The 50th anniversary of Earth Day comes at a strange time: when all the world is on hold, frozen in place by a pandemic. With human economic activity nearly at a standstill, for a brief moment the air and water are cleaner and animals have come out to play on deserted beaches and streets. It's worth asking if we can take this opportunity, this pause, to build something greener. Could a system based on more caring communities emerge? Can human activity be more in balance with the natural world? Do we really need everything we were used to before?
On a practical level, here are some design tips for entrepreneurs thinking about the building blocks to a better future.
1. Design with children in mind.
This means avoiding anything toxic. Bill McDonough, one of the great figures in sustainable design thinking, said in a recent presentation that toxins are not "bad" things, but rather elements in the wrong place or the wrong quantity.
For example, he says, if someone is drowning, the water all around her is toxic. Think of putting things in their right place, he says. A hammer belongs in a construction site, but not in a child's playpen. Carbon belongs in soil, but not in excess emissions released into the atmosphere.
As an entrepreneur, you might want to apply your creativity to clean tech solutions. An example that McDonough uses is thinking of plastic bottles as a form of carbon, which can be designed to be biodegradable and to return to the soil.
A system that is unnecessarily complex can be reduced to what is essential. As an example, CEO of Social Impact Capital Sarah Cone doesn't think today's food supply chain makes any sense. Agricultural products make their way across oceans to be put in warehouses and sold through multiple intermediaries before getting to a family's refrigerator. That is a lot of margin reduction.
Cone says her company invests in the essentials of human need, noting that they "look at deals in food, water, affordable housing, education, energy, and particularly drugs. And having these things at lower cost, and better-performing via technology, becomes more important." There's plenty of opportunity in simplifying your systems from a sustainbility standpoint
3. Think locally and build resilience.
Michael Shuman, a proponent of local community building, suggests designing businesses for resilient, interconnected local communities. Does your business respond to a local need? Will it help the community thrive? Does it measure performance through tools like the B-Corp assessment (a certification program for societal benefit)?
We can't all predict a pandemic the way Bill Gates did, but entrepreneurs can understand risk and weave environmental and social risk management into the way they do business.
So ask yourself, how could climate risk affect your business? Shuman says that those who are best able to withstand future crises--be they pandemics, climate disruptions, or financial meltdowns--will be the ones who thrive economically.
4. Be part of the clean tech climate challenge.
We've become used to hearing about climate change as a problem too big to solve, a conundrum for policy-makers and not entrepreneurs. But the climate challenge presents immense opportunities for innovation. We should treat this as an engineering challenge, according to Solomon Goldstein-Rose, author of The 100% Solution: A Plan for Solving Climate Change. "We can do that through moonshot-style innovation projects," he wrote in a recent article. The goal is to outcompete fossil fuel infrastructure and technology, building new systems that are affordable enough to spread rapidly.
5. Design for seven generations into the future.
This was a concept coined by Native Americans that first appeared in the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois Confederacy, an oral framework thought to have influenced the U.S. Constitution. Designing products and business models that stand the test of time, a long time, can help entrepreneurs make a positive impact on the environment and society as a whole.
As we meditate how to rebuild after Covid-19, let's celebrate Earth Day by recommitting to the earth with these tips.