Part 3: We Aren't Quite Dead Yet: Harnessing The Law of Unintended Consequences for Sustainable Technology

Michael Sprauve
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October 28, 2021
Michael Sprauve
/
President
4 Min Read Time
/
October 28, 2021
In the final blog of our Sustainable Technology series, we focus on the importance of environmental empathy and what designers are actually preserving by developing it. Plus, we look at embracing constraints as a way forward towards more innovative, sustainable design outputs and hope for the future. 


"Any endeavor has unintended consequences. Any ill-conceived endeavor has more."
— Stephen Tobolowsky, The Dangerous Animals Club



A systems approach seeks to understand not only the whole but all of the individual parts and how they interact with one another. With millions if not billions of system cycles playing out at the same time while simultaneously interacting with one another, it is easy to see why disruptions and interventions by humans throw a wrench in it all. One would hope education on "interconnectedness"  would lead to a certain sense of stewardship and personal responsibility for the environment in the general population. It probably won't. The prevalence of bystander bias in industrialized nations is startling--the everyday citizen in these countries truly believes someone else will take care of it. For instance, while two-thirds of people polled in the US said the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of global climate change yet, less than a third of people in the US actually recycle. This is why it is critical for designers, engineers, and creators to lead the charge into systems thinking for environmental preservation. Not only for ethical reasons but because not doing so will undoubtedly lead to increasingly perverse unintended consequences from our meddling with Earth's ecosystems. Furthermore, only we can invoke real systems change because sustainability starts with us--literally.


"80% of the ecological impacts of a product are locked in at the design phase. If you look at the full life cycle of a product and the potential impacts it may have, be it in the manufacturing or at the end of life stage, the impacts are inadvertently decided and thus embedded in the product by the designers at the design decision-making stage."
-Leyla Acaroglu, Quick Guide to Sustainable Design Strategies


Environmental Empathy Can Be Selfish--And That's Ok


Not only now but in perpetuity, designers and engineers in big tech and beyond must apply systems thinking to innovations lest we risk innovating ourselves out of existence. Not only observing but absorbing the fact that perverse consequences loom from what we are making is where true environmental empathy begins. When one practices systems thinking, one cannot help but develop a very enlarged sense of environmental empathy. In a world where everything is interconnected, it is not hard to recognize systems failure anywhere as a threat to everything. But, to be fair, developing a sense of responsibility for the systems your innovations affect is as much about self-preservation as it is about empathy for the environment. It is at the same time both an act of compassion and a selfish way to preserve everything we hold dear: our health, our family, our jobs, our communities--and that's ok. These are the most potent motivators any of us have for digging into and changing our behaviors, biases, heuristics, and mental models. And, for designers, in particular, a fantastic catalyst for innovation. 



Do or Die: Constraints Make Innovation Possible


When systems thinking is applied to avoid unintended consequences, it essentially introduces a flurry of constraints. Regarding sustainability, these can look like limiting resources, reducing convenience, finding ways to do more with less, and designing for circular life cycles. By no stretch of the imagination are these things easy. In fact, research shows most managers of organizations consider compliance and resource constraints to be barriers to innovation. But innovation is a funny and temperamental thing. While the common sentiment is that eradicating all constraints, rules, and boundaries allows for boundless creativity and a fertile incubator for new ideas, in practice, the very opposite is likely true. More and more research is suggesting humans innovate better not in spite of constraints but because of them. And to take it one step

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