Designing self-sustaining systems

Technology and design both share a concern for creating solutions to problems. What causes them to diverge is a matter of ethics.

For me, “design” evokes hopefulness and future-thinking, while the word “technology” has the smell of the 20th century about it.

Technology and design both share a concern for creating solutions to problems. What causes them to diverge is a matter of ethics. Technology looks inward to itself and asks what is possible. Design looks outward to the human world and asks what is needed.

Technology evokes 20th century ideas of construction and progress. It also evokes the consequences of creations that took no heed to the environment they inhabited. Twentieth century technological progress swept the negative (to call them “unintended” would be too generous) side effects under the carpet: we exported demeaning labor to poor countries, threw our trash into the ocean, vented toxins into the atmosphere.

We no longer have the privilege of externalities in the 21st century. We are running out of corners to hide the trash. We have no choice but to confront the realities of population growth, strained natural resources, global warming, and the strife caused by the chasm between the global rich and poor.

To return to the word “hacking”, we could say that 20th century technology exemplified the negative sense of the word. Not hacking as a search for truth, but hacks—poor solutions to pressing problems.

Design is needed for its emphasis on people and the sense that “good enough” isn‘t good enough anymore. Designed solutions are those that understand the complex environment they inhabit and find solutions that empower and aid without causing destruction in some other corner of the world. Good design will, by definition, be design that exists in harmony with its environment. Self-regulating and self-sustaining systems are everywhere in nature. We can absorb their lessons.

Technology is representative of the 20th century mindset of brute force construction that caused negative externalities on a global scale. Design will become representative of the 21st century hope of coming to grips with the world-changing forces we’ve inherited and finding sustainable paths forward.

Design is technology with ethics. But, still, good intentions are not enough. For design to achieve its aims we must have accurate insight into the consequences of solutions. True innovation in this realm would be the ability to model the consequences of actions before they happen.

Bruno Latour has a fantastic essay that ends with a challenge to designers to do precisely this. We’ve long had the ability to accurately model the objects we design, but what is now needed is the ability to model the consequences of these objects. We need an accurate picture of the contexts and forces that will be altered by releasing new things into the world.

Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect

A meditation on the concept of wabi-sabi and it’s connection to questions of mortality and meaning.

The paper covering the tables at Svartengrens, one of my favorite restaurants in Stockholm, is a perfect expression of wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi can be summarized as the acknowledgement of three simple realities: ‘nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.’

On the paper, Svartengrens prints their name in rough and faded ink. As you eat, the paper picks up marks and stains: a ring from a water glass, drippings of fat, crumbs from a dessert.


Unlike the perfect cleanliness of a white table cloth, the faded lettering and plain paper seems improved by this patina of wear. It becomes a reminder of the roughness and imperfection of everyday life.

Food and eating are both intrinsically linked to the fleeting nature of experience. Food must be eaten in the short window between growth and decay. After that it becomes useful in a different way — as fertilizer for another plant that will sprout and eventually decay.

I avoid restaurants that feature slickness and shine rather than the natural textures found in wood, stone and paper. These materials embrace wear and are made better by them. In a certain sense they are alive. They acquire a deeper character as they age. Their wear tells a story that reminds us of our own experience as finite beings. In contrast, a scratch or scuff in plastic or vinyl merely exposes the limited and lifeless nature of the material.

Food and eating is one area of experience in which wabi-sabi manifests itself. There are many others. The Disintegration Loops of William Basinski are a demonstration of time and decay within the domain of sound. As Basinski was transferring old analog tapes to a digital format, the tapes began to break apart as they played. The resulting sound had a damaged beauty that Basinski then captured.

What makes these works so memorable is not the fact that the loops are slowly disintegrating but the fact that we get to hear their deaths. In a very real way, we experience the muddled, ugly, brutal realities of life. What’s more, these muddled, ugly, brutal realities of life are, in their own way, incredibly beautiful, perhaps more beautiful than the original, pristine loops ever could have been.

Embracing wabi-sabi offers a profound understanding of human experience. Things arise and pass away. We carry the burden of the knowledge that we cannot remain forever. But this is what makes beauty and meaning possible.

Creative work cannot be managed

Traditional management strategies are useless for problems that require creative thinking.

Traditional management strategies are useless for problems that require creative thinking. And almost every job that has meaning for the future of humanity requires creative thinking.

Whatever opinion you may have about managers and their techniques, the actual history of the profession is likely far worse. For instance, this article covers research done at Harvard Business School about The Messy Link Between Slave Owners and Modern Management. A small excerpt:

Slave owners were able to collect data on their workforce in ways that other business owners couldn’t because they had complete control over their workers. They didn’t have to worry about turnover or recruiting new workers, and they could experiment with different tactics—moving workers around and demanding higher levels of output, even monitoring what they ate and how long new mothers breastfed their babies. And the slaves had no recourse.

“If you tried to do this with a northern laborer,” Rosenthal says, “they’d just quit.”

And then there’s this history of scientific management from the New Yorker. Speaking about Frederick Winslow Taylor, the “Father of Scientific Management”, the article says:

Whether he was also a shameless fraud is a matter of some debate, but not, it must be said, much: it’s difficult to stage a debate when the preponderance of evidence falls to one side. In “The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong”, Matthew Stewart points out what Taylor’s enemies and even some of his colleagues pointed out, nearly a century ago: Taylor fudged his data, lied to his clients, and inflated the record of his success. As it happens, Stewart did the same things during his seven years as a management consultant; fudging, lying, and inflating, he says, are the profession’s stock-in-trade.

The problem goes even deeper. Dan Pink’s popular TED talk goes over research that shows increasing financial rewards for better performance actually produces worse results for creative tasks.

What’s the solution? Enable people to meaningfully engage with their own work. As Dan Pink summarizes it, people doing creative work want and need three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

I’ve been on several software projects where progress had stalled and frustrations began to rise. The response? More meetings, more top-down control over low-level decisions, more aggressive scheduling of milestones. The result each time was the same: the project failed anyway.

As Alan Cooper tweeted, “Management is about choosing the proven alternative over the risky new one. Creativity is about taking risks to find new alternatives.”

In order to produce meaningful new things, we must move beyond industrial-era strategies and embrace collaboration and creativity among the people actually engaged in the work.

Alongside the ideas of autonomy, mastery, purpose, creativity, and collaboration, another idea deserves consideration: empathy. It’s a mistake to think of empathy as a soft concept that must be kept separate from rational decision making. Empathy for the people we work with and the people we are creating products and services for will result in far better results than hard-headed calculation alone.

There are hopeful signs that these ideas are making their way to the people who found and run companies.