Rebounding back from jetlag and a jam-packed trip to Hong Kong – for InnoAsia 2007, a conference about “innovating for sustainability” – I have happily landed in the pages of The New York Times Magazine, pouring over the words of food guru Michael Pollan. This time, he writes about “Our Decrepit Food Factories” and questions the worked-over word “sustainability” in the contexts of factory pig farming and honeybee migration. He gives these two specific case studies because, according to Confucius (his reference), if we’re going to have any hope of repairing what was wrong in the world, we had best start with the “rectification of names,” i.e. calling things by their proper names and reattaching words to real things and precise concepts.
I couldn’t agree more. And this is what motivated me, before I spoke at Hong Kong’s Science Park about the social piece of sustainability, to do a bit of definitional work. I focused on sustainability first: an outcome, in effect, of meeting the needs of today without compromising future needs. Then I expanded on design: it’s a verb (a la Bucky Fuller), it’s an open invitation (as in, everyone’s a designer), and it’s about people (per Jane Jacob’s one-liner). Then I shared real-world examples.
As the day carried on, we heard from people in policy, the sciences, invention, architecture and design. Each with his or her take on sustainability. Dr. Sarah Liao, former Secretary for Environment, Transport & Works (HKSAR) spoke about biomimetics, symbiosis and global warming. In transportation, Peter Hughes, from the Vectrix corporation, talked about his two-wheeled electric scooter and Dan Sturges, of Intrago, shared his views on micro-rental systems, or mobility ecosystems. Material Connexion’s Dr. Andrew Dent gave us an historical review of materials, focusing on the healthiness, or wellness, of our built environment today. And Ted Howes of IDEO and Mike LaVigne of Frog Design individually infused product design convention with refreshing outlooks on design-plus-business, and tips on how to do it for the greater good.
The audience went on a winding journey through these topics and more, past flashing signposts pointing to hot new trends in technology. But ultimately, happy to say, the conversation boomeranged back to people. We collectively, reflectively, understood that innovation is driven by human choices, across all fields of endeavor. And, despite technological capacity (which the world is swimming in), innovating for sustainability can’t be achieved unless we’re conscious of the choices we make and curious about the consequences in the long run. Sustainability needs to be “more than a nice word” we banter around (or use to hype products). Sustainability needs to mean something tangible that we measure, over time.
In this regard, it’s an exciting time in human history, with so many changes underway, and so many people proactively coming together to share stories and strategies. As long as we keep remembering to clarify, contextualize, and look back together, so that we may look forward for centuries to come, the future will surely be bright.