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  Design for Abundance in a World of Perceived Scarcity
Gunter Pauli
  On ne discute pas de gout
French popular proverb
  The design of a product or the design of a process demonstrates the creative approach combining pragmatism and functionality with beauty. In a market characterized by over-supply, and declining consumer demand products we need to search for differentiation in the eyes of the client. Design is the tool. Consumerism leads manufacturers to go beyond the mere physical shape and material choice. Today the purchase of a desirable is driven by the image, which has been carefully crafted to reach a particular level of satisfaction in the mind and the heart, going beyond providing satisfaction of a material need. Industrial design has moved from a mere process flow determined by pumps, pressure and pH plus temperature, to an ingenious combination of physics and chemistry as to generate more output faster, while searching for the ever lower marginal costs, all too often at any environmental cost expressed as the ecological footprint.

Originally one would speak about eco-design, and imagine products and processes that reduce the harmful effects of our modern day production and consumption model. Reduce our footprint, or sometimes just the carbon footprint became the driving force behind redesign. However, time has come to go beyond the mere reduction of the bad, and the control of the adverse side-effects, and opt for doing more of the good, and generating positive spin-off effects.

Unwanted consequences or More Revenue?

Whereas doing more good while reducing the unwanted consequences is easier said than done, this is strategic option to be taken. It represents a fundamental shift in concept of design. Indeed, it is well known that a designer has to perform a balancing act where increasingly costs and a fit into the supply chain management are determining the final choices. At a time when corporations are forced to pursue a dominant position in a niche market focusing on their core business with great precision, it is difficult to argue in favor of higher expenses, even if this reduces adverse environmental impact. Even though material costs are the key motive behind a dramatic shift towards stringent supply chain management. This management culture forces all attention to focus on achieving very specific targets. This drive towards absolute efficiency in all building blocks and combined with fast assembly and quick delivery to the market drives designers and production engineers to integrate everything into a solid unit. There is not time left to design for disassembly, or to design a cascading so that either waste streams or end of product life components are integrated into other products. Engineers know how to put it together, but often have no clue in how to take it apart. Therefore, whatever is left over is called waste.

Designers are expected to be innovative, and an extensive flow of new materials derived from breakthroughs in chemistry, broadened the portfolio of choices beyond imagination just a couple decades ago. On one side, standardization drives the assembly process; on the other side, a huge and growing diversity created by chemistry with over 100,000 compounds makes recovery of valuable components and ingredients just about impossible. It also puts tremendous stress on the health and safety regulations, which all too often discover too late when new molecules appear less safe than originally expected. The substitution of asbestos by halogens and bromides, know carcinogens themselves is a point in case. Industry, driven by ever-shorter timeframes has great difficulty delaying the introduction of new performance enhancers, sometimes at the risk of consumer safety. It is important to note that designers never are given courses on toxicity, health and safety standards, but rather are considered “performance enhancers”. The competitive game puts pressure on a fast turnaround of everything converting too many design efforts into the “steroids” of the marketing machine.

In this ambiente, fundamental shifts in product and process design are difficult to achieve. Designers will have to conform to the norm, and the last thing a supply chain manager needs is “another good idea”. Within this reality, it is easier to design the image and the shape of a product, than to design a “new” product. Within this reality, it is easier to put in a scrubber on a chimney or a biogas digester on a piggery to reduce atmospheric pollution, then to redesign the process so that no atmospheric pollution ever occurs since whatever volume of flue gas was produced, it will all be consumed by another process.

The value added generated in the process of selling a designed object is therefore derived from “services” and less from raw materials and labor, whereby the hard reality of cost of production has become secondary. This does not mean that the cost of metals and fuel is not critical, it only means that the amount of cash flow and margin generated through the actual sale in the end of the day is produced more by intangibles (image) more than the tangibles. Hence the irrelevance of resource efficiency to the majority of commercialized products. A standard 100 dollar watch has only a dozen moving parts, and raw materials represent a few percent of the total costs. The watch is no exception. It is against this background that the paradigm shift in design inspired by the beauty and the efficient “natural” systems design represents such a stunning departure from the ruling lines of thought.

