This week I'm attending the Design Management Institute conference in San Francisco again. The conference is Re-Thinking...The Future of Design, and the conversations on stage are focused on tracking how design thinking is making a difference in business. Design and business continue to mix.
As I sit in the conference, I'm enjoying my bottle of hotel-provided Fiji water—it's easing the discomfort I have from my allergies. But I feel guilty drinking it. Despite Fiji Water's aggressive work in creating carbon offsets, this plastic bottle is made from oil, processed with energy created from oil, and shipped thousands of miles using ships and trucks that burn oil. It's especially poignant to think about this relationship between oil and water in this post-Gulf-Coast-oil-disaster moment.
Water is good. Water is bad.
Ads from Evian and Brita
While we all know this, bottled water is super-convenient. It's not that we want to harm the planet, or think that our immediate need or ongoing healthy habits (water kicks soda's butt for hydration, right?) are more important. It's just that we're busy, and the bottled water is there—and we promise ourselves that we'll recycle the empties.
The fact is that tap water in my country (and probably yours if you're reading this) is super duper. If we only had a way to open the tap, grab a slug of it, put it in our pocket and dispense it at will, we'd have the convenient water that we need accessible when we want it. Fast Company did a fantastic piece about the bottled water industry here, pointing to just how this became such a thriving entity.
Design—or design thinking, if you prefer—is tackling this problem, if not the impending problem of global drinking water shortage, in a number of inspiring ways that aim to start with the need, provide alternatives, and empower behavior change in us all.
A number of companies are using bottled water revenues to do some philanthropy. These companies are contributing profits to help developing countries without reliable drinking water sources. Good thinking. But I want to ask, how might I participate in that goodness without using the plastic bottle?
I first noticed Ethos water at Starbucks—leveraging their ability to move a lot of "bad" product to create bigger good elsewhere? But still, where's the behavior change?
Then, there are reusable water bottles. Those familiar camping bottles from Nalgene spearheaded the trend. Until, that is, we learned that the robust polycarbonate that they were fashioned from was leeching icky bad stuff into our water. They've since fixed that, and in their wake a multitude of reusable bottles have leapt onto store shelves.
A newcomer, KOR, has jumped into the fray with a contemporary bottle that is a conversation starter at local gyms just for its looks. Their bottle, the KOR ONE, is a vehicle for first order improvement on delivering "greener" water conveniently. But does a chunky water bottle with a modestly improved aesthetic change me? I still have to wash the bottle, and I still have to keep it with me. As the saying goes, I think I first have to want to change.
The KOR ONE elevates the idea of refillable water bottles through material choice and design
Couldn't we play with the semantics of what the water bottle is—and create a visible beacon that shouts, "You can change." A designer in our office, Junggi Sung, did just that in creating the DrinkTapWater bottle. It doesn't need much explaining. The iconic sink faucet cap is both a reminder and a calling card shouting the message: DrinkTapWater.
Going a step further, the bottle top becomes an evangelist, repurposing used bottles for our tap water drinking ambitions. Find a bottle, clean it, fill it and cork it with your DrinkTapWater topper. Glass bottles are durable, easy to come by and by reusing them in this way, we reduce the carbon footprint required to manufacture, clean, fill and ship these bottles. And when you're done with one, recycle it.
Junggi Sung's DrinkTapWater bottle design aims to shift our views about bottled water
We love the humor, warmth, nostalgia and clear semiotics of DrinkTapWater. The concept broadcasts the message well, and in a delightful come-along-with-me manner—not a judgmental activist manner (not that we don't need some of that too). While it hasn't yet been tested in the wild, I think these kinds of designs hold the prospect of tapping (pun intentional) into personal and social motivators to create real behavior change. Read LUNAR's Gretchen Anderson on the subject.
Admittedly, for pampered Americans, DrinkTapWater is still a "push" campaign. I have to clean a bottle, fill it and always make sure it comes with me. Seeking an alternative, our sustainable design champions, LUNAR Elements, asked the question differently: how might we create a "pull" system that draws us into being part of a better way?
The answer is the Re:Faktory water bottle. It's the centerpiece of a closed loop system that reinvents the refillable soda bottle systems still active in parts of the world. Bottles are purchased full from the grocery store, used like conventional bottles—and then returned to the store where they are automatically washed and refilled with filtered local tap water.
LUNAR's Elements team created this Re:Faktory system that transforms bottled water into a local service built around a compelling bottle design
The real magic in this system lies in what we do with the bottle. At each refilling, a laser etches each bottle with another slice of a story, a piece of artwork or the day's leading headline. These become bottles with messages, in a way. The message gradually appears on the blank bottle over time, with use. And it only appears when it remains part of the system. The bottle accumulates meaning—even emotional value, whether it’s sentiment, social connection, curiosity—through its metamorphosis. This emotional component enriches the system, engages people, and keeps bottles in use and in the system.
One version of Re:Faktory bottles is etched with a daily headline each time they get refilled so that over time and use, it becomes an intriguing record of events over its lifetime. At a glance, you can tell how old the bottle is by how many lines have been etched on it.
On top of the intrinsic motivators, the system includes economic incentives too. Consumers have proven that they will pay top dollar merely for the convenience of portable, clean drinking water—even when it doesn't come from the springs of a remote Pacific island or the peak of some European mountain. Within the purchase price for premium water, there's plenty of room to pay for the refilling of the bottle with cheap, filtered local water while at the same time creating an economic incentive for stray bottles to find their way back into the system. Heck, we could even scrape off some of the profits to support NGOs creating clean water for children, too.
What are you ideas for changing behaviors around drinking water that meet the needs of convenience in a more sustainable way?
As a seasoned product developer with a background in both analytical and creative thinking, John Edson's primary role at LUNAR is to build new programs for clients with the right innovation processes led by the right creative team to make a real difference for clients. His experience includes managing the birth of successful products for Philips, Motorola, InFocus, and several startups. Products developed under John's management have been honored with accolades from the Chicago Athenaeum Good Design Award, iF Hannover, PC Magazine's Editor's Choice Award, and IDSA's Industrial Design Excellence Award. Developing the contribution of design creativity and innovation process in the service of business, society and the environment, John explores the impact of design creativity in a weekly podcast, Icon-o-Cast. John is also a regular speaker, having lectured at Wharton School, given a keynote at Intertech's Flexible Display Technologies conference, and participated in a talk for the Business Marketing Association of Northern California. A lecturer at Stanford, John teaches courses in product design and creativity.