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New Bottom Line Volume 3.2 – Designing for the REAL World… and the Real WORLD

February 8, 1994

We often hear from managers “Well, all this environmental quality stuff is well and good, but it has to work in the REAL world–of budgets, financial statements, the bottom line.” We also know–as biological beings whose lives depend on the vitality and well-being of natural systems–that our economic activity has to work in the real WORLD–the biosphere.

The era of the either-or game is ending. Intelligent action, and wise companies, must work in the REAL WORLD–both economically and ecologically. The good news is that intelligent action in both realms increasingly goes hand in hand. (Thank you, Scott Butner, for elegantly skewering this conundrum.)

Engineering is more than anything else the art of designing effective solutions within a given set of constraints. The key is in those constraints — what they include and how they are set. No engineer would consider designing a bridge that didn’t effectively deal with constraints of material strengths, projected loads and gravity. Yet for years environmental quality and resource efficiency have been seen in opposition. Increasingly they are becoming fundamental drivers of design, and sometimes of signifcant breakthroughs. A growing number of companies are making Design for Environment (and its associated Design for Recyclability) an integral part of of product strategy, design and development.

Sometimes regulations are the driving factor. Seimens, in response to Germany’s packaging take-back laws, developed modular, reusable packaging for sensitive personal computers using half the materials of standard packging, and no styrofoam at all. German auto manufacturers, spurred by anticipated product take-back regulations, have applied DFR to their cars, simplifying disassembly, and barcoding each part for easy identification of its constituent materials. Such creative design may offer increased product life and ease of repair, as well as the intended environmental benefits.

Sometimes a regulatory response can turn into something else. Toxic Release Inventory data published by the Santa Clara County (California) Manufacturers Group for their 110 member companies has turned into a public benchmarking competition, with companies racing to reduce their emissions more quickly than the next firm down the road. The surprise–impressive improvements may not be enough to keep the lead, if the next firm down the road has managed even more impressive improvements.

And sometimes designing “backward” from an ideal can open opportunities that aren’t evident to the more common approach of incremental improvements to “the way we’ve always done it.” While Detroit engages in its periodic lobbying forays opposing tougher auto fuel efficiency standards and electric vehicle requirements, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute used a fresh analysis of the physics of the automobile to lay out a strategy for “supercars” that would be as safe, affordable and sprightly as today’s — except that they would get 150 to 300 miles per gallon.

There’s an interesting story told about the Apollo moon mission in the 1960s. Though NASA was committed to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, they knew they didn’t have the necessary technologies to achieve the feat. The solution was to turn the impossibility into a design challenge, by creating a “Department of It Can’t Be Done.” That [perhaps apocryphal] department’s task was to take the detailed description of each “it can’t be done” –like materials that could withstand the searing re-entry temperatures the capsule would face, and protect the crew inside — and use it as a design challenge, with the constraints of the problem defining the recipe for the solution.

Sometimes the motivation is not “businesslike” in the traditional sense. Tom Zoesel, pollution prevention manager at 3M, tells of a proud engineer who brought his [again, perhaps apocryphal] company’s CEO plans for a 50% reduction in emissions over several years. Impressive, except that the CEO had spent the day before at his young granddaughter’s birthday party, and, motivated by her smile as much as the bottom line, wouldn’t accept anything less than a 90% reduction in half the time. “Unreasonable,” said the engineer. “Maybe,” said the CEO, “but let’s do it anyway, and do it profitably.”

Are these stories true? Perhaps not literally–although 3M has saved some 2/3 of a billion dollars on its pioneering pollution prevention program, and several Fortune 500 companies are setting zero pollution goals. But they are certainly useful in the sense that anyone can recognize the logic, imagine the feelings, and understand something that is true: that your company’s emissions are in fact your kids’ air.

The challenge of being successful in both the REAL world of economics and the real WORLD of living things faces every company. Maybe a fierce commitment to efficiency is not dreaming, but the the most realistic thing of all. Which is why every company can use a Department of It Can’t Be Done.

(c) 1994 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

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