Thinking Backwards Lens
It's interesting, the thinking backwards lens is for me something that should be a default for everything. I feel like the idea of making something as sustainable as possible has been proven to be economically beneficial. So why everybody doesn't do it is actually beyond me. You know, there is this whole ethical thing of yes, we should be doing the best for the planet, but some people don't agree with that. Ethical, like I said. But even if you don't agree with that economically it makes so much sense to balance. So here we have something that's really out of balance. The turtle will live to max 150 years but the plastic will go for 450 years plus. So this is intrinsically unbalanced and unsustainable, right? You know that, I know that, and yet so much of the stuff that we create and we design, so much of the stuff that we're working on is intrinsically unbalanced which creates waste which is ridiculous. We don't want waste. If you think about, you know, you hear about the Pacific Gyre...
swirling around. A lot of people think this is this massive island of plastic and in fact a couple of years ago I was involved in interviewing a guy, David de Rothschild, who was sailing a boat made of 6,000 plastic bottles, catamaran. He was gonna sail up for National Geographic to the Pacific Gyre. They were gonna take photos, then they're gonna keep on going to Australia. Interestingly the boat made of 600 plastic bottles, 6,000 plastic bottles scuttled sideways faster than it went forward which meant they completely missed the Pacific Gyre. But had they got there they would have found that in fact it's like suspended confetti hundreds of feet deep. We're not talking about an island of rubbish. We're talking about something that is sitting in the water like basically an iceberg. You might see a little on the top but there's masses of it underneath right where all the marine life is. And in fact there's not one of those things, there's seven or eight. So this idea that we have all this plastic and waste out there is just an indicator of how unbalanced a whole lot of our design processes and design is. In fact just to give you some ideas, in a tin can, 50 years to biodegrade in the ocean; aluminum can, 200 years; styrofoam cup, 20 years; plastic waxed container, 3 months. So it's an interesting concept. If you think about how much money we spend creating containers to know that in fact the waxed cardboard container which is also fairly inexpensive container to make is the thing that makes the most sense yet most of our containers are plastic, maybe aluminum. So thinking backwards is about balance. It's not purely about you must be sustainable. It's about the logic thinking behind balance. And the creative step in the thinking backwards lens is not the balancing itself because that sort of becomes obvious once you start using the backcasting tool and we have a worksheet for the backcasting tool. The balance itself is not a creative thing but it's in achieving the balances. You need to think creatively about your timeframe and about the materials and inputs that go into what makes this system that we're looking at. So this is a Life Cycle. Does anyone here app on Life Cycle? Do we know what a Life Cycle Analysis is? Mainly no? Okay, sometimes we do. Okay, so Life Cycle Analysis is basically when we understand all the inputs that go into something we understand its useful life. We understand how much energy it used, how much water it used, how much pollution it created. We understand how long people used it for, and then we understand what happened to it when we finished post-consumer, pretty interesting. Cars, for instance. You know, cars, there's a lot of work in the auto industry right now about recycling stuff at end of life, also in electronics. You know, when we suddenly have scarcities of certain metals people are suddenly very keen on remining electronics after we're finished using our phones and computers. Cars have been a little ahead of the game in that they pull out most of the metal and a whole lot of the electronics in the cars. Not really the tires, but what's interesting is some genius in PR about 50 years ago decided to call the stuff that's left, the really, really toxic, bioaccumulating, nasty chemical that happens when you dump a car in landfill, somebody named it fluff. How cute is that? That's just fluff, just a little fluff handing around at the end. So in that case we've got all this energy going in. We've got metal, vinyl, stuff, right? We pull a whole lot of it out but at the end the fluff goes into the garbage. It's interesting, a couple of years ago Levi Strauss decided to do an audit of their energy and their water. So they had a look at a pair of jeans and they had a look at all the energy and water that went into it in the production and in the wearing and in, oh, the selling and then in the wearing. And what they came up with which is sort of handy for them is that most of the water and the energy was when it left their hands and went to the consumer. So your pair of jeans were creating their largest energy footprint when you were putting them in the dryer all the time, bad. So Levi's to counter that came up with a campaign. They first of all ran a competition on how can you dry your Levis more sustainably with less energy and they paid money to people that came up with racks, and well racks, like it's racks, right? (laughing) It wasn't really rocket science. But mainly they started changing the labels. And so they started highlighting that you're not supposed to wash your jeans. Apparently they're supposed to be able to stand up on their own before you wash them. So they're absolving themselves of that responsibility by passing it on to you. It's an interesting one because what they're doing is acknowledging the water and the energy used and then highlighting that. And you'll find a lot of companies are doing this now. Coca-Cola, when it makes fabric out of its own bottles, has a little tag that has the number of the bottles on it. So this idea of Life Cycle, of actually owning the entire process of something, is at the heart of the backwards lens because what we're gonna try and do is balance so that we minimize that waste