Design and motivation to sustainable behavior

December 19, 2010 § 2 Comments

Design that Motivates to Sustainability

When the designers of Tesla Motors in Palo Alto, created an electric car – take a look at the Roadster, for example – with a design that is familiar from other fancy high-end sports cars, they joined the designers who broke the silence barrier of ugliness that so often prevents sustainable products from attracting wide markets.  Why shouldn’t a sustainable product be beautiful and classy, and even more inviting than its less sustainable competitors? Why couldn’t it be a good business to help building a sustainable world or to help the people in need?

The imaginary ‘rational consumer’, although clearly swept aside from the scientific maps of human and social sciences, still looms in the political, ideological and the our-story-is-the-whole truth -movements, writings and commentaries and on the pages of traditional media. We can repeatedly read or hear comments that people should just ‘change their attitude’ and save the planet.  But this false theory of the human nature is loosing its position as a thought model: many are starting to see that the well-funded and popular cognitive-rational emperor has barely even virtual clothes.

Without motivation everything dies

The main motivation of people is not – and will not be in the foreseeable future – the promotion of sustainability. Despite the new progressive trends, in real life, and in most parts of the world, nothing remarkably sustainable will happen without inspiring motivations.  Luckily there are plenty of motivations that can lead to positive environmental and social behaviors and we should learn to know them and cultivate them. The connected world makes this easier than ever before. We must create extensive motivational platforms for people to think, act and enjoy – spiritually, aesthetically or practically.

It is not difficult to find gloomy and de-motivating counter examples to Tesla. For example, people want to improve the energy efficiency of their homes by installing heat pumps in their houses. But these systems are typically terribly ugly; they spoil the aesthetic atmosphere both inside and outside the house. You might argue that it is ‘wrong’ to refuse to use such products just because of their aesthetic properties, and that ‘nature is more important’.  Of course it is, but this is not a matter of either-or logic.

Why should people, who are willing to protect our natural resources, be forced to – or at least be ready to – sacrifice the beauty of their homes? It is a basic human characteristic, almost an instinct, to create an atmosphere of comfort, beauty, and style in his or her appearance and the immediate environment. Appearance and aesthetics have their roots in functionality and they are not decoration only.

Why not respect this need, and even make a sustainable business of it? Denying this is based on ignorance and a false model of what man is like and what is significant for us as human beings. No wonder then that research has indicated already a weakening motivation of people for sustainable decisions.

Many of us take bottles, paper and other stuff for recycling, often into distasteful-looking storage boxes located in an untidy environment. Even the rest-rooms in public places have a better design. For some strange reason, environment-friendly products, processes, and services seem to lack aesthetically interesting or pleasing appearance and structure, as if it would be better for them to appear shabby, dirty, and thoroughly non-inviting. There is a serious need for inspirational design that motivates people to do sustainable acts and that prevents the de-motivation to do so.

The human motivational system is not a simple hierarchy. It is rather like a complex architecture of the mind where everything has a function and it is based on rich connectivity of elements. Individual and cultures have different architectures, so are their motivations different. Here are some quick hit examples of motivations that support sustainable behavior:

Creative representations of knowledge can motivate to wise acts

We are energized by the joy of sharing the experiences of helping with our close ones.

We are empowered by the sight of a real change happening

Being in personal contact  & control motivates us to be active

Sense of beauty makes us perceptive

Fresh solutions give us faith in possibilities

Incorporating helping into our own life context makes it part of our life

From ‘either-or’ to ‘both-and’

Inspirational design can best find a place where business models can support it.  It is not a trivial task to figure out what these models might be; they have to be invented. There are promising developments under way that change the way business innovations will promote sustainable behavior, help the poor, and to support peace and non-violence. A special, inspiring example for me, is EPIC (Earth-wide, Peace, Innovation, Collaboration) program led by Mark Nelson at Stanford. Participating EPIC has made me enjoy a flow of new thought models for promoting good.

Everyone knows the success story of Professor Yunus and Grameen Bank helping the poor with micro loans in developing countries. It has numerous followers and there are many other related activities as well. “The Net” alone does not accomplish it – the real forces behind it are the clever and fresh, out-of-the-box business thinking, relevant capital, and all this combined with a strong and healthy motivations to help. The Net alone is a dead mesh.

The design of products and services provides a motivating platform for people to help, support, and invite them to act in a sustainable way. Here ‘design’ does not mean the surface of a product, a brand, or a service instead it refers to their inherent human culture, source-of-origin and meaning.  From this perspective design is a way to connect people, especially the craftsmen and the consumers, and their human cultures.

Design is a bridge that, in addition to representing the knowledge of functions and origin, also carries to us its reasons of existence. It is like an ether that travels with the design and serves as a media for connectivity.

When the ether of design meets our own aesthetic and other motivations, we can be delighted and inspired of what it means to us and what it means to its originators. This supports our motivation to be involved with the sources and actors behind the design. It is a much more deeper issue that just ‘buying to help’.

Helping people to be motivated

A friend of mine, Irene Wichmann has started a campaign and a business to find “ethically produced, beautiful products …  and their producers”, and through this process, to make it easy for us as consumers and global citizens to help those that can design, produce and offer such products for us.

We are offered a simple way to do good, and to do it in a fair way: to compensate for the work, time, and skill of the people who have produced the objects and at the same time to show genuine respect and admiration to their skills.  At the same time, we can enjoy beautiful designs and work of art and craft from the world. In other words, Irene helps us to enjoy style and function in a way that is important to us, to our friends and families and to our own culture. We care about other people and when there is a personalized way to do it we will do it. Perhaps this is a sign of a start for a new paradigm, from the concept of personalizing products for people to the idea of personalizing ways for them to act.

What I especially like about Irene’s thinking is that she does not lecture us to restrain from our needs for beauty, style, and comfort. She respects our motivation to be aesthetically demanding, selective AND to help at the same time. And still, there is no doubt why  – what is her motivation –  she has started this campaign: to help and to help us to help. She is not alone in her admirable endeavor, you can find similarly minded people and organizations from e.g. and .

This is not the only example of how our thinking is challenged and how the either-or mental model becomes diluted and we can learn to live along parallel individual and social dimensions, and to move to the time of both-and. It is one part of the development that many thinkers see as an increase in the complexity of the world. (Which view I do not share. I see this as a natural development in how we have always found new ways of framing the world that is – and will always be – too complex for us and to other creatures on the earth to grasp). We have no hope in trying to completely understand the universe and other cultures, but it is a motivating journey to share with our global friends.

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