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Interview with Steven Bishop, Design for Sustainability Lead, IDEO

bishop interview pageYou gave a workshop at the Greenbuild encouraging “green behaviors,” which involved using IDEO’s "human-centered design process" to help people adapt to and feel comfortable in sustainable environments. Please describe your methodology and process briefly, explain how it helps people act in a sustainable environment and more easily adapt to the new behaviors required to preserve these environments.  

My role at IDEO is global lead for sustainability, and in that role, what I do is help companies bring sustainability to their business. Whether it’s building brands or creating new offers or bringing in new capabilities and resources to be more sustainable. I’m less interested in the corporate social responsibility and philanthropic stuff. I’m more interested in how people bring it to their core business. What we’ve been focusing on recently is energy, and we’ve done work with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), major utilities, startups, and foundations. 

Let me describe how we approach projects like these. It's with a process – a philosophy we call “design thinking.” Design thinking is different from analytical thinking, where you break down ideas into discreet elements and you solve for individual problems. It’s more about building-up ideas and getting to a new way of doing things.  It’s based on insights from business technology and people. Design thinking integrates those insights into something new, rather than solving for a one-to-one relationship.

It also allows us to bring our intuition to the table. Otherwise, we just get average results. We like making things experiential, creating tangible things that we can do and act on. Most importantly for the green space that we’ve been talking about, it’s optimistic. Often within sustainability, we don’t know what the answer is. It hasn't been done before, which makes it perfectly suitable for design thinking. Design thinking is really good at solving problems that are foggy like this. We may not know what the answer is, but we have faith that we're going to get to something based on the insights we’ve found. 

Like any business proposition, the green proposition has a supply-side and a demand-side.  The supply-side is typically about the more tangible things that you can touch and feel. It’s about things, and how you optimize things – how you create non-toxic or more efficient or bio-degradable things. How do you optimize the supply chain to use less labor, less energy and really getting down to it, how do you conserve costs, how do you attack the bottom-line. On the demand-side, and that’s where we thrive, it’s about people, not just things. It’s about experiences and behaviors that people want, or what they find desirable in new experiences. We see a lot of opportunities that are often overlooked in favor of the more tangible supply-side things, which is why our talk was titled “green behaviors,” or designing for green behaviors.  It has a lot to do with relationships.

According to the Sustainable Sites Initiative, a partnership in which the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is involved, “turf grasses used in residential and commercial lawns and golf courses are the single largest irrigated crop in America in terms of surface area, covering an area the size of the state of Mississippi. On average, each U.S. citizen uses 200 gallons of water per day in order to maintain this ‘crop.’” How would you apply your methodology to encourage people to change their behavior with regards to their lawns, and use native plants, eliminate chemical pesticides, and incorporate water-conserving techniques? 

I would first look at what people find desirable about lawns. There was a great article by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker that documented how lawns came into being. A well-kept lawn is similar to having a very well designed garden. Lawns are a kind of a luxury piece, even though they are very labor intensive.  Over the years, lawns evolved into a community element – I’m a good neighbor by having a good lawn. That’s why people do it, because they’re plugging into some communal piece they otherwise wouldn’t.

We can look at the primary needs -- what is it that people really desire from having a lawn and what they don’t desire. They probably desire having a place for their kids to play on...a place to have picnics. What they don’t desire is mowing the lawn, or watering it or taking care of it, or using fertilizers. They just do it because that’s what you do.  But if we can re-frame the question: how can we better use our space? Then, maybe we get to some latent or very explicit needs that we haven’t considered before, and we can address it in a different way. That’s where the "Food not Lawns" movement came from.

If it’s luxury that people value, then how do we make a yard luxurious without using lawn grasses? If it’s about time saving, how do we make a time-saving piece of property rather than having something that needs to be mowed all the time? You can connect to using less, but rather than asking people to sacrifice, you can make it a desirable benefit. You need to connect with people on their values, and what they find desirable.

There are also turf ordinances, policies. Local governments are increasingly paying people money to take their lawns out, but these policies often leave out the "desirability" component.

Corporate landscapes can suck up lots of water and require significant energy to maintain. What can landscape architects, who are focused on sustainable landscape architecture, do to encourage Fortune 1000 firms specifically to take a more sustainable approach to their landscapes?  What should also be the unique requirements for companies with offices in urban areas? 

Companies have people in them as well, and it’s important to find out what they want from their corporate landscapes. If they want to express what their brand is about, or what it is that they’re doing as a company, then that’s a great place to try and do it.  It could also be a liability if it flies in the face of what their core values are. But just being able to express those core values is one way to do it.