at the end which means what we've got is much value on purpose as possible happening in the middle and it keeps on going round and round in circles, not ever diminishing, just round sustainably. Oh, this is one of my favorite companies. This is called Tomorrow Machine. This is two women. One is Dutch, one is French, and they're profoundly rethinking food packaging based on this premise. If the milk lasts a week, why does the container last for years? Okay, we've just worked out that if the container in fact was in the ocean it wouldn't last for years, it would last for months. But we also know the milk will not last for months. So what they do is fundamentally rethink how we package things. This is single-serve olive oil. So this is the idea that olive oil. So olive oil goes rancid really fast. You need to keep it out of sunlight and you need to stop it from oxidizing. So this is why olive oil comes in really heavy, dark green bottles or tins. But even in those bottles once you undone it it's actually surprising how fast olive oil goes off. And of course the bottles that olive oil comes in are really heavy. So if we were looking at a life analysis we'd be like okay, we're using a lot of energy to move those things which are just holding oil. But the bottles themselves are really chunky. So what these guys have done is created these little eggs of olive oil, single-serve, and they're made in caramelized beeswax. So this is wax? No wait, it's caramelized sugar with a waxy coating. You crack it like an egg and then you just throw it in the garden and it just dissolves like the olive oil that you just cooked. So then you look at that and go well, so that's gonna travel in a totally different way. Now you're gonna treat it like an egg. You might have it in a little straw basket or you might have it in a little eggshell thing which is made of cardboard. We've just totally eliminated the heaviness, the glass, the energy, the everything. So this fundamental rethink is really a summary of what we're trying to do with the backwards lens. We're gonna look at stuff that we deliver every day and we're gonna understand how in fact if that function only needs to last this long we can make the delivery, the resources, the other parts of it match that length of time. Makes it more efficient, makes it better for everybody. I've got a really cool little, I only just found this company again last night. I like (laughing) in the spirit of adventurous thinking I never leave my workshops alone. I'm constantly trying to learn more and then incorporate it in. So I found this amazing online collaboration last night called Parley. I'm assuming it's Parley, right, because it's bringing people together and it's addressing waste and plastic. And at its core what it's saying is plastic is a massive design mistake and until we come up with a better material because it's so useful we have to come up with a strategy to deal with plastic. And so basically they're saying the oceans give us life. We give them plastic. So we have to invent our way out of this. And they have a strategy called AIR which is avoid, intercept, and redesign. So if you think of that whole Life Cycle thing, either don't use it in the first place, eliminate a little bit of it, or intercept it and reuse it. So they've just done a collaboration with adidas where they've issued soccer kit for the Real Madrid that is completely made out of recycled ocean plastic debris. So cool and it's gonna be debuted soon and hopefully that fabric will be really useful. I mean think about it, polar fleece and then the stuff that's come after polar fleece, it's made of recycled plastic. It's super breathable and useful. So this is this concept that we have a look at our timeframe. We have a look at how we can make it more robust, more sustainable which usually means it's more impactful, it has a better story, and it's more economic. Okay, so this is a little just about that idea of citizenship and backwards squarely addresses this too. So a lot of companies jump on board and do want to show to the public they're doing the right thing. It's actually a fantastic PR exercise if you think of Patagonia as one shining example. Coke tries, Levi's is trying. So various companies, especially ones that are going out to consumers, try and let you know what they're doing in the sustainable area. It's taking that stewardship thing and making it a part of your brand. It's quite a key part moving forward. And so you know it's important to be aware of the message you're giving if you've got particularly a product. If you have a product, for instance, that looks like it's made of unbleached cardboard it's gonna give a message of sustainability. You have a product that is mottled, it normally looks like it's made of recycled material, it's gonna give a message of sustainability to your consumer. In fact it's interesting. There's a bottle of laundry detergent. When a moved here my neighbors knew that I was very big on sustainability and they were very excited to show me this bottle of laundry detergent that was cardboard. You guys might know it, it's cardboard. And I said this is so amazing, it's so sustainable. And I'm looking at it and I'm like okay, the cap is plastic, the bottle is cardboard, and inside is a foil baggie. This one over here, the bottle is plastic and the cap is plastic. So I can chuck that in the recycling and it will totally recycle. And it won't recycle to the same standard, it will downcycle. But this one over here I have to unscrew the cap, I have to pull out the baggie. There are three different materials. Baggie probably doesn't recycle, the cap does, the bottle might depending on the internal. And so actually something that looked really sustainable is way less easily recycled than this plastic bottle over here. So I guess what I'm saying is you can greenwash. I'm not judging you, I sort of am. You can greenwash or you can really tell your story, but understand that most people are looking for a story in that area of sustainability. And if you have a story to tell then make sure that you're letting everybody know because this is really big right now in terms of realizing your idea and your innovation and actually getting the word out.
