A Note About Caution

The exact origin of the Precautionary Principle isn’t known, but it dates back to 1800s com­mon law and in more specific forms, to the 1930s in German law. Recently, it has been adopted by many government, NGO, and business organizations as a way of considering the systems implications of actions and poli­cies. The European Commission adopted it in 2000 as a way of evaluating policies against unknown future outcomes.

The purpose of the Precautionary Principle is to recognize the need to anticipate risks and consequences before policies are enacted (or changed). This, inherently, acknowledges responsibilities on the part of those developing, approving, or implementing policy to be sure that these policies do not cause harm to people, society, or the environment. It can easily be translated to the development of products, ser­vices, events, and organizations and the actions within.

In the event of disagreement or lack of scien­tific consensus, the Precautionary Principle places the burden of proof on those proposing changes to systems or new actions to prove that these proposals won’t cause harm.

Precautionary Principle: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relation­ships are not fully established scientifically.”

This raises questions for designers, developers, leaders, and policy-makers that we don’t nor­mally address, such as the following: [65]

• Who has the right to say “no” to new solu­tions, offerings, or technologies?

• What are the right ways to say “yes” to a new solutions, offerings, or technologies?

• How can we improve our ability to predict the consequences of new solutions, offer­ings, or technologies?

Precautionary Principle: “When an activity raises threats of harm to hu­man health or the environment, pre­cautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relation­ships are not fully established scien­tifically.”

Busting the Segway

I’d like to be clear at the outset why I chose to represent the Segway as an example of poor systems design from a sustainability perspective (See Figure 15.3). I have enormous respect for Dean Kamen and his team of incredibly talented and dedicated engineers and designers.

Aside from the ridiculous hype surrounding the Segway before its introduction (basically calling it the most significant invention since fire) and the equally ridiculous reactions it generated (such as the city of San Francisco banning them before they were even available), the Segway is a wonderfully designed and engineered product (see Figure 15.3). Its interface design, industrial design, and mechanical engineering are all exemplary. It’s an incredible innovation and thoroughly original. It even excels at aspects of sustainable design (like parts labeling, disassembly, dematerialization, and so on).

Its purpose, too, is intended to reduce the need to drive a car for solo travelers, which represents

Busting the Segway (continued)

a significant reduction in material and energy use.

However, there’s one problem: It doesn’t serve a need. In fact, not only does it add no value that I can see, but it also actually potentially exacerbates existing social problems, such as obesity, since, in effect, it is a product for lazy people to be even lazier.

If the Segway is intended to replace larger transportation devices (such as cars) with larger impacts, it fails. Even if people aren’t

image65interested in walking instead of driving, using the same concept, other transportation options are still far better. Bicycles, scooters, skateboards, skates, etc., all provide the

FIGURE 15.3. http://www. flickr.


The Segway is an example of fantastic innovation, just not fantastic sustainability.

Busting the Segway (continued)

same function at far less impact in environmental, social, and financial terms.

We might assume that the Segway has value helping people with mobility problems (foot, knee, or hip injuries) get around easier, but tooling around standing isn’t going to alleviate these problems, and these are better served by a smart wheelchair, like the excellent iBot, which Dean’s team also created (it traverses stairs gracefully, runs across a myriad of surfaces, including sand, and stands up to put occupants at eye level with others). Those people with these kinds of mobility problems often also suffer from poor balance as a result of illnesses or injuries that cause the need for mobility aides, a condition the Segway would only exacerbate.

In addition, these people are the ones who, most likely, still need a walker to navigate through the building, store, or home the Segway gets them to, once they leave it at the door.

Busting the Segway (continued)

So, despite the fantastic design process and development, the product doesn’t have a compelling reason to exist. For example, it isn’t competitive with other options in any of the five levels of significance. It doesn’t offer performance or features that people are crying for, and it certainly doesn’t deliver what it does offer at a price that’s appealing to people (value). While it does connect with many people in emotional terms (mostly “cool”), it doesn’t do this with any particular strength. Most Segway owners do connect at the level of identity, and it expresses for them a connection to the future, the joy of technological solutions, and these are clearly connected to the core meaning, wonder. However, it doesn’t make these deep connections with many people because their other values (and sense of economic value) aren’t engaged in comparison with other ways they can get to the store, office, or home.

