New Models for Engaging Consumers: A Report from Opportunity Green

The business and sustainability conference Opportunity Green, held this past weekend in L.A., was an amazing experience. As we watched the various films and presentations, my wife and I moved from fear (How will the world survive?) to guilt (Look how we've polluted our planet!) to the hope that we can all work together, connected by the belief and passion that we will find a better way.

The Story of Stuff

One of the presentations that struck me most was when sustainability expert Annie Leonard shared her film, "The Story of Stuff." The animated work takes a hard (yet humorous) look at the pitfalls of our consumer society. It has developed quite a following, with more than 7 million views to date. After watching it, you come away wondering if it's possible to have a consumer-based economy and achieve true sustainability.

This is something that both industrial designers and their clients have to consider. Traditionally, we are dependent upon consumers to buy the things we create. Shifting the consumer paradigm has to begin with a fundamental shift in the way we think, the way we do business, and the way we all live our lives.

This syncs up well with a point cognitive anthropologist Dr. Bob Deutsch has been making for years now. According to Deutsch, we need to do a "search and replace" in the way we speak, and to move from talking about "consumers" to talking about "people." Perhaps this is the first step on the path to finding ways to thrive in business without consuming ourselves and our world into oblivion.

There are many aspects to consider in building a new paradigm for sustainable products, practices, and business models. But perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle is creating sustainable experiences. The experience is where we connect with people. If we create products or services that are terrific for the environment, but which fail to empower and delight, people will not use them. To truly be sustainable, a product or practice must feel more like a reward than like something we "should" do. If it feels like penance, we may do it once or twice, but it won't become a part of who we are.

The viral videos of The Fun Theory (a Volkswagen initiative) are a terrific example of how appealing to key emotions (in this case, joy and surprise) can be used to create positive change in behavior. In the videos, a staircase is turned into a huge piano keyboard to encourage people to take the stairs, the "world's deepest bin" encourages people to use a trash can instead of littering. In the video below, the simple act of recycling is turned into a fun arcade game. In each case, people were enticed to change their behavior not because it was the right thing to do, but because it was a more fun and engaging experience.

Opportunity Green showcased several fine companies who understand the power of emotion and who know that empowering people is the first ingredient in finding a better, more sustainable way. Still, it's clear that we are at the beginning of this paradigm shift. And it is equally clear that to make a shift of this magnitude we will all have to work together to find new ways for companies to continue making money while making a difference.

[Story of Stuff photo from Opportunity Green]

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Ravi Sawhney is the founder and CEO of RKS, a global leader in strategy, innovation, and design. RKS has helped generate more than 150 patents on behalf of its clients, which include HP, Intel, LG, Medtronic, Seiko, Sprint, and Zyliss, among others. Sawhney invented the popular Psycho-Aesthetics® design strategy, which Harvard adopted as a Business School Case Study. He lectures at Harvard Business School, USC's Marshall School of Business, and UCLA's Anderson School of Business. Sawhney also helped found Intrigo (computer accessories), On2 Better Health (health products), and RKS Guitars (reinvented electric guitars).

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1 Comments

  • Scott Stropkay

    My favorite point is about changing the concept we have of ourselves as consumers". I don’t think a change to people sets the bar high enough though. Thinking of ourselves as citizens is better since it implies responsibility to a group. But it is even more powerful to think of ourselves as elements in a system who care for the system’s wellbeing; guardians or caretakers or some descriptor like that. Think about the behaviors a nation of caretakers would exhibit compared to a nation of consumers – could be wildly powerful – figuring out how to make that shift is an interesting design challenge.