The Design Target: Zero Waste

The concept of Zero Emissions started from the simple observation that the only species on earth capable of producing something no one desires are the humans. Amazing that with all our intelligence, the tremendous sophistication of our just-in-time, total quality management and supply chain management, with access to raw materials and designer molecules like never experienced in modern times, it is estimated that only about 10 percent of all material inputs mobilized in our industrial society is actually found in the final product that we consume. Imagine 90% of everything is simply wasted, ends up in landfills, gets dropped into the ocean or lately is quickly incinerated under the pretext of energy recovery. The cost of undoing this waste in the USA is estimated at a staggering one trillion dollars per year, this is more than bailing out the banks every year!

Therefore, Design for Disassembly is to be encouraged and waste to be reduced. However what is really needed to respond to the growing needs of billions of citizens, especially those who recently joined the ranks of the middle classes, is to create value for what today is considered waste. Let us be clear, any process produces waste. Actually we could state it even more bluntly, if there is no waste, then there is no life. This on the other hand is license “to waste waste”. The human race differentiates itself from all other living critters by wasting waste, whereas all others are part of a web of life where the waste of one, is a nutrient or an energy source for another, belonging to another kingdom. This is the first principle guiding the system designer.

The use of the word kingdom, puts us in the center of biology. Lynn Margulis successfully classified all life on the face of the earth five distinct realms, each with very different uses of physics, chemistry and biology, while all are practicing non-linear mathematics. Biology, interestingly enough is hardly ever taught to designers, even though 3.8 billion years of evolution has resulted in millions of species that have solved probably every single challenge in product and process design anyone on Earth ever faced. Whatever did not work, is now a fossil. Whatever did work, and survive, incorporates some of the unique solutions our consumer society would gladly embrace. It not only works well, very well indeed, by definition all is sustainable. And where do they teach non-linear math?

The mere observation how an edelweiss in the Alps or a frai lejón in the Andes protect themselves from UV-rays, offers enough hints to the designers of skin protection cosmetics or garments. How does a mushroom never ingests food, but processes all crude outside, only taking the fine nutrients may offer some fresh ideas to mining, oil and gas companies. How algae block communications amongst bacteria as a protection against illnesses, offers a simple hint to the pharmaceutical industry that is loosing the battle with bacteria through the rapid mutation caused by ill designed medication. Bacteria, algae, mushrooms, plants and animals all have their way of thriving with what is locally available. We seem to rely on local extraction and global trade. Therefore, the second principle that guides the system designers is: use what is locally available.

It seems that after so many years of evolution, nearly all species live in relative abundance, whereas our economists simply thrive on the logic of scarcity. How realistic is our definition of scarcity when 90% of all materials we take in are wasted? If we were to further include our wasteful use of non-renewable energy sources, then it is no surprise that the Club of Rome predicted “limits to growth”. How could a society pursue growth with a massive waste stream supporting the production and consumption model? This is bound to hit the brick wall sometime. If on the other hand, we were to design a system that operates like the rest of nature does, then the predicament of many fellow citizens would be brighter indeed. Poverty could even be designed out. Would that not be a marvelous purpose for life for so many of the aspiring designers?

From Design for Scarcity or Sufficiency to Design for Abundance

This shift from scarcity of resources to abundance is not an appeal to waste more, it is what psychologists call an Aha Erlebnis, or the surprise effect. This could very well inspire the next generation to go beyond the product and the process, to embark on an envisioning process that reaches out to the world with a system in mind, rather than one single objective. The system distinguishes itself from its parts, since it offers more than the simply sum of all the components. That “more” can be expressed in cash flow, or in consumer satisfaction. It could also be expressed as a dramatic reduction in ecological footprint, or better health. It could even mean all of that at the same time. It is measurable, and therefore meets the basic principle of management “what cannot be measured cannot be improved”.

