life. Life, some of us believe, must escape the cruel grip of this planet and we are, either by virtue of our genetic program or sheer carelessness, ensuring we do exactly that. Escape.

If you talk with Silicon Valley luminaries, you will hear that for the most part, they believe the solution to our greenhouse problem amongst other problems, is already baked into the exponential rate of technological development we are experiencing. Just like the blacksmith believes most problems can be solved with a hammer, in Silicon Valley, the belief is that startups will solve most planetary problems. How can we argue with that if, in the past decades, they’ve created products that allow us to get obscure Cambodian food delivered to our door in less than 30 minutes or confidently book a stranger’s home on the other side of the planet or see a doctor from the comfort of our phone?

A humanist perspective would ask: Have these products and startups added to our life-expectancy? Lowered the child mortality rate? Measurably improved our public health or literacy? Are our institutions stronger? Are we better off as a whole?

Can we keep our best and only spaceship, Earth, in as good condition as possible as we travel the cosmos — and still shoot for the stars? I’m an optimist. I think we can achieve both. We will only achieve this by taking into account planetary goals first as we create life-altering products.

We’ve intertwined the fate of our species and all other species with the way we create products. It’s not the thinking that has gotten us into trouble. It’s the doing. We must change the way we create. The How. If we are to survive, we can no longer create for market-fit alone, we must upgrade to planet-fit. And just like market-fit is measurable, so must planet-fit be.

Walk into a forest. Go for a swim in the ocean. There is so much to discover. So much nature can teach us. Most of the forests surrounding us are second or third generation, meaning at some point they’ve been completely cut down to make products. In the San Francisco region, gold was discovered in 1848 and the demand for wood soared. The region has never recovered its original forests or grasslands. The once numerous Californian indigenous tribes relied on wild animals for their subsistence. Deer, pronghorn, elk and other species. But they did so in relative harmony, the main reason being: they did not kill for profit. They understood balance.

Green, black and gold contemporary painting by Endza Babakhanyan.
Golden Planets, 2018 by Endza Babakhanyan (Armenian artist).

Point outwards

Silicon Valley has been our school and inspiration as we create products. A tempered place not far from the hills where gold was discovered and where over a period of almost 32 years, intense hydraulic mining radically changed a once pristine landscape, stripping it of nutrients and poisoning it with mercury. It is then, by no great irony, that for years now, many of our actions as product creators have been stripping us of our humanity (core positive values) and defining our future by ignoring it. Just focusing on present customer problems. Software eating the world.

Our products have allowed us to move forward to neo-feudal times, a dystopian time where not only is democracy manipulated, but workers are ruled by algorithms that take most of the wealth and give it to the algorithm lords. We have done so not by malice, but by design. By solely focusing on the individual user to the detriment of everything else. Focusing on this new gold, hacking into human behavior, using software to strip away all community and isolate us.

The planet will be fine, it is us humans that won’t — is a missive I hear a lot. We don’t live in isolation. We are part of nature’s web before we are part of the world wide web. Yes, we can and have engineered and productized life, but the complexity of our planet’s natural life support systems is not trivial nor easy to replicate.

Planetary problems have become human problems and vice versa. We’re directly responsible for the perilous imbalance we find ourselves in. The overarching ‘why’ needs to simply be: reverse this course. We need to point the other way. We need to point outwards towards the natural world, not inwards towards the individual.

Unicorns are monocultures

Products need to be created under a different value system. Right now it’s Silicon Valley’s transhumanistic philosophy setting the pace, pointing us towards the stars and a melting of electronic circuitry with consciousness. It is fascinating, but why not innovate on how this new value system measures impact?

To continue to measure this journey solely on financial performance feels so short-sighted for a tribe whose products have literally changed the face and entrails of the planet. Surely we can do better. Governments are being measured by how many unicorns they have. The mythical monopolistic creature unicorn. Not the narwhal whale, whose numbers have decreased to the brink of extinction. Not a real creature. Our destiny continues to be ruled by the pursuit of an imaginary entity. The drive and pursuit of the unicorn or any other imaginary creatures focuses the energy on the dreamer. The gold digger, rather than the earth being dug. Becomes religious rather than delicious.

Whenever we create products we always ask what problem is being solved. Until recently, we thought that was the important question to ask. The problem is problems can be made up. If we take a customer-centric approach, we find ourselves spending most of our time solving user problems that come up as the products themselves evolve. User problems which are inexistent in the absence of the product in the first place. The positioning of keys in a remote control. How many clicks to a purchase. We then measure against engagement, retention, profit… and we quickly lose sight of what real problems we are solving. We’re so deep in our own bullshit that we start confusing user problems with human problems. All equally important.