Busting the Segway (continued)

This is why it’s not sustainable (and hasn’t been particularly successful in the marketplace either). Any needs it hopes to alleviate seem better solved in other ways (workers in Stockholm’s airport, for example, simply use a Razor-like scooter at two percent of the financial, material, and energy costs). Any value it purports to provide seems misaligned with the market. The Segway solves a problem that doesn’t exist, in a way that unnecessarily requires more materials and energy than other solutions. Ultimately, that’s not good design, by any measure.

www. segway. com

Designing radically more sustainable solutions doesn’t take making a radical change to most development processes. In most cases, design­ers and developers simply need to actively ask questions about sustainability during the de­velopment process they already use. However, developers using older processes that don’t investigate customer needs (like using ethno­graphic research techniques) and developers who don’t develop customer requirements before they start developing technological ones will need to change their processes more sub­stantially.

The additions to the development process aren’t the only ones, however. To make truly sustainable products, services, and experi­ences, clients and companies need to rethink their priorities and strategies. This isn’t a place where designers and developers are usually involved, but it is one that is critical to insert ourselves into. Too often, engineers and de­signers bemoan the fact that when they get project briefs, the description of what needs to be created doesn’t fit their understanding of the customers or the market. At this point, it’s often too late or too difficult to change corpo­rate strategy, but developers often begin work on creating what they know is the wrong offer­ing with the wrong set of features and perfor­mance, and a shallow understanding of what will be successful.

Traditionally, even the best development pro­cesses are focused on creating the best solutions possible (in the time frame available), given the parameters outlined by product marketing and corporate strategy. However, to be effective (in not only sustainable terms but also in market terms as well), organizations need to rethink what it is they should be offering in the first place. This realignment of the thought process is where innovation lies and where sustain­ability can have its highest impact, especially in terms of redesigning systems and reframing solutions, as discussed in the Chapter 18.

Developers aren’t usually part of these conver­sations, but they often have the most accurate and influential data on what would satisfy and delight customers. Ethnographic research techniques, combined with more quantitative data, together build a much richer picture of customer needs, desires, and meanings than most strategic teams have access to. This new thought process is an invitation for developers to bring their deep knowledge into the strate­gic functions within an organization, although be forewarned that it’s not always easy to do. There may be considerable reluctance on the part of your peers, such as marketers, who may feel threatened by an alternate perspective and description of customers, or from operations and finance who may assume that developers don’t understand or appreciate financial, man­ufacturing, or other operational constraints.

A stakeholder perspective of the development process provides roles for everyone to play in sustainable development:

For developers, the process starts with learn­ing about sustainability and making these goals visible within the development process. Often, these requirements will have to be driven from the development phases of the process and organization instead of the strategic phases (which is never ideal), and slowly migrated to strategic functions within an organization. This may take some time, but it is a necessity if the organization as a whole doesn’t yet understand or value sustainability and its principles. De­velopers will need to educate their peers over time and insert themselves into the more stra­tegic planning processes. However, in order to be effective, they will need to understand and appreciate these strategic processes, as well as the language, issues, and priorities of their peers in management and leadership positions within their own organizations and those of their clients.

For leaders, sustainability offers opportunities not only to differentiate brand and offerings, but also to increase any number of operational efficiencies, as well as to reap the benefits of at­

tracting and keeping talented employees who feel an emotional and meaningful connection between themselves and their work. Sustain­able advancements throughout an organiza­tion offer differentiable solutions not only to consumers but also to customers of all types, including governments, organizations, and other businesses. Supply chains are hardly ever under the control of one organization, so sus­tainability as a strategy almost always involves coordination with suppliers and partners.

For customers, more sustainable solutions offer enhanced functions and the potential to satisfy values through owning, supporting, and using these new offerings. In addition, more sustainable solutions can make it much easier for people to make better choices without be­coming experts in sustainability themselves (see Chapters 17 and 18).

For communities, the rewards involve longer – term involvement between an organization and those it serves. This aspect might mean better relationships that lead to better cooperation,

more resilient actions, more stable incomes, less waste and environmental damage, and more stable jobs.

Finally, for investors, sustainable organiza­tions can be sources of more stable and lasting growth and return on investment. In addition, supporting organizations that also support the same values generate deeper and more satisfy­ing emotions, values, and meanings for cus­tomers.


Updated: October 7, 2015 — 5:01 am