Part 2: We Aren't Quite Dead Yet: Harnessing The Law of Unintended Consequences for Sustainable Technology

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October 5, 2021
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7 Min Read Time
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October 5, 2021
In Part II of our Sustainable Technology blog series, we take a closer look at systems interconnectivity being both the driver of negative consequences from product and technology innovations and a way for designers to shift their thinking to avoid them.
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." — John Muir



So why do "the best-laid plans of mice and men" seem to consistently end up on the perverse side of the law of unintended consequences? There are many ways to answer that question. But, the Gaia Theory, which basically proposes everything on Earth makes up a synergistic, self-regulating, complex system that perpetuates all life on this planet, definitely points us in the right direction. Everything is interconnected. The world we live in is, in fact, made up of systems that have co-evolved to balance one another to make life on this planet possible. Everything on Earth has been part of this great evolution-fueled balancing act, from water to bacteria to gases to possibly even rocks. It is a show that continues to go on even today with one major plot twist--humans. 


Over the last two centuries or so, our role in this system and our interventions via technology and innovations have thrown off the balance. This, in turn, has forced humans into a remediation role. One we may not understand or possess the skills to navigate since humans have never been able to predict the future with any real accuracy. Our minds are rife with biases that get in the way: hyperbolic discounting, optimism bias, the sunken cost fallacy. These are all ways humans evolved to stay alive in the very dangerous present--not a future that was, at best, unassured. However, that may not mean it is impossible. The world has changed:

  • Humanity has adapted our environments to us.
  • Danger from other apex predators is almost non-existent.
  • We produce enough food worldwide to feed everyone, just not the logistics.

We have the resources and mental acuity needed--we sadly just seem to lack the will. Plus, unlike other animals, we have the capacity for mental "time travel": the unique ability to recall past events and consider future scenarios. In other words, as plagued by biases as we are, we can learn from them and adapt our behavior. To do so will mean gigantic (but achievable) tweaks in our behaviors, heuristics, and mental models, guided by the very systems we are disrupting. 


Mother Knows Best: Systems Thinking and the Ecosystem


Systems thinking is one of the newest and best constructs designers, innovators, and disruptors have begun implementing to deal with complex environmental issues.

Humans have only recently begun to formulate ideas for dealing with our disruption of the natural habitat. Systems thinking is one of the newest and best constructs designers, innovators, and disruptors have begun implementing to deal with complex environmental issues. It is based on the ultimate observable system, one that has been going strong for 300 million years and the one in which we live and breathe--the world's prolific ecosystem. We must use systems thinking based on what we see in nature because it is a proven success. Also since the environmental challenges we face are, in many cases, products of human system failures, thereby requiring a systems view to solve. 


Doing More With Less: Systems Thinking


Systems thinking is a vast field of study and one that, not surprisingly, can be applied to the very disciplines that suffer the most from unintended consequences: social, economic, and environmental. There are many more, but these three are all good examples and make up a preponderance of systems thinking applications. Any system that is complex, dynamic, and prone to unraveling when we start pulling on strings without examining them holistically--is ripe for systems thinking. The core tenets of systems thinking stress interconnectedness--for a good reason. This is undoubtedly the most significant blind spot humans have. Self-awareness is a human condition, it seems, that proliferates selfish behaviorisms without exception. Which, as you will see, is not always a bad thing.


Systems thinking, especially regarding the impact of our innovations on the environment, is in some ways a method for deprogramming ourselves, of separating ourselves from our "darker angels." It is a sound and methodical way to look outside of ourselves to ideas such as silos vs. emergence, isolation vs. relationships, and parts vs. wholes.

Systems thinking, especially regarding the impact of our innovations on the environment, is in some ways a method for deprogramming ourselves, of separating ourselves from our "darker angels." It is a sound and methodical way to look outside of ourselves to ideas such as silos vs. emergence, isolation vs. relationships, and parts vs. wholes. Many times systems thinking is circular when it comes to sustainability. Given human propensity for closed systems and linear thinking that often (if not always) leads to unintended consequences, circular systems innovation is a welcome shift towards human survival. It is preserving what we already have so that very little (to none) is lost in a product's lifecycle. In this type of "circular economy," goods are grouped and cycled through two "metabolism flows." There is the technical system that consists of all human-made or altered goods. In a circular economy, these products are designed to be recaptured, reused, repaired, remanufactured, and recycled so as not to be put back into nature in their altered and unnatural states to poison and pollute in perpetuity. Then there is the biological system where biologically-based goods are sent right back to nature from whence they came to simply and safely be reabsorbed.


Humanity's Last, Best Hope


A sustainable design approach to creating products considers the indelible systems cycle we see in the world around us and pushes us towards developing products and, in some cases, services that consider deep environmental, social, and economic implications. From the first phases, through the end of life and then back again, sustainability designers must think about the life cycle their product will have within its own system and then expand that out to understand how it will interact with the other systems it touches directly, indirectly, and maybe not at all. If it sounds hard--that's because it is. However, it is one of the best tools designers have for understanding the complex problems our innovations have created and will continue to create. A sound method for coming up with solutions directly proportional to our amazing innovations, it may well be our last and best hope of securing a future for humans on planet earth.  


In Part III of our Sustainable Technology blog series, we will explore where sustainable products and innovations begin, who is responsible for creating them, and what this means for the future of design and the world of tomorrow.


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