Blue, green and white contemporary painting by Tricia Strickfaden.
Bauhaus Blue, 2021 by Tricia Strickfaden (American artist).

Form follows function. Function follows you.

The simplicity of the early renaissance gave rise to the colonial opulence of the baroque. Well, — when distilled in values, the product journey in the past 100 years is not too dissimilar. Starting with an early reaction to industrial ‘ugliness’, product creators in the Werkbund and later Bauhaus started distilling universal languages by marrying different disciplines into their creative process. Humanity had to prevail against the inevitable onslaught of factory machines. Of war. The designer was born. The future they envisioned, radically different from anything that preceded it, was taking into account a more holistic approach to all forms of human creativity, but it was also deeply pragmatic. Form follows function. The way products were used by people informed their shape, from buildings to crockery to white goods.

‘Form follows function’ was great. It created a new aesthetic, minimalism. But function started following the customer. Relentless focus on the individual. That is how customer centricity was born. That is the legacy we take into new product creation. Form follows function is great, but if the function is to serve humans and only humans, the forms we create will become increasingly bloated and grotesque mirrors.

The simplicity of a humanistic renaissance gave rise to a colonial baroque-like decadence where the customer became God and required increasing and copious amounts of convenience.

The efforts of Dieter Rams, Stark or Ive as product creators, when we look at their work as the logical evolution of the Bauhaus legacy, have for the most part, failed the planet.

We find ourselves in a short-sighted arms race like the Cold War. Phones had one camera, now they have five… kind of solutions. For this reason, as we create products, we need to quickly go from a problem-oriented mindset to a goal-oriented mindset. Failing to do so will create waste rather than meaning.

Creator goals

I prefer to focus on the creators, because creators can enact change from within companies. Even if the company is not aligning with a particular global goal.

When we create products, why don’t we instil them with the ambition of taking individuals on a journey to community and a larger sense of self? Well, you can argue that most companies don’t do that, so their products won’t either. But the wicked problem is not governance, it lies with creators like ourselves.

Until more purpose led creators create products that have impact beyond the balance sheet thus creating companies with a purpose, you may find yourself lonely in that company of yours. Don’t. It is your creative process that will change the company you work for. And your creative process is a reflection of your ambition to venture beyond the individual.

For this, we have to stop asking startups what problem they are solving and focus on what goals they are helping to achieve and how they are measuring those. The great thing is that we don’t have to set those goals every time we start a creative process. 192 nations have come together to set them. It’s a lesson in humility for the God-like product creators we have become. Our job is to chart a path through them.

A path through, outwards

Global goals have been set by scientific evidence and a desire for togetherness. Ok, let’s start the creative process talking about problems, we are gossipy individuals after all, but let’s end that conversation with goals. Global goals. My phone is helping to solve inequality. Much better than my phone has 5 cameras.

OKRs. Objectives and Key Results is a methodology devised by Andy Grove at Intel and later adopted by the unicorns of Silicon Valley and now, it is widely used across a number of different industries. It’s very simple at its core. We set objectives. They tend to be ambitious. Then we lay down measurable key results that must be achieved in order to try and fulfil those objectives. Objective: End poverty. Key results: Educate X percentage of the population. Create X amount of jobs… You get the gist.

When creating products, OKRs help align everyone in the business. Alignment is the key. Equally, when you think about the product you’re creating, you want it to be aligned to a higher purpose. If you just focus on solving problems, you will miss a sense of direction. You need that direction, pointing towards nature. You need momentum, escape velocity from the individual. As you map your problem landscape, do you see a clear path through community towards nature?

In the various paths from the individual to nature, you will find that most of the goals are human-centric, and only four are nature-centric: Goal 6 Clean water, Goal 13 Climate action, Goal 14 Life below water, and Goal 15 Life on land. Most of us are just solving for the human-centric goals like Goal 8, Decent work and economic growth or Goal 9 Industry, innovation and growth. If you work in education you are solving for Goal 4, if you work in Health you are solving for Goal 3.

The ask: Make sure you go all the way and the products you create are not detrimental to the above mentioned nature-based goals 6, 13, 14 and 15. Without those, there is no life as we know it.

Share your value path as you add value to individuals, to communities and the planet. Fairphone is a great example where the path is open for everyone to audit. Share your product goals and your progress. Goals paint a measurable picture of the future. We need that measurable picture in order to navigate forward together. As such, goals must be a part of our creative process.

Painting of circles that form a face from a distance by Gavin Rain.
Eva Peron by Gavin Rain (South African artist).

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Impossible

Impossible

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