1. We Are All Designers

Converting Your Outputs to Inputs

#9 Design Your Own Economy

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

One way to think about design is to think in terms of inputs and outputs. If I input a certain amount of time, skill, raw materials and labor into a project, I can expect a certain output.  That output is the discreet thing I set out to create, along with whatever waste or by-product is left over when I’m finished.  Of course, in the traditional economic model (referenced in an earlier blog), people externalize the waste material and don’t consider it part of the process. We find it easier to ignore things like emissions, tainted water, dead bees and landfills when we write our balance sheet. But of course, these things have a cost — ranging from polluted air, increasing health costs, diminished food supplies and, in general, the cost of wasting resources that could be used more productively. Waste makes for poor economics.

That’s why Bruce Mau urges us to design our own economy — by flipping the old formula around.  If we consider that everything has value and cost, it informs the design process and forces us to start thinking from a more holistic perspective. “The new way of thinking in design is to think of an output as an input. If in the process of solving a problem, I create a waste product to my solution, that’s an output,” Bruce explains. “So instead of thinking about it as a discreet, separate thing, you really expand the brief and try to understand the problem in the greatest complexity.”

By way of example, Bruce points to Gunter Pauli, author of “The Blue Economy,” and his work with an urban beer brewery. The beer-making part of the business was going great, but the cost of hauling away the waste was eating their profits. Then they reconsidered the output as an input, and were able to design a more holistic process. They used some of the by-product to establish a bakery and the rest to create a substrate for growing shitake mushrooms. Then, with what was left after the mushrooms did their thing, they created a worm farm. These three new businesses account for a third of the brewery’s income and are the most profitable part of their designed economy — because the inputs are free.

Another great illustration involves Segway inventor Dean Kamen, who rethought the economy of pure drinking water.  He wanted a way to generate electricity off the grid, using available bio-mass as fuel, to help people create water purification systems in remote areas.  His Slingshot system, based on a Sterling Engine design, can be fueled by whatever biomass the local population has in surplus (dung, dried grass, anything that burns). This economy is based on converting outputs to inputs – using waste fuel and tainted water (even sewage or seawater) — to create a new output: enough purified water to meet the needs of about 300 people per year of operation.

“That’s really the new way of thinking,” Bruce says. “It means we have to approach the problem differently and see it as a complex equation … and design that economic solution. And when we do, there’s a big upside, because we can capture wealth that’s being thrown away.”

When we think about trade shows and expos — when we consider the economy of our industry — our efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle make so much sense. We have learned to do this with aluminum MIS materials. And going forward, we will improve our designs to be thinner, lighter, stronger and more beautiful. Ultimately, everything new we design could come from a transformed “output.” This is the approach design-thinkers embrace. And very soon, it will be the only approach acceptable in a world increasingly driven toward sustainable solutions.

The next time you walk into a branded experience, try thinking about the outputs as inputs. Who knows where that new economy could lead? Cost savings? A new revenue stream? More engaged consumers? Bruce and I would love to hear your ideas.