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Despite the introduction of water-saving faucets, appliances, toilets and other technology, U.S. per capita water consumption continues to dwarf that of developing nations.


Rather than just inventing products, this designer creates mind-bending games and tools that help diffuse conflict and bring communities together.

Irish designer Emer Beamer has plenty of real-world experience with green product design and adoption. The organization she founded, Butterfly Works (, approaches environmental challenges from a design perspective. By getting boots on the ground in local communities, she and her colleagues have been able to design solutions to serious problems, not just environmental ones, but also cultural.

“We’ve learned that simply changing a single product is not easy. Typically, every product is part of a much larger design chain, so new things designed in isolation don’t work.” On the other hand, injecting the right product into a cultural setting can have exponentially positive impacts on a local economy, the same way the U.S. auto industry once fueled job growth in other industries. For example, she co-designed a board game called GetH2O, aimed at bringing adversarial communities together, which is also available as a mobile app (


“Our horizon of existence is artificial—far removed from nature. We’re facing an interiorization, where technology dominates our lives, from the factory to the home, from entertainment to botox. Everything depends absolutely on how we act and how we make the world. We are in a world without law.”

The Depletion-Abundance Model
Of course, every age of doom and gloom has its techno-optimists. For example, a futurist named Ray Kurzweil believes that because of something called “the law of accelerating returns,” solar energy will replace fossil fuels completely within 20 years. But he’s definitely in the minority with that view.

In between the doom prophets and Kurzweil is another group that sees a future more in tune with the rhythms of nature–in some cases bordering on the primitive. In fact, a whole category of “future primitive” fiction has gained in popularity. Many groups fit loosely into this world view, including permaculturists, localism advocates, and transition town supporters. It wouldn’t be fair to throw a single descriptor over these people–but they do tend to share one tenet: the belief that the world is about to go through a major, necessary transition that will lead to a less materialistic—but more meaningful—lifestyle.

Then there’s the current generation of young people. They want real change, not commercialism masquerading as change. And they’re not afraid to call out false prophets. For example. I saw a VP of Frog Design take a drubbing on the stage at Brown University. He told an auditorium of students to “take some humility in the world,” and “undervalue their own ideas” to achieve socially conscious design. But a young man in the audience interrupted.

“I’m looking at your site on my laptop right now, and I’m looking at your products. These don’t look like socially responsible design. So what are you talking about?” Socially aware consumers with instant access to information may force manufacturers to really examine the impacts of their products–not just how they’re marketed.

Which Way Forward?
We’ve often advocated for dual approaches to green innovation–combining low-tech and high tech solutions to achieve genuine solutions to green problems. Too often, new technology fails to factor in such key variables as human behavior and material life cycle. It also tends to treat social and cultural concerns as an afterthought. We hear much about the advantages of smart grid technology for saving energy, but almost nothing about how it will improve our quality of life, even less in the way of real research on how it may impact human health. Without those missing variables, it’s rightfully suspect in the consumer’s mind.

Much of what passes for new technology in product and system design is simply modification of existing ideas—tweaking the mouse trap, if you will. What we’ve seen is that although individual products have vastly reduced their resource consumption (dishwashers and refrigerators come to mind), consumption of the world’s resources continues at an unsustainable pace. Only when product design, economic theory, and human behavior are brought into balance can green technology hope to positively impact our future on Earth.


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