It all could start with a simple cup of coffee. Coffee is after petroleum the most traded commodity in the world. It generates jobs for over 25 million farmers in more than hundred countries spanning Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Pacific and Asia. From Starbucks to Juan Valdez, from Parisian cafés to Arabic bazaars, all basically prepare coffee through a delicate process that includes planting a bush, harvesting of beans, fermenting away the shells, drying, roasting and grinding and by finally by simply adding hot water, coffee is served. We seldom realize that the amount of biomass that is actually consumed in the joy of our shot of caffeine barely reaches 0.2% of the total biomass harvested on the farm. An astonishing 99.8% is wasted.

It is amazing that empires have been built by Kraft and Nestlé on the back of a production and consumption process where only one gram out of five hundred finds it way into our body. This caffeine rich substance stimulates our nervous system. That is the reason why its waste cannot be given as feed to animals. A cow forced to ingest the fiber rich coffee waste would be so stressed out by the caffeine, that she would not be able to produce any milk. As a result, coffee left-over throughout the world has been discarded as a waste. The same fate is reserved for tea. Does it make sense to waste coffee? The world of coffee is undergoing a major revolution thanks to the design of a system around the biomass.

The question is not how to design a new packaging that maintains coffee fresh longer. The drive is not to come up with a new expresso machine. The task is not to project an image that takes on the power of Lavazza. The real challenge posed to the designer is how to convert this hugely wasteful process into a richly productive one. The traditionally trained designer does not have the tools to take a fresh look at the whole.

Connecting to Consumer Preferences to Environmental Activism

Over the past few years coffee and tea waste have been recognized as the potential saver of the oak forests in China. Surprised? The increased demand for cholesterol and fatty acid free food has narrowed the choices down to a dozen tropical mushrooms, rich in protein and trace minerals, while void of the traditional excesses that jeopardize our health. While the shift toward mushroom protein is a good choice, there are few who realize that the rise in demand leads to a fast pace destruction of the oak forests in China. Oaks are the preferred hardwood, that converted into dust represents the ideal substrate for farming mushrooms that listen to exotic names like shiitake (Lentinula edodes).

The first connection that emerges in this process is that coffee and tea are both hardwoods. Their waste is an excellent breeding base for tropical mushrooms. Better even, since the mushrooms derive energy from caffeine, which its enzymes convert into a nutrient source, the residue from mushroom farming is enriched with essential amino acids, thus converting something that was considered waste into an ideal substitute for grain. This in turn reduces the demand for corn and soy, traditionally devoured by animals, while increasing the availability of plant-based nutrition.

This is only the beginning of the design of a system, starting with what had no value, recognizing the negative side-effects that had no obvious solution, converting this into a virtuous chain of efficient conversions where the output responds to an immediate demand, and where the substitution effect permits to unravel some of humanities most destructive -be it unknowingly- behaviors. The cutting down of oak is not an act of destruction, but rather an behavior based on ignorance. The system designer converts ignorance into a profitable value chain.

This logic has been extended from mere coffee to fruits and vegetables and all what we consume and contributes to waste scarce and energy rich resources like aluminum. Industry has spent billions on the development of new packaging systems. Glass packaging was once the standard on the market. However, it has since long been replaced by plastics. Plastics have then been replaced by multi-layered containers of sparkling appearance and obvious practicality, while swindling resources like never before. It has been estimated that multi-layered products represent about 10 percent of all waste that ends up in the landfill, and nothing of significance is recovered.

The concept of combining different materials into a product of service has become a standard in design. Is it really that smart innovation that we had hoped for? At first sight, the benefit is obvious. The sophisticated conversion of thin film of paper, plastics and aluminum into liquid containers has revolutionized the world of packaging. Fresh products like milk and juice, which previously required a cold-chain to maintain a longer shelf-life, have been taken out of that energy intensive chain, thus supposedly saving fuel costs throughout the distribution channels. The use of aluminum has now even become a standard for all packaging that requires freshness. The only caveat of this “solution” is that it considers the light weight metal as waste. Worse, the food grade quality low-density poly-ethylene is another one way material generating contributing to one of the most appalling waste streams ever seen in modern times. The diaper, combining multiple types of plastics, fiber fluff and cardboard into a throw-away convenience is another example of multi-layered design. The fluff leads to the farming of genetically modified pine trees. The three types of plastics can never be separated (PVC, PE and PET) thus the only option is landfill or incineration.

