[This post originally appeared in News From Natural Logic, a more or less monthly newsletter from Natural Logic, Inc.]

Call it random, call it synchronous, call it selective awareness, but sometimes it seems the gems come in clusters. Some days the tweets just seem to set themselves up for a more meaningful cluster of retweets.

Lately, it’s a series of events and encounters that have brought me back to first principles — and to the question I often ask my clients: “What are you really here to do?”

Let me walk you through the events and then tell you — in the next post — where I wound up.

Hint: we’re upping the ante.

How Good Is Good Enough?
Last month I spent two days with Dr Michael Braungart and a number of clients and allies of the Cradle To Cradle design process. Michael reminded us, as he always does, what a poor word “sustainability” is for the enterprise upon which we have all launched ourselves. “You wouldn’t brag that your marriage was ‘sustainable’,” he declares. “How boring!” Nor is the common focus on making things less bad or slowing the rate of damage and decline a sufficiently compelling or meaningful goal — compared to making things, well, good. And beautiful — especially when you consider healthful functioning an aspect of beauty. What if, he asked, we came to see products than can cause harm to living things as fundamentally defective, of unacceptable quality?

Some of you may be old enough to remember when “safety” was considered a luxury, or a performance dimension to be traded off against cost and other factors. Or when “quality” goals had to be “balanced” and cost and other considerations. But Philip Crosby wrote Quality Is Free, Detroit learned from Japan, and production quality standards for automobiles and other manufactured goods rose worldwide, and all our expectations rose as well. What would happen in a world in which “environmental” quality was expected in much the same way?
Two weeks ago I shot a new video introduction for my coaching services, which I opened by saying “I’ve got to level with you: I’m not really interested in sustainability — because we don’t need to sustain things as they are. We need to create a new world…” [click for more]

The next day I made my twice a year visit to the Design Fellows program at California College of the Arts. My topic was “Design = Sustainability = Innovation.” Design, I suggested, is the process of innovation in the context of specific constraints; the constraints that are selected (or ignored) in turn constrain — and nurture — the possibility of innovation. Since the constraints we set for “sustainable design” are of utmost importance, let’s make it interesting: Reducing waste is no longer interesting; eliminating waste might be. Reducing toxics is no longer the cutting edge; eliminating toxics (or keeping them completely contained within “technical cycles”) might be. “Sustainability” may not get at what we really mean; “regeneration” might get closer.
Last week, Barrett Brown and Sean Esbj√∂rn-Hargens of MetaIntegral hosted 30 students from University of Victoria at Natural Logic’s office, and Barrett got as close as anyone has since Bucky: “the ultimate flourishing of humans and nature.” (It’s not perfect, since it speaks of humans and nature as separate, and I don’t think of them that way, but close enough — and reminiscent of Bill McDonough’s design challenge to “love all the children, of all species, for all time.”)

Reminiscent, too, of Buckminster Fuller’s commitment to “a world that works for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological defense, or the disadvantage of anyone” (which, as many of you know, has been a strategic beacon for me these last 40 years.) I stopped off last week (in a small detour from the Sustainable Brands ’12 conference), to visit the Word Resources Simulation Center in San Diego, where, in an immersive, seven-big-screen planning center we brought some of Bucky’s vision and legacy alive for the next generation of World Gamers.
And at SB’12, a surprising number of the main stage speakers continued the theme, challenging 1300 attendees from large and small brands, consultancies and NGOs to think bigger, bolder, deeper about what they are up to, about what they’re trying to do. Companies as diverse as Chipotle, Clarke and Ford raised the bar, and raised it again. Chipotle providing the market pull to scale sustainable beef and pork production. Clarke rebranding from mosquito killers to environmental managers. Ford evolving from a car and truck manufacturer to a mobility company, now partnering with ZipCar, and committed to lowest CO2 emissions in every car category they compete in. (Not at the conference, but noteworthy in this dimension: British retailer Kingfisher, committing to “net positive,” not less bad performance.)

I used the occasion to lead a panel workshop (with Jeff Mendelsohn of New Leaf Paper and Bonnie Nixon of BonnEco) on the theme of “disruptive innovation,” and the challenge of “Why — and how — to cannibalize your own business — before someone else does.”
Meanwhile, with all that percolating, we’re finding that Natural Logic’s clients having been coming to us with requests that are increasingly about systems design — the complex task of reinventing everything: procurement and materials choices, design and production, sales and marketing systems, value propositions, business structures and compensation systems; engagement and learning ;and more. All together, all inter-operating, all essential. Its very, very hard work — probably the hardest we’ve ever done. It’s also uncovering more brand and business value than we’ve ever seen before.
[To be continued…]

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