The link between sustainability and innovation is commonly mentioned, but not commonly made. Here, new-product design guru Steven Eppinger describes the practice that breeds discovery.
There’s an alarmist view of sustainable design that tilts toward the black and white. Industrial product life cycle: bad. Biological life cycle: good. Want to redesign things so they don’t poison the environment? Then complete the comprehensive life cycle analysis of the product’s impacts — all of them — before you think of lifting a design tool.
And fair enough; all-or-nothing reinvention is one fine path to creating something new.
It’s not the best path, though, says new-product design expert Steven Eppinger. Eppinger is no less alarmed than the alarmists, but when it comes to the practice of what he calls “design for environment,” he rejects the radical and argues for the incremental. For one thing, all-or-nothing isn’t an approach businesses are especially good at; it takes too long, and fails too often. For another, the sum of continuous incrementalism is likely, he says, to carry designs further toward the no-impact outcomes everyone desires. Plus, there’s a method to it. It can be learned. The secret is to focus on materials.
The Leading Question
How can environmental concerns drive product design and innovation?
- Frame design and product innovation for environmental sustainability as a materials problem.
- How much material is used is less important than what material is used.
- Don’t try to elimin-ate environmental impacts all at once. Try to get a little better each time you design any product.
Eppinger, an engineer by training, is professor of management science and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he also has spent stints helping run the school as a deputy dean. He is coauthor, with Karl Ulrich, of the popular textbook Product Design and Development. (Its fifth edition, out next summer, contains a chapter titled “Design for Environment.”)
In person, the word Eppinger calls to mind is crisp. His manner is disciplined, his speech direct; the ideas that interest him tend toward the actionable.
All of which make him a perfect commentator about the sometimes abstract management notions that connect sustainability to innovation. Eppinger has seen the connection in the field — one clear step at a time.
He spoke with Michael S. Hopkins, editor-in-chief of MIT Sloan Management Review.
We’re going to get to innovation, design and new product development — your specialties — but first I wonder if you could do some temperature-taking for us.