Can you change a system that does not want to change? Even if it would be better in every single aspect?

Long term vs. short term comes to mind. Quick fix vs. sustainable solution as well. Nowadays, in Western society everything needs to be sustainable. Or at least fits in a company’s corporate social responsibility program. Whether or not the activities of the company actually are sustainable, it at least has to be presented in this way.

As product developers we have been hammered with sustainability over the years.

“Very nice design, but is it green?”
– “What do you mean? It’s a red basket.”
“I mean green, sustainable.”
– “Ah, sustainable. That depends on how you tell people about it.”
“I don’t get it. What do you mean? Something is sustainable or it isn’t, right?”
– “Well, if you tell people about the material they will not consider it sustainable. It is made out of non-recycled plastic. It will probably last 10.000 years. At least.”
“Mmm, non-recycled, 10.000 years. That’s bad, right?”
– “No, that’s good. Because your product will last a lifetime. At least. If you consider the function of the product – carrying groceries from the store to your home – it is super-sustainable. Think of all the plastic bags you don’t have to buy/use/throw away for the rest of your life.”
“Ah, so it is sustainable?”
– “Well, yes and no. Like every other product out there. If the material of a product harmlessly evaporates into nature if you sneeze against it, you will probable have to buy a new one quicker. Which means another round of transport, packaging, etc. Is that sustainable?”

Point is that sustainability is impossible to define. That is probably why there are so many sustainability consultants out there making a good living. Nobody is right and everybody is right at the same time. It’s simply a matter of good presentation.

Currently we are developing a motorcycle for Africa, for Kenya to be specific. In every step of the way we are bringing experts from different fields together to face this challenge. Today, we’re hosting a so-called ‘pressure cooker’ in our office. Bringing together motorcycle designers and product designers with experience in designing for Africa (one participant actually works and lives in Malawi) we’re cooking up mobility solutions. One of the issues that arose was the sustainability factor. In Western society it is a 100% no-brainer, but how about African society? Based on the experiences of the designers today and the findings of Peter, who visited Kenya last week, the main focus of Kenyans is to make money from their motorcycles. And – unfortunately – every decision is focused on short-term solutions.

For example, if Kenyans deploy their motorcycles as a taxi they tend to wait with their motorcycles empty-tanked for a client, ask him where he wants to go, drive to the nearest gas station and buy the exact amount of petrol to get (at least very close) to the desired destination. The reason for this decision is two-sided and surprisingly Western. Financial liquidity and risk management. Why invest in petrol for the upcoming week if you can or need to spend the same money on other important things? And a full tank of petrol is considered a high risk in case your motorcycle gets stolen at night.

As a Western design agency we want to deliver a ‘good’ product, a sustainable solution with long-term value for its users. Looking at the experts we are working with today and the ones we have lined up for the future, I have no doubt that we will succeed in this challenge. But how do we present a good product with long-term benefits into a society that seems to be fully focused on short-term fixes?

To be continued…