Designing Wealth: The Missing Piece in the Sustainability Puzzle

Posted by Howard Brown

It is impossible to build a sustainable or resilient society without expanding wealth. Things like renewable energy and materials, recycling and other methods of resource recovery, or collaborative consumption are essential ingredients for sustainability, but they are not nearly enough. Without a concurrent, dramatic expansion of wealth, there will be continued recession, economic hardship, and political destabilization, which are certainly not the ingredients of a sustainable society.

Most of us advocate environmentally sustainable strategies because we know they are essential. But how many of us ask ourselves what it will actually take to create enough wealth to include eight billion people in a robust and sustainable economy? The scale of the problem just seems too large. But it’s one we urgently need to focus on. How do we generate much more wealth for more people with a fixed resource base and environmental constraints?
 
During the last 150 years, we successfully expanded wealth to billions of people. Today, more people have access to food, shelter, and education than our ancestors could have imagined. But this expansion has been resource intensive and, ultimately, unsustainable. Businesses and the economy as a whole are already feeling the pinch of resource demand exceeding supply. The resource base simply isn’t available to meet the needs of a growing population, at least not if we continue to think of wealth and resources in the same way.
 

 
The primary solutions typically offered have to do with recycling, recirculating, and reusing resources, using renewable resources, and becoming more efficient at using resources. The reality is that no matter how good we get at recycling and waste management, and no matter how efficient we become, the more resources we use, the more we lose as waste and pollution. Each time we recirculate resources, we lose some of them. Becoming more efficient doesn’t fundamentally change the relationship between resources and wealth creation. Wealth expansion has to accelerate at a rate much faster than increases in the rate of recycling or gains in efficiency. In other words, we must do much, much more with much, much less.
 
Here’s the gigantic missing piece of the sustainability puzzle: wealth production isn’t really dependent on how much more resource mass we mine, but on how much more wealth we can mine from the available resource mass. Wealth is security, freedom, options, and opportunity. Wealth is weightless and invisible.
 
Today, most of the products we make and depend on every day are actually mostly waste. Think about toothpaste for a moment. Why do people need it? The ultimate benefit of toothpaste is oral hygiene, or healthy teeth. What if you could eliminate the fillers, packaging, and all of the other resources associated with manufacturing, delivering, retailing, and storing toothpaste? There are scientists working today on a semi-permanent biofilm that will prevent tooth decay. Others are working on an enzyme that keeps teeth healthy. There are countless products that are material whose benefits could be delivered in an entirely different, weightless or nearly weightless way—vaccinations with dissolving needles, packaging that’s integrated into products, bacteria-safe surfaces without chemicals. 
 

 
How can we get the most wealth with the least amount of resources, even without many of the physical products we associate with wealth? Through smart, intentional design focused on reducing resource mass and delivering more value.
 
We need to design for naked value—for the benefits that people seek, stripped of as many of the resources used to make and deliver products and services as possible. When we recycle resources, we need to reinvest them to produce much more wealth. When we redesign products and services, we need to design to harvest more benefits—more oral hygiene, more health, more safety—from each ton of resources used. This is how we will succeed in producing much more wealth with a fraction of the resources per capita currently needed. 
 
Howard Brown, co-founder of dMASS.net, will speak at Compostmodern 13 on March 22 in San Francisco. Compostmodern explores how design can improve society and the environment.
 
Cloud image via Shutterstock; other images via dMASS.net.