Designing for the future

There’s a great presentation by William McDonough speaking at the Bioneers Conference back in 2000 about designing for the future available via Google Video (thanks Metafilter). He has a revolutionary perspective on how humanity needs to think about its current institutions and processes compared to the kind of future we’re currently designing for ourselves.

He talks about the design flaws in a society that doesn’t yet respect the rights of non human species or the future generations of life. The Endangered Species Act was passed only 30 years ago, the first acknowledgement that another species has a right to exist. He discusses the design flaws in the Industrial Revolution that led to man’s intent to constrain nature.

McDonough goes on to talk about waste and the idea of “throwing things away”. Such phrases and concepts will undoubtedly be challenged by our children who have to own the future waste problems today’s generations are creating for them. He asks how you would map the plutonian disposal locations buried deep below the earth’s surface today for generations thousands of years from now who will surely need to know where we put it.

Anyhow, this presentation really captured my imagination in several ways including the important question of what we are designing into our future world with today’s Internet innovations. What can we do today to at least mitigate if not correct the known errors in judgment made to date?

For example…

Social Decay
The tools of the Internet have enabled us to connect to other geographically diverse people in amazing ways at amazing speeds at low cost. In most cases, those connections are lighter and looser and less involved than the connections people create when spending time doing things together.

Are the lightweight connections on the Internet costing us time spent face-to-face? Are we isolating ourselves from the real world as we bury ourselves under the many media experiences surrounding us all the time? How can the Internet connect us more deeply and meaningfully to the people and the things that matter rather than distance us?

Information Classes
Knowledge is power. But the power of knowledge should never be used for subjugation.  Couldn’t we mitigate abuse of knowledge by giving everyone access to as much knowledge as they want to have?  Is Internet access a right on a global scale that should be protected for all? Should objective information such as independent journalism be not just a protected public service but a requirement for modern global society?

Energy Consumption

Photo: Fully Armed Vishnu

The power requirements needed to sustain all the web sites in the world are escalating. Are there other ways to power the Internet? Can computers and networks use less power and create less waste? Is it possible to have a entirely recyclable phone? More importantly, can they create power and reduce waste?

McDonough challenges traditional capitalism and government policy alike. He sees a triumverate forming where a “Bill of Responsibility” much like the “Bill of Rights” might reconstruct the incentives for making the world a better place. It’s not about creating efficiency but rather creating a design for growth.

The questions is, “What do you want to grow?”

The fashion of business

Umair Haque equates the poor investment Americans make in their personal fashion with the cultural emphasis on productivity. He argues that people who are “stylish” are perceived as frivolous and unproductive in America. In a comment on Umair’s post Russell Davies flags the style conscious eyes and ears of the English and Japanese:

“In an essay somewhere William Gibson talks about how the British and the Japanese are so naturally expert in branding because they’re brought up to instantly spot the status inference in the tiniest marginal signal – accent, appearance, language. This must apply to style too.”

Photo: pinkbelt

True, though a bit short-sighted. I think Americans are also more forgiving of misplaced style signals or even completely ambivalent to the overbranded constructs that English and Japanese cultures use to reinforce conformity.

On the other hand, I would never argue Americans favor substance over style. Umair is right. We’re often lacking both. But America is also more ready and willing to accept a new idea or to support radical innovation than any place more stylish.

This is particularly true in business.

Look at California where the Internet business, in particular, continues to boom on the shoulders of new business models. Business itself is a type of fashion where the catwalk is loaded with hot startups and cool prototypes. For example, every online media company has been browsing through all the social networking sites and working on plans to at least accessorize their online offerings with social media in some way now that social media is the model du jour.

The tech business fashion model gets built into product strategy, too. Upon returning to Apple in 1996, Steve Jobs’ first step toward turning around the once-hot now-not desktop computer company was to reinvent the Apple style with the iMac. His bet on fashion was a winner which gave him the confidence to reinvent the MP3 player as a new fashion accessory.

It wasn’t until the flickr acquisition did I think Yahoo! was much more than a fashion follower. I’m still not sure I fully understand how fashion fits into the Yahoo! culture, but it’s clear that style is a priority in the search business.

While talking with some colleagues once about how Jeff Weiner would view a really new approach to the search user experience the response from one of the more senior people at the company was, “Jeff has a great sense of style.”

I remember my first day here nearly a year ago. I expected to see black denim and long back action and was instead surprised to see that most everyone looked rather polished if not trendy. Even one of my Nebraska born and raised colleagues shops at H&M.

Again, a shirt or two from Hennes does not make one a fashionable dresser, but style can be about more than what you wear. It’s also a vantange point from where you choose to make decisions or an awareness that enables you to spot important trends. Americans may not be dressed as smartly as Europeans, but their business sense is acutely tuned to fashion in the markets in a way that is still unmatched around the world.