I think Roche in Palo Alto has been a leader for what it’s been doing with its landscape architecture – converting to California natives, low irrigation, low-water requirements for their plants and landscapes, tearing out a lot of grass, but still providing a beautiful landscape for their employees to love and enjoy. Lawns won’t bring humming birds but a lot of native plants will, so maybe that’s something that’s more desirable. Just being able to connect into the California ecology would be a natural benefit for just about anyone.

Please describe some of the key client work you’re doing at IDEO that relates to "design for sustainability." 

The one I can talk about publicly is the work we’ve done for the U.S. Department of Energy. The question for them is how do we make energy efficiency sexy for people again, because right now it is about doing less or reducing or sacrificing.  How can you shift focus just enough to where utilities are not asking people to do less but trying to provide benefits for a better world for their users, for their consumers?

Energy’s a hot topic right now, and it’s a pretty great space for design thinking. There is a lot of work done on the demand side. We now have the renewable technology we need to generate clean energy. What we can focus on now is what is inside the homes to get people the feedback they need to understand their energy better.

What’s not being addressed is how people behave differently. Everything’s changing. The way people get energy is changing, how they use it is changing, the energy grid itself is changing. People are changing as a result of that. 

Just a specific example: When we start having more plug-in vehicles, there will be a huge shift in what people do every night and every morning when they pull into the garage or even where they park their car.  Everything is going to shift, so how do we design for this new behavior and support it?

What percentage of IDEO’s clients are asking for “design for sustainability” solutions? Has this number changed over the years? How have the sustainability issues clients have brought to you and the solutions they are looking for changed as well? 

At IDEO in 2006, we had 360 projects worldwide, and about 14 of them had some element of green built into the design brief. That was good but there were another 346 projects where we could be bringing sustainability in. We’re not going to wait for the perfect design brief. We’re trying to bring it to every one of our projects and see if there’s some positive impact we can have with our clients.  We’re not going to force it down their throats, but spot those opportunities that might enhance the offer that we’re designing for them.  I would say that every project is open to sustainability at IDEO. A lot more this year have come in with sustainability built into the brief than we ever expected. I thought we’d get at least double what we did in 2006, but I think we got through that in the first couple of months. Just in energy alone I think we’ve had at least that many projects.

More broadly, how central is the design practice to sustainability? You talked a little bit about the supply-side -- products that are better designed, produced and recycled in a sustainable manner. Is that enough? Don’t people use sustainable products unsustainably? 

That’s why sustainability needs design thinking. It can’t just be about the things, it needs to be about how people use those things and how it fits into their daily lives. Victor Papanek wrote this book a while ago called Design for the Real World. He said the best thing that designers can do for the planet is to stop designing. I get where he’s coming from with that because that’s what design used to be, it used to be about how do we get people to buy stuff, to buy more stuff.

The definition of what good design is changing-- a good design now takes into consideration how it fits into larger systems, whether it’s social systems, how people relate; business systems, or how it fits into the industry; technical systems, what’s available out there in the technology world; or ecological systems. The best thing the designers can do today for the planet is to get to work and start putting good designs out in the world. Small problems, the big problems of the world -- take them all on.

What else can be done in terms of changing Americans behavior in regards to sustainable environments and their interactions with these environments? How do you think the behavior of Swedes or Danes, who are the top OECD sustainability rankings worldwide, evolved over the years? 

It’s the demand-side, what they find desirable. Swedes and Danes and Europeans in general are in some ways further ahead than Americans, because they have policies that support green initiatives. Policy helps drive what the vision is, and helps put a target on the wall that we can aim for. I think that's one difference between Europe and the States: Europe has policies, and people rely less on themselves to come up with sustainable solutions. In the States, we don’t have those policy incentives at all. It all originates in business. It’s a difference between carrot and stick approaches.

But Danes and Swedes demanded those regulations and policies through their democratic processes. Where did that demand come from? 

That’s a good question. I think the best way to answer that is Europeans just have a closer relationship with the environment around them and use it differently. You can find Germans travelling everywhere and anywhere. Even when they’re in their own country, they’re walking all over the place, always engaged with the environment. That’s why they’re so much further ahead in the green space, because they know, and have a greater empathy, for the environment. Whereas the car culture in the States removes us from that, from natural systems, from natural cycles.

For more information about IDEO, go to their case studies:

Cleanwell Business Platform 
Ethical Consumerism Concepts for Oxfam 
Acquaduct Concept Vehicle 

Find out about the 2008 event as well as Greenbuild 2009 in Phoenix.


contact

Karen T. Grajales
Manager, Public Relations 
tel: 1-202-216-2371
ktgrajales@asla.org
@ktgrajales

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