The system designer will assess the options to substitute components, verify the alternative combinations, assess the biological options for disassembly, understand the power of physics and design options for re-assembly. Contrary to the traditional recycling which aims to convert the PET bottle back into PET, either as a bottle or as a textile, making the diapers back into diapers, the system designer searches for multiple connections outside the core business. This is inspired by natural systems where no one “eats its own waste”. Whatever is waste for one is a nutrient or an energy source for someone else, never part of the same family. This also permits to separate and integrate without excessive use of energy. This is a healthy third guiding principle for system designers. This opens up the field of creative connections, where one can imagine what could be the next part of the chain. Sometimes the results are surprises as was the case in the system design embarked on with the students assessing the value of three million tons of rubble generated in the construction of Europe’s largest tunnel across the Alps between France and Italy.

From construction scrap to land fertility

System Design is not limited to products and processes, it can provide cost advantages to human activities that could never have been imagined. The construction of the 40 kilometer long Frejus Tunnel foresaw the disposal of rubble. It has been accounted for based on the well-known price per 40 ton truck. Transport companies will look for the closest disposal site, even if this implies that filling of valleys with unwanted materials. The fresh insights of the designers unveiled that a major portion of the rocks and stones retrieved from the inner mountains is basalt. Road construction engineers use basalt as a base for asphalt. However geologists and soil experts -admitted there are not many designers with a degree in this academic field- will be quick to point out that basalt is one of the core building blocks of top soil.

The system designer is not simply searching for connections into the known, the system designer is the true expression of the multi-disciplinary profession that is so much needed in a society where experts rule. When topsoil erodes, then the capacity to retain rain decreases, resulting in increased floods. Everyone in Northern Italy recognizes the last part of the scenario since flash floods have become the rule rather than the exception. The typical response to frequent floods is water management systems with dams and locks, expensive engineering which may well reduce the risks, but which does not remove the cause of the problem: top soil erosion.

The new tunnel between France and Italy should therefore be regarded as a surgical intervention that relieves the pressure on transport that unites Europe. This on the other hand, offers a unique chance to replenish the topsoil of the Po Valley if the basalt were spread thin on the farmland. The proposal to sprinkle a millimeter of basalt on the rice fields certainly drew attention, not necessarily favorable attention. However, field experiences around the world demonstrated scientifically that basalt does provide the nutrients that bacteria need to create micro-forms of life turning available an abundant amount of magnesium in which basalt is very rich. Magnesium is the central atom in a chlorophyll molecule. Thus a fresh supply stimulates plant growth and the subsequent cycle of nutrients from bacteria, to micro-algae and fungus replenishes the top soil at a rate of one millimeter per year, or a centimeter in a decade. How much moist can be retained in an extra centimeter of top soil? How many dams can be avoided? How irrigation can be saved? What is the energy balance?

The system designer embarks with a simple question “who needs basalt”, and the multiple answers lead to more questions until the iteration of questions and possible responses leads to a web of opportunities where the designer will make choices very much in the same way that species evolved through millennia of evolution. The system that emerges is not rigid, but flexible. Nothing is fixed, all is adaptive. The cascades and loops are not closed, but open. The dead-end caused by one default, only triggers a change of pathway, while the overall objectives are maintained: everything is re-used.

Next Generation of Designers

System Design is only in its infancy. It will take decades before a new generation of designers will turn this search for connections into a mainstream activity. This will take time and will be arduous since our educational system rewards specialization. Designers, like architects have always been polyvalent, knowledgeable about multiple subjects, navigating through most diverse themes. It is obvious that the only way forward is through a continuous demonstration, case by case, that systems design is first and foremost an ideal approach to “do more with what you have”.

This is why system design is not simply a ways and means to bring products and services to the market cheaper and faster, it is a major component in the new economic paradigm that goes beyond what designers have imagined they could achieve.
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