Design Thinking: Making Sustainability Irresistible

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By Ala Kazlova, ex-InnoVentum

What do you imagine when you picture a successful, affluent lifestyle? Perhaps a beautiful mansion with breathtaking views, a collection of supercars, maybe even a swanky private jet, dream-like holidays on St Barts, chic parties where people flaunt jaw-droppingly expensive jewellery and designer clothing — something along those lines? Do you ever think of solar panels, wind turbines, smart energy storage systems, electric vehicles or sustainably grown food in this context? I bet you don’t! And this is — somewhat paradoxically — one important reason why sustainable lifestyle is not mainstream.

The sustainable lifestyle is a conscious choice for the very few: eco-fans of all sorts and a small proportion of new green technocrats. And this is bad news for us all, because this minority — no matter how vegan, ascetic and carbon-negative they go — won’t save our planet from the climate change disasters.

One might ask: why does it matter that the rich exude poisonous fumes driving their Lamborghinis — after all, they are so few in proportion to the seven billion people living today. Well, they take disproportionately large space on the media agenda, where most people we see are millionaires many times over. They influence (through media) or directly manage (through their businesses) billions of people around the world and this power cannot be underestimated. People tend to imitate prestigious lifestyle in any way they can and if sustainable choices were part of such a high-fly lifestyle we’d probably see amazingly rapid growth in popularity of green choices among the general public. But it’s just not the case at the moment.

Interestingly, the problem lies not only within the non-sustainable behavior of the rich. Part of the blame for lack of sustainable choices in the “rich” lifestyle should be taken by the sustainable business itself: most of the players do not produce appealing, well-designed solutions that talk to our emotional side, evoke aesthetic feelings and give any chance for an impulse purchase.

The majority of eco-related businesses produce solutions that are practical and functional only speak to our rational side. Communication within the sustainability sector is often highly complex, full of technical details, requiring analytical thinking and rational decision-making. If it appeals to our emotional side then it’s always about our moral choice, “doing the good thing” and helping the mankind — there is no promise of pleasure, happiness, simple gratification and prestige in this message. The messages either vividly picture the doomsday and their main component is fear — or they picture ascetic lifestyle that couldn’t be further from the aspirations of a “normal” consumer. It is impossible to deny that the egocentric orientation of the customer is highly “selling” for the brands — and that sustainable business has not quite embraced it.

Of course, I wouldn’t like painting all sustainable businesses with the same black paint of doom — there are several outstanding examples of how sustainability can co-exist with desirability and prestige.

Reaching the elite first

The first example that comes to everyone’s mind is of course Tesla electric supercars. It is being rumored that the first Tesla Roadsters have been “given” to Hollywood celebrities, so that they get the taste for these new creations and are of course seen driving it. If paparazzi take photographs and celebrities speak about their experience on social media, then the general public would talk and dream about having one of these beautiful e-vehicles. The success path of Tesla that has revolutionized the market of EVs has been well-documented and well-presented in the media, so we won’t dwell on it for too long.

So it’s better to look at another example of making sustainability desirable by the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world — this time in haute cuisine.

Dan Barber is a celebrated American chef and a co-owner of two Michelin-starred restaurants. According to Tim Adams of The Observer: “he has the reed-thin rigour of a stoic and the endlessly curious palate of a hedonist”.

His restaurants attract the world elite of the highest caliber, such as former President Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. Barber advocates for the creation of consciousness about the effects of everyday food choices and food sustainability. He not only sources food that is grown locally and sustainably; he collaborates with farmers and scientists to create new varieties of edible plants that he “breeds for taste.” He advocates for farming that is based on naturally complementing species and traditional agricultural techniques and condemns the mega farms producing vast quantities of suboptimal quality food. His educational and policy making work has been very effective and made him one of the world’s most influential people in Time Magazine’s annual Time 100 in 2009. His “farm-to-table movement” has gone viral among the aspiring chefs of the world and thanks to him we see a lot more effort in walking the talk of sustainability in restaurants.

But if you wonder why Dan Barber’s restaurants are so popular — it’s not because of sustainability, it’s because the food tastes wonderful. His restaurant couldn’t have been named #11 among the top 50 restaurants of the world in 2017 if this wasn’t the case. For me, his main achievement is that he shows that one doesn’t need to sacrifice when it comes to the taste of food in order to be sustainable. He shows that we can actually enjoy being sustainable.

One can probably find more successful examples of the same principle — coupling sustainability with desirability and prestige — but I doubt there would be many. And we need many more such businesses if we want to shift the paradigm and avoid collapse on the global scale.

Design will charm us into sustainability

I believe that the first step that many sustainable companies can take is to embrace design thinking and focus more on the aesthetics of their solutions. This is a much more treacherous path than many think, but such an investment shall pay generous dividends in the future.

At InnoVentum, we try making renewable energy solutions that are not only functional but also beautiful and desirable. However, in the grand scheme of things, what is preserved for the future generations: a purely utilitarian water feature or, say, Trevi Fountain in Rome?

Renewable energy installations by InnoVentum

We — as well as other sustainable entrepreneurs and creators adhering to the same principle — do not have the ambition to create works of art, but we appeal to emotions and the aesthetic sense of people. We make them “buy in” sustainability with their feelings. Aesthetics is the universal language that is understood by many — it evokes dreams, desires and passions. We open the possibility for people to be charmed by sustainable products, desire them and be proud of their purchase. We appeal to the side that doesn’t require rational thinking and speaks to the oldest (in evolutionary terms) parts of the human brain. We hope that this path will help us make renewable energy more acceptable and much more widespread — to the benefit of us all.

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