As the economy continues to rebound, businesses in our industry seem to be shifting their focus away from cost-cutting, cautiousness, and risk adversity, and turning it towards forward-thinking innovation, disruptive technologies, and new business models.
I’m observing a newfound openness to broad-based change, which had not been present during the past few financially stressful (and arguably less creative) years. I’ve recently heard executives from large building product manufacturers say things like ‘We’re ready for a radical overhaul of internal processes,’ and ‘Our entire product line is ripe for transformation, given today’s green and tech savvy world.’
But there is an elephant in the room. Our economy has been designed to benefit the ‘Seduction of More’ (more money, more stuff, more hours at work so that we can make more money to buy more stuff), where more stuff equals growth. While we’re swimming in incredible, technologically advanced solutions for faster, cheaper, and newer, those solutions are addressing the wrong questions.
We’re stuck in a bad dream of our own making—we’re quickly ascending the ladder of innovation, but we’re finally waking up to the realization that this ladder is against the wrong wall.
Faulty metrics are partly to blame. Cost per square foot doesn’t adequately reflect the quality of a home. Miles per gallon doesn’t fully incorporate a vehicle’s real value. Similarly, the metric that we’ve assigned to our economy, gross domestic product (GDP), only recognizes growth in the form of more stuff, ignoring the very fundamentals of our existence (access to clean air and fresh water) and the things that most readily impact our quality of life (sense of purpose, healthy bodies and ecosystems, and vibrant community interaction).
Despite what economists would have us believe, more isn’t always better. More installed renewable energy systems? That’s better. More healthy kids who aren’t allergic to the toxins in their homes? That’s also better. More people around the world who have access to clean water, and therefore have even a remote chance at living a halfway decent life? Definitely better. More incentives for alternative approaches and beyond-the-box thinking? Absolutely better.
More gas guzzling cars on the road generating carbon dioxide? Not better. More coal-fired power plants belching toxic clouds? Certainly not better. More people and animals sick from disease spread by contaminated water, food, and air? I’ll say no more.
At the end of the day, aren’t we looking for a better chance to survive—and thrive—on, and in conjunction with, this planet? If that’s the case, then how do we change the rules of the game so that rather than rewarding the Seduction of More, we’re encouraging meaningful solutions that address today’s key issues—healthier, higher quality, and more sustainable—based on the realities of our resource restrained world? How do we create game changing solutions, as opposed to simply developing new ways of playing the old game?
Fortunately, game changing solutions are all around us, begetting further innovation. For example, intelligent systems that are not just reactive (responding to external programming), but are proactive (automatically eliminating unnecessary resource use) are contributing to huge efficiencies. Novel approaches to material reuse, recycling, and disposal are making a significant impact on our waste stream. And collaborative consumption—the sharing economy—is helping to reduce the Seduction of More by offering people access to things (cars, beds, and all kinds of products) they don’t need to own or can’t afford to buy outright.
Frugal innovation has become the trendy name for creating simple, creative solutions from limited resources that address today’s market realities. As innovative entrepreneurs, inventors, and companies face a future constrained by economic, environmental, and social pressures, they’re realizing that complicated, expensive solutions are obsolete, and that their biggest opportunity resides in flexible, intuitive solutions are that solve real problems at “radically affordable” prices.
So, as we embark on this exciting journey of transformation, let’s make sure that we’re asking the right questions and developing solutions that focus on better, not more. Let’s make our efforts mean something.