Are you ready for the design-led revolution?

Over the past year I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with the sustainability team at Autodesk to envision their support for the design-led revolution. Haven’t heard of it? You may not know the DLR moniker, but you’ve seen revolutionary design in action. From affordable prosthetics to solar robotics, high-impact solutions are emerging everywhere. And just in the nick of time!

The reinvention needed to make our planet livable for 9 billion is immense, and I love that Autodesk is committed to helping designers, architects, builders, engineers, and entrepreneurs reshape our world. We need more companies like this leading the way.

Their aim isn’t only to raise awareness about epic challenges and inspire people to do what’s right, although that’s certainly a big part of it. It’s also about helping designers and companies get ahead of  the inevitable resource shortages, urbanization, and climate change coming our way. To stay relevant — and profitable — in the future, you must start thinking differently now.

So, how will you design a better future?

Credit where credit’s due: The awesome folks at Free Range are the storytellers behind the design-led revolution video, manifesto, and hero case studies.

…Put up a parking lot

I live in downtown San Leandro, California, a city east of San Francisco that is more like a small town than a suburb. It’s one of the most walkable areas I’ve ever lived  — better than my neighborhoods in SF and Chicago, even — and the city is working hard to develop the downtown core as a transit village.

The newest target of redevelopment is former Albertson’s grocery store, Lucky before that, which sat empty for years after more than 55 years in operation. After Albertson’s pulled out, the city failed to lure a Trader Joe’s and then the neighborhood blocked two discount chains who wanted the space. The fight between those who want to gentrify downtown and those who want to bring in retailers that would serve the working-class locals is a familiar tug of war.

Fenced off and neglected, the abandoned store has long been an eyesore, a constant reminder of a struggling city in a tough economy. As I learned when researching a food project, empty grocery stores are a particular challenge to re-let — they have an architecture and square footage that is unique to grocery stores, yet other grocers are wary of taking on a failed space. After many tanked plans and heated discussions, the city has purchased it to use as a temporary parking lot while they rebuild a downtown garage. After that, they will attempt to find retailers to anchor a mixed-use space. I can only hope by then the economy will have strengthened and other city development plans will have taken strong enough root to support it.

The company in charge of the demolition claims to be “environmentally conscious”, recycling 75% of materials generated and properly handling toxins. It’s such a specific claim it makes me wonder if this is unusual, or if most firms do it but don’t talk about it. After all, they are paid for scrap and charged for landfill runs so it would be logical for most demolition companies to encourage recycling at a minimum. On the other hand, I have watched firsthand as a construction crew junked leftover, whole pieces of expensive material. Even if the owners and contractors don’t support waste, this ethic may not trickle down the the workers who simply want to get the site cleared as fast as possible.

Sustainable Brands

In June I was able to attend part of the Sustainable Brands 09 conference in Monterey. Some conference highlights:

Corporate iguanas

My favorite moment of the conference came with the reference by Dev Patnaik to “Corporate Iguanas”. The reptilian brain has no empathy or social awareness, which leads reptiles to “treat each other like furniture” and eat their own. That certainly does sound like a few corporations I know.

People who need people

The social and organizational sides are often left out of the sustainability conversation, presumably because the environmental stuff is easier to measure and understand. However, People is indeed one of the 3 Ps so I was heartened to see Frito-Lay includes Talent as a major part of their sustainability strategy. Creating a sustainable organization relies on the ability to attract and retain the best employees.

Proverb from the Sun Chips guy

If you want 1 year of prosperity, plant corn.
If you want 10 years of prosperity, plant trees.
If you want 100 years of prosperity, educate people.


Jez Frampton of Interbrand says 95% of customers would consider buying green products, but only 22% do — that’s the opportunity space. (I thought this was contradicted by another number that stated somewhere north of 10% actively refuse to buy green, so how can 95% consider it?) He also said only 42% of CEOs say sustainability is on their agenda and only 19% of boards say so. Nice to see the boards are taking their oversight responsibilities seriously. I was disappointed that Frampton’s discussion about expressing the lifetime impact of buying a BMW somehow stopped at ownership, overlooking end of life entirely.

Effecting change

At the end of day 2, I finally saw a system map! (I have an unnatural love of system diagrams and process graphics.) A consultant working with Starbucks brought together all the coffee cup stakeholders, from Dow through the municipal recycling facility, and familiarized them with each other and how they interconnect. An important takeaway was that even though there may be parts of the system that have a larger impact, the party that feels the pain is the one who will make the change. In this case, it’s Starbucks that is doing the work because it benefits from or is punished by the sustainability PR.

Familiar faces

It was nice to be at a conference where I know people! The MBA in Design Strategy program was well represented by our program chair, Nathan Shedroff, who was speaking, plus another instructor and a big handful of our guest lecturers. This conference was a very friendly bunch, much more so than design conferences I have attended, and our program gave me a good opening to talk with strangers.

The speaker from IDEO, Owen Rogers, seemed familiar and I realized we were at a workshop together in Kansas City 7 years ago! That workshop was one of my first encounters with Nathan, too.

Tone Deaf

Recently I was astonished to see this Sherwin Williams logo, which I assumed old signage. Seriously, who in the world would think this logo is a good idea? I was wrong. This very old mark — which, to its credit, looks decades newer than its pre-1900 origins — is in fact still the approved Sherwin Williams logo. How have I never noticed this before?

It’s easy to imagine an ambitious young paint company loving the original idea: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could paint every building in the world with our revolutionary standardized paints?” But in the current context of environmental awareness, the intent is overshadowed. Even if you overlook the bloodiness of the paint they are still, quite literally, pouring toxic paint over the earth.

Paint that ends up down drains and in landfills is a hazard to environmental health and water supplies, and this image gives the worst possible impression of their attitudes towards corporate responsibility. I can hardly grasp what must be flat-out stubbornness behind the decision to stand by this logo. More companies should honor their brand history, but this is simply an absence of good sense.

In branding, your intentions don’t matter; what matters is what people perceive. Sherwin-Williams has a statement defending the mark and their sustainability initiatives, but refusing to acknowledge public perception is a colossal branding misstep.

Michelle Bachelet

Recently Michelle Bachelet, the first female president of Chile, visited California to sign an alternative energy pact and afterwards she spoke at UC Berkeley.

I was disappointed that we heard very little about the renewable energy agreement at the speech. Evidently that discussion happened up at the Berkeley Labs and not on campus as advertised. However, it was still exciting to hear her vision for Chile — despite my cynicism, I have to admit she said all the right things about equitable growth and social justice. There were a few times in the speech when I wondered if she might be persuaded to run our country, too! Her vision sounded more honest and insightful than anything I’ve heard from an American president in my lifetime. She may not be able to accomplish it all, but at least she is acknowledging some hard truths.

The ever-present crew of Berkeley protesters was outside, and they highlighted a particularly thorny issue: Bachelet is committed to pursuing clean, sustainable energy but she skirted around directly stating that developing energy independence may require unpleasant compromises. One of the more viable options for Chile involves building dams in Patagonia. While hydroelectric power is relatively clean and plentiful, damming destroys ecosystems and swallows up untold acres of land. In this case, the stakes are even higher: it will irreparably change a national environmental treasure.