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Can innovative design get us out of the mess it helped create?

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Just because a design is effective doesn’t make it good.

One of the first winners of Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Awards, which launched in 2012, was the BioLite CampStove, a portable device for turning biomass into a heat source that cooks food, charges gadgets, and produces fewer toxic emissions. Another was Uber, which won for reinventing the user experience of hailing a ride. At the time, a juror praised Uber for “hacking the system.”

Two effective designs, two wildly divergent outcomes. BioLite went on to generate more than $25 million in revenue in 2020 and invest proceeds from CampStove and other consumer products into green energy solutions for families living without access to the grid. To date, BioLite has supplied 2.9 million people in Asia and Africa with clean stoves and lighting.

Uber went on to IPO in 2019 with an eye-popping $82.4 billion valuation, but in the process “disrupted” taxi drivers almost out of existence, clogged streets in cities, exacerbated pollution and helped create a gig economy that frequently exploits workers.

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This is what happens when a design ignores the larger ecosystem in which it operates. Effective design isn’t always good design. Good design is always responsible—to users, society, and the planet.

Just look at BioLite.

We must all do better. If it is design that got us here, design can get us out.

How product design can change the world | Christiaan Maats | TEDxUniversityofGroningen

Christiaan Maats is a designer and entrepreneur who challenges the way we look at product design. Going beyond form and function he shows us how products carry deeper layers of meaning and how those layers can connect us to a bigger reality. In this Talk, Christiaan Maats explains how meaningful products can embody the change we want to see in the world and sheds light on his own vision of a circular society that integrates industrial society with its natural roots.

So what we do now?

Global Warming by Glenn Thomas
Global Warming by Glenn Thomas

Climate designer Sarah Harrison points us in the right direction by asking the right question:

How can we design systems that give back more than what they take?

Rather than asking ourselves how we can pollute less or do less harm, we should rethink the systems we operate in and create things that have a restorative impact for their relevant communities.

The world today can be an infinitely better place. With the increasing amount of issues affecting us as a whole in recent years, such as the global health crises, environmental destruction, and socioeconomic disparities, the onus is on each and every one of us to do everything we can for the generations to come.

Design has been—and will always be—our crucial tool in this regard. Whether it be through campaigns that rally for action, posters that raise awareness, or products that actually change bad habits, designers combine creativity, craft, and compelling visuals to materialize concepts that can effectively transform the way we live.

— That’s it for this edition. See you with the next one.