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Sustainability by design: better for the world and resilient to system shocks

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For the first time in as long as people can remember, there are small fish in the now-clear canals of Venice. In Mumbai, a flock of 150,000 flamingos has settled in the newly-quiet city. And in east London, a small herd of deer has taken up residence in Harold Hill.

These poignant events are stark reminders of two things. First, human activity, including business, places an enormous toll on the natural world we all depend, utterly and completely.

Second, nature is resilient. Evolution has honed plants and animals into a complex and interdependent ecosystem, which has a built-in ability to adapt, sometimes even thrive, when faced by external shocks.

A microscopic threat, with macroeconomic impact

Contrast that with humans. The coronavirus pandemic is a seismic shock, massively disrupting business and people’s lives globally, in everything from supply chains, to stock markets, education, to mental health.

But coronavirus isn’t alone: the global financial crisis and the ongoing climate catastrophe are other examples of systems shocks. More will come. None of these were unforeseeable. Yet most businesses were ill-prepared, because they’re designed to operate efficiently, to deliver value in the short term for stakeholders, ignoring ‘externalities’, or small but existential risks.

Why? And what might we learn from the fish, flamingos, and deer, about designing for resilience?

Why a responsible business is a good business… and a resilient one

At Idean, like designers and studios across the globe, we’ve been exploring how to respond to systems threats in a concerted way.

We believe we can help businesses be sustainable in two senses. By taking an inside-out view, they can be more aware of their impact on the world, and how to design a business that’s desirable, and ethical. And by taking an outside-in view, better prepared to absorb, or even capitalise on, external shocks.

We design new ventures such as Smarty, Superdrug Mobile and Asto. It means we have an opportunity to influence the next generation of businesses: their impact on stakeholders, the environment and society.

But why should businesses care? And are those that do care at a competitive disadvantage?

We don’t think so. People’s buying behaviour is increasingly driven by a company’s values, and actions. And in a fierce war for talent, firms that have a purpose beyond profit are more likely to attract and retain talent. Firms with a focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues look like they’re less impacted by systems shocks, outperform those that don’t, and are increasingly the focus of big investment firms.

Planet-centric design

As designers, we have a responsibility to equip our teams and clients with the right mindsets, methodologies and strategies to help them succeed.

Designing for resilience requires us to establish a mindset that puts the needs of people and the planet at the center of business creation. Just like Design Thinking, this can’t be an add-on. It has to be ingrained. At Idean, we call this ‘planet-centric design‘, building on brilliant existing work out there on the themes of the triple bottom line, ESG, and the circular economy.

Desirability, viability, feasibility… meet impact

We design new businesses using the classic design thinking ‘balanced breakthrough’ approach, whose lenses are desirability, viability and feasibility (DVF). But recently we’ve been thinking this isn’t enough.

Critically, the three lenses don’t consider environmental and societal impacts. Without these embedded into research and proposition development, these factors risk being, at best, an ill-fitting bolt-on, and at worst, forgotten.

If we add an overarching lens to DVF that considers the business impact from an inside-out and outside-in view, we can design for a planet-centric balance from the start.

The Inside-Out View: beyond the user

Traditionally, we find user needs, and imagine solutions to meet them, and have impact there.

An inside-out view asks design teams to integrate another set of questions and considerations into their process that consider impact beyond the user.

What is the purpose of this business, beyond profit? How would this purpose translate into values that would impact executive decision making? And, most importantly, what impact does this business have on stakeholders, the planet, and society at large?

Designing with an inside-out view helps us design a business that’s more resilient. It’s attractive to values-driven customers, a compelling proposition for future employees, and a longer-term outlook that’s reassuring for investors.

The outside-in view: ‘what if?’

Resilience isn’t just about taking into account what impact we have on the world. It’s being aware of the impact the world might have on us.

We’re used, as designers, to sensemaking. Now, we need to bring a wider, macro view: to ask ‘what if...?’. We don’t know when the next financial crisis or pandemic might be. But we can adapt tools like scenario planning, to imagine and communicate with clients how the political, economic, social and technological landscape might change, and what these futures would mean for their business.

Today, we might ask: how reliant is the business on face-to-face contacts? How might we deliver the service through digital channels to reduce transportation demand and emissions? What products are most at risk if the supply chain breaks down? Is it possible to decentralise production locally to avoid future disruptions to a just-in-time-based supply chain? Nike is a good example of a successful business that uses scenario planning to prompt important questions and sustainable design solutions for external system shocks.

By building a process to regularly ask the right questions, act on them, we can help businesses become more dynamic, sustainable, and, yes, resilient.

Yes, but what about the fish?

Remember them? The startling thing about animals is how rapidly they sense, and respond to change. For the fish, flamingos and deer, the coronavirus has been, in some ways, an opportunity.

As business designers, we can, and should be inspired by them. Our superpowers are making sense of the world, imagining solutions based on that, and rapidly acting, by making them into prototypes, after all.

By taking an inside-out lens to our process, we can help our clients design businesses that are attractive, sustainable and generate value more widely than just to users.

By taking an outside-in lens, we can help clients imagine what the future might look like, design creative solutions for those futures, and structure their organisations to thrive in times of change.

How should businesses prepare for the next wave of change? Join us for three panels to get answers to three big questions. Find out more and sign up here.

Linda Essen-Moller, lead business designer at Idean UK

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