How to Make the Most Sustainable Products the Most Desirable
Fresh off the heels of the most recent United Nations Climate Change Conference, climate is top of mind for many organizations and business leaders. How will businesses adjust to meet ambitious climate goals? How might we design products, services, and experiences that are both sustainable and desirable? What opportunities for innovation does new climate technology present?
In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, IDEO Senior Design Lead Natalia Vasquez and IDEO Managing Director Bryan Walker discuss the crucial role of design in scaling and increasing the rate of adoption of climate solutions, how to make the most sustainable products, services, and experiences the most desirable, and how to cultivate alignment and imagine visions of the future.
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Challenges for the Climate Era
According to Natalia, the climate era is a time that's defined by humanity’s first long-term global systems problem that covers every sector and every country. For example, greenhouse gas emissions coming from any one country impacts all countries. Eliminating large parts of the Amazon rainforest influences rain and weather patterns as far away as North America. It's a complicated, interconnected challenge, and working on it requires incredible alignment. Layered on top of that, climate challenges are impacted by what everyone on Earth currently extracts and consumes, and changing that requires a huge culture shift around how and what we value. Bryan explains that some of the challenges that we're facing are really about global collaboration at a scale that we've never seen before.
These issues and more were discussed at COP, or Conference of the Parties, the United Nations convening around climate change. The parties refer to the delegates from the countries around the world that come together, negotiate, and reflect on how they want to reduce their emissions and navigate climate change. It's the forum where decisions are made at the highest level, but all of those choices and conversations then trickle down into the ways that organizations operate and the way that people live their lives. It's an important moment in convening because of the pace and context setting it creates.
At the recent COP meeting, Natalia was excited to see a commitment to move away from fossil fuels, and the first time that it was codified into text. It’s a transition moment where the world agrees that change is needed, and now people are thinking about how to phase out fossil fuels entirely. There was also action and progress against commitments, by making money available to adapt to climate change. Natalia emphasized an announcement around a global initiative to work on fusion, which is a far future renewable energy. That commitment is important because it signals the kind of leaps that we will need to be making.
For Bryan, what left an impression at COP was the scale of diversity. He noticed that beyond commitments, it's now all about action, both in terms of what we are starting and accelerating and what we are phasing out and stopping. He also saw how the private sector has arrived in the climate conversation, which historically has been more public and social sector. Bryan believes that to pull off what we need to pull off, we are going to need to engage the private sector as part of the solution.
“When you imagine the future, one certainty is that climate will affect everything—you can’t opt out.”
Bryan Walker, Managing Director & Designing for Change Instructor, IDEO
Design for Desirability in Climate
According to Bryan, the climate challenge now is a human challenge of adoption. He says when scientists were first sounding the alarm bells, the central question was, can we address climate change? Now, it's flipped into a question of: Will we address climate change? Bryan says that we have all of the solutions we need today to address our Paris Accord climate commitments, whether it’s technology-based, nature-based, or behavioral change-based solutions. Many different organizations have done the work of chronicling those solutions, and measuring how scalable they are and the potential for impact, including Project Drawdown.
While we have the solutions we need today, the question is if we will adopt them fast enough and far enough. Bryan explains that design’s role in the climate challenge is to create and imagine new futures and begin to build and create new experiences that are highly desirable. By making solutions radically desirable, that will lead to widespread adoption.
Learn more about tackling complex challenges like climate in our new course Creative Thinking for Complex Problem Solving.
Examples of Radical Desirability
Bryan notes that making climate solutions highly desirable is about looking at the solution and figuring out its unique affordances, or attributes that afford new experiences or new capabilities. One example would be the stove. Electric stoves are typically considered to be more climate-friendly than gas stoves. With gas stoves, a lot of people love the burner, the fire, and the familiarity of them. When it comes to electric stoves, what is unique about that technology that you can leverage?
With electric stoves, you don't have a burner—you have a flat surface. And what that could potentially afford you is you could turn the cooking surface into a prep surface. If it were a prep surface, you could put a camera and a projector under the hood and begin to imagine using that technology to help you appropriately prepare your food. It could allow you to know as you cut whether or not you have the right portions, and then once you start cooking you could have your cookbook projected directly onto the surface next to you. In this way, you can begin to think about how you take this unique affordance that a gas stove could not replicate, and take that and turn that into a desirable experience of having an electric stove.
The Ford F-150 Lightning
Bryan gives the example of work that IDEO has done helping Ford Motor Company with its electrification strategy. One iconic project was the design of the electric version of the F-150 truck. The F-150 is a classic pickup truck and the bestselling vehicle in North America for the last few decades. The IDEO team wanted to create not just the electric version of the F-150, but a better F-150 because it's electric: the F-150 Lightning.
The unique affordance you have is because it's electric, you have an energy source. As a result, they incorporated features that were only possible on a truck because it was electric, not internal combustion. For example, you can convert the tailgate into a workbench where you can plug in power tools and go to work. Additionally, if your home goes down with a power outage, you can plug it in as an electricity backup.
The team also thought about how to best utilize what's not there in an electric truck. Without the internal combustion engine in the front hood, you can turn it into massive storage. But they wanted to leverage that even more to make a more desirable vehicle and explored turning it into a cooler, not just a storage unit. Bryan explains how these are all new experiences that you only can bring to life because of the features of the electric truck.