I just wanted to make a comment about what you had just said about sustainability and kind of an initiative for corporations especially but even individuals is that your product represents you and your feelings and your sentiments about how we view the world. And I can't imagine why a corporation wouldn't switch over to. I mean the light bulb stint that they did at Wal-Mart. That was just, because here we're throwing out all the light bulbs that were functioning and they're replacing them with LEDs. It was a multi, multi-million dollar project. But there's certainly many things that corporations can do and should do to reflect that we care and we are American and we wanna keep our world clean and around.
And I mean some don't. Some people don't and some people don't care to be fair. I'm not gonna force anybody to do what I think they should do but the backwards lens is about this balance. And I think at the key what happens is it becomes an economical benefit. And if you can show people an economical benefit then they'll continue to do it. So here I wanna just quickly run through the difference because we need to know this for the backcasting lens itself between recycling, downcycling, and upcycling. A lot of stuff says it's recycle-able. That simply means it can be recycled, not that it was which is sort of key. I think, you know, unless something needs to be structural you'd want it to be made of recycled but it's actually harder than you think to make, say for instance, something out of recycled plastic. It can't be food grade, for instance. So there's a whole material science behind that. But generally recycling is something like aluminum and glass. That means no matter how many times you use it and then put it back through its system it will constantly come out as the same quality and structural integrity material. So aluminum is an expensive thing and it's really high energy but you know that every time it gets recycled through the system even though it's costing a lot of energy and water, it is coming out the same thing over and over again. So it is a closed system. Glass also, really high energy but it goes round and round and round. So if you're using glass you know that it can, as long as you've got a system going, it can recycle into the same quality and structure. Downcycling is what most stuff does. So say paper, people say paper is recyclable but paper actually every time you recycle it loses its fiber, it loses its structure. And so paper becomes cardboard, cardboard becomes pulp, pulp becomes that goopy packing stuff, and then ultimately it just turns into sort of gunk. You know, you could argue that at that point you could use it as like compost. It's not really compost, it has no nutritional value, but paper is downcycling. At some point it's over and out, right? It's not going round and round, it's heading down. Upcycling is the golden snitch. Upcycling is what we're all looking for because upcycling means something has been used once, it's had value and purpose, but the second time around it gets better. And that's something that, you know, so in nature we're looking to recycle trees for instance. They go into the ground and then they re-pop up again. Upcycling would be something like, say, plastic bottles that get used for drinking and then you turn them into fabric that keeps people warm. Or something that one of my colleagues who used to judge on The New Inventors with me, Veena Sahajwalla, invented a system to take old plastic bags and old car tires both of which are massive like scourges on the environment, and recycle them into coke that would make virgin-quality steel. That is an amazing upcycle. To be able to take something that's rubbish and turn it into something structural and really, really useful is this idea of upcycling. So these are really important to know because most people just go nah, it's recyclable which actually has not moved the game forward. Recyclable simply means it has potential but you didn't actually do it. Right, it we're actually adventurous-thinking we wanna be recycl-ing and upcycl-ing. So when we look at our backcasting it's really important to remember that because that's what we're after in terms of making something fit the bill.
I was up at Twitter headquarters the other day and it was Earth Day and they were giving out they're promoting the environment. They were giving away free succulents. They were feeling so good about themselves. And on the table, and I don't mean to be a critic, but on the table they were giving out little stress squeeze balls of the Earth. And they were of course 100% plastic but not only that. I looked on the bottom and it has big the Made in China. And yeah, I couldn't shut my New York mouth and I had to make a comment.
That's a tricky one because you know made somewhere for me is more I like to have thing made where they're bought because of the shipping costs more than anything else. Like I'm cool for it to be made somewhere but it would be good if it was made, you know. So it'd minimize the shipping and the, which is part of that Life Cycle stuff.