Tesla vs. Toyota
Bryan says that a lot of effort has often been focused on making products more sustainable, meaning the value proposition is, “This is the responsible choice.” That has limitations in terms of the demand and the scale that you can reach because it's a values-based purchase, as opposed to simply making a product that’s better because it's sustainable. Bryan gives the example of sales of the Toyota Prius versus the Tesla Model Y.
While Bryan recognizes Toyota being a real pioneer in the space, he says that the Prius was positioned as an economically responsible choice. With the Model Y, Tesla focused on creating a more desirable choice—a better driving experience that so happened to be powered by electricity, which changed the industry. Bryan says it’s important to make sustainable solutions not just the responsible choice, but the desirable choice.
Design for Alignment and Futuring
Natalia says that when it comes to climate challenges, there's something really interesting that futuring can do around alignment and inspiration. With climate, there are a lot of individual visions and objectives, and a lack of collective alignment makes it difficult. Futuring is about enabling people to envision where they want to go. With futuring, you can start to look at, “What might it look like in the future? What are we all aiming for, and how do we start to work backward to get that alignment?” Natalia thinks of futuring as design, where your inputs and your horizon are not today's behaviors and context, but the emergent observations that you can make and the long-term output that you want to get to.
It's hard for people to feel compelled by global warming or a 1.5-degree change. So how do we make the possibility of the future come to life, both in all of its potential and the challenges and trade-offs and changes that we're going to have to make? Climate is an extremely complex problem, and you need cooperation across all kinds of industries and countries. For example, companies need to report on their emissions. To do that well, they have to understand the emissions of all of their suppliers and all of their buyers, and then what the customer does at the end of life of the product.
Futuring can help with alignment. It allows multiple groups to come together and think, “Can we look at trends together? What are the forces that we're seeing around our industry and the world? Where might those lead us as we think about climate change and its impact on the way that we live and consume? And how do we start to create fictional scenarios or ideas of what could be so that we can choose a preferable future that we wanna be moving towards?” Design can make the future tangible with prototypes, go beyond text and allow us to visualize what’s to come.
“Design can help us build visions for the future that can guide strategies and align people.”
Natalia Vasquez, Senior Design Lead, IDEO
An example of futuring
Natalia gives the example of IDEO’s work with a global meat and dairy company. It’s a challenging industry because there are methane emissions, transportation emissions, and packaging. They looked at trends that would impact their industry, and examined what the implications of those trends might be for their business and their work. Futuring allowed the company to think about future forces that would influence the context in which they would be operating in 10 years out.
In that conversation, they realized that climate was different from other forces like AI and emerging technologies because it’s one they couldn’t opt out of. This led the company to lean into it, and treat it as an opportunity as opposed to a constraint. To imagine the future, the team created scrappy fictional products that could exist in the future. One was a carbon emissions sticker. Another was an app where you could quickly scan any site and see what the emissions would be. This work helped shift the conversation in the company to really center climate as one of the issues that they wanted to make part of their long-term strategy.
Getting started with futuring
Natalia says that with design and futuring, you always want to be curious and learning. A lot of futuring work is signal scanning, which means constantly looking around for emergent behaviors, new events, and emerging technologies. It’s being curious with yourself about what might happen. One activity she suggests as you go through your work is reflecting on a time horizon. What might the world look like 10 years from now? You might imagine abundant renewable energy or a big shift to value nature.
Then, which of those changes would be a headwind versus a tailwind for you? Reflect on what would be great for your work, and what would be more of a challenge to start thinking about how to get ahead of. This can be a powerful way to open up opportunities for the future.
About the Speakers
Senior Design Lead, IDEO
Natalia's work at IDEO is focused on guiding organizations to imagine and test possible futures for urgent action on climate change within the firm's Strategy and Climate Practices. This includes creating inspiring long-term north stars to rally alignment within influential organizations, exploring how emerging trends can shift systems, and leading cross-industry consortiums for tactical action.
Currently, she is working on IDEO’s global climate strategy and leading an effort to envisage decarbonized, regenerative, and nature-aligned 2030 speculative scenarios. Her work has been featured in Forbes, FastCompany, Bloomberg, in partnership with Conservation International, Closed Loop Partners, the Omidyar Foundation, Walmart, and Meta. Natalia studied International Relations and Entrepreneurship at Tufts University, Design at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and Futures Studies at Parsons.
Managing Director, IDEO
Bryan leads the Design for Change studio, helping leaders transform their organizations’ cultures and businesses in pursuit of innovation, adaptability, and impact.
Bryan is curious about the future of work and how design can affect and support change within complex human systems. Together with his clients, he’s exploring what corporate leaders can learn from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists; how technology, a new generation of employees, and a shifting marketplace is redefining the workplace experience; and how leaders can drive change by movement as opposed to mandates.
Bryan earned a master’s degree in social anthropology from Oxford University and a bachelor’s degree in design and environmental analysis from Cornell. Outside the office, he can be found chasing the perfect wave.
If you want to learn more about how to tackle complex challenges, check out our new course Creative Thinking for Complex Problem Solving.
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