Yeah, and it reflected the image that I was talking about that a company like Twitter is so progressive and here they are not only pushing plastic but promoting Chinese products.
I feel like a lot of people use virgin plastic for want of a better virgin word but whatever, simply because they don't understand what materials are available, you know. And so it's really down to people saying what have you got. Like how can you, I mean when I've gone and done products the products that have won me the most stuff have been ones where I really actively. And again there's this actively thing, asking questions, right? You go out and go yeah, I understand that you always make it in this plastic. I understand that your stress ball is always in this stuff but could you not make that out of something that's already been something else? Would that not?
I think it's almost at the point where you kind of have, if your company at this time at least in the near future has to make everything that level of sustainable or at least upcycling just because I feel like at this point if you don't people are gonna start looking down on your brand for not doing anything. Whereas if you do it you're kind of more assumed to do it anyway so if you don't I feel like people are just waiting for it to happen otherwise.
Yeah, and I think what people miss is the opportunity to make that change and seize the story. For instance if you'd walked in on Earth Day and had it said, "If you're stressed, happy days, "take it out on ocean plastic," and you could like squish a ball that you knew had come from waste which is totally possible, that material exists and you could be like going yes! Damn it, you killed a fish! You know, so I think what people miss, and again that's where it comes back to economics. This results in brand loyalty. This results in more sales and people wanting your stuff because you've gone that extra step and you've grabbed something new that makes a difference and you've told the story, yeah.
Mine is more of a question than a comment and it's how does backcasting, like how could that, like, increase creativity in your thinking because it sounds like you're putting parameters on your ideas because now you have these limitations about recycling and reusing and stuff like that that you didn't have before.
Right, it is putting parameters.
And in some ways that can limit your creativity. But in some way isn't it possible that those limitations can increase your possibilities or at least stretch your thinking?
No, absolutely, so you know we've looked at how having a loose structure actually frees you to think more creatively. The blank sheet of paper thing of ah, I've gotta be creative and I could do anything. I mean when I would get architectural commissions where I just had a limitless budget and I'd look at the person and go ah, well tell me what you don't like or tell me, like tell me something because I can't just jam out a house. I mean I can but it's gonna be the most soulless thing, right? And similarly it's true that we can create maybe in a void but it's harder. But if we give ourselves some limitations what will happen is we're poking ourselves again to think outside our expertise. So maybe our creativity is sitting in what we know. We may not know a thing about materials we've never heard of before. How could we? We've never heard of them before. But if we'd go doving into that area and try and find new stuff, as soon as you learn about new things you get triggered in a good way and it's exciting, right? Then you can bounce off it. Then you go oh, I know what I could do with that. I mean it happens every time I show people any new material. They just sit there going wait, no, I know totally what I could do with that. I'd imagine with the adidas Real Madrid thing as soon as people see that you can actually make soccer kit for a leading soccer team completely out of recycled plastic it'll become the new normal. Why would you ever not do that, yeah?
The other day I went to the store and just got like a little lunch from I think Whole, not Whole Foods, some random place. But I remember getting like sushi, a drink, and another thing too and there was just so much waste. I felt just like so bad about buying all those things. But do you think it's kind of realistic or possible future for big companies like supermarket stores and stuff to be able to make all their products almost like upcycling or biodegradable, whatever, just because if a lot of it's like fresh fruit then it needs to be sitting in like a store. So do you think that such big companies would realistically eventually move into everything being able to upcycle?
Yeah, I mean if you look at waste, I mean you look at food waste which is a massive thing particularly in developed countries. I mean nobody wants food waste. You don't want stuff you didn't sell. And there are of course those stores that have sprung up that sell the Used By stuff, you know, at a discount to try and move that on. But yeah, packaging is the front line of waste. You know, if you see the back of any store it's full of the stuff they've gotta get rid of, usually cardboard boxes. And if you can reduce that in other ways by delivering the food in different ways, you know, by getting the fresh stuff to the consumer faster perhaps. And there are a lot of systems right now that are trying to rethink that. So I think that the big box stores are constantly looking for that because waste costs them money. They have to have that stuff removed. You know, all the bits and piece from your sushi, the little bit of plastic grass, the plastic knife and fork, the little soy sauce thing and the plate itself, that all went into the bin and they gotta pay for that to be removed. So yeah, I think that the bottom line is people are gonna change that.