How planet-centric design can help organizations face sustainability challenges

January 26, 2022

Now more than ever, organizations need to carry out a sustainability strategy as part of their culture, business path, and decision-making process. COP26 clarified that to achieve our climate-related goals, we must collectively work as an entire ecosystem where governments, public and private financial entities, productive industries, and civil society do their part for cultural and economic change.

Currently, we face critical consequences of rapid climate change, such as the impact on biodiversity and increasing extreme weather conditions that are damaging human health, infrastructure, and social equality. The European Commission estimates that between 1980 and 2011, floods affected more than 5.5 million people, resulting in economic losses of more than €90 billion.  There was an increase in social inequality, exposing disadvantaged groups to the effects of climate change. It also decreases their ability to cope and recover from the damage.

Through innovation, emerging countries may have an opportunity to leapfrog legacy solutions. Developed countries heavily dependent on fossil fuels need to focus on transitioning to renewables in the medium to long run regarding the energy industry. On the other hand, emerging countries lacking energy resources may avoid the polluting legacy solutions by directly adopting modern, clean energy technologies as an integral part of capacity addition.

The role of design in sustainable development

As technology front-runners, we assume our part in this mission and put our existing exponential technologies into action to address sustainable development goals as we focus on sustainable design. 

Due to the issue’s complexity, with an inverse strategy and a design thinking mindset, we’re rethinking and redesigning the invisible behind each product and service, such as supply chains and the lifecycle of products and services. 

We need this approach to show the impact of our actions, consumption behaviors, sourcing mechanisms, and waste management by revealing the toll it takes on the planet. We wish to offer real planet-respectful, conscious, and coherent design and operations to drive businesses to legitimacy. 

Design is a powerful conduit for change, a strategic decision-making process, with a complex and systematic approach to problem-solving. The solution is the result of multidisciplinary aligned visions connected with the ecosystem. That’s why organizations must include Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) thinking in their strategy and product design processes and services.

We’ve designed through a people-centered approach during the last decades, focusing on desirability, viability, and profit. This path, mainly based on progressive consumption and over customization, has led us to place these preferences above our planet’s wellbeing.

What is planet-centric design?

We view it as a strategic approach to problem-solving, considering the environment, social, and economical equality as the top priority, making decisions based on sustainability. Inclusion and diversity decisions for team setups are also part of what we call planet-centric organizational design.

According to the European Commission, “it is estimated that over 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase”. Planet-centric design begins with the strategy, where sustainability needs to be part of a company’s purpose, vision, and mission, with specific goals and critical metrics supported by C-Levels.

From the strategy, planet-centric design expands into the organization through product and service design, considering, for example, sourcing and technological architecture decisions such as digital sobriety and team diversity policies, among others.

Planet-centric design is part of the operational capabilities of an organization with specific principles and frameworks. For example, IT services are now accountable for almost 5% of global emissions, estimating a 2X for 2025. Simple design decisions like lean data management or sober user interfaces – like dark mode – help drive energy efficiency and reduce the IT carbon footprint. 

There is a massive opportunity in involving communities (scientists, engineers, local businesses, policymakers, civil society,  governments, among others) and nature in the process. Designers need to work with these stakeholders and contemplate the impact on sustainability.

The Rainforest Alliance’s Nature’s Bank is a project that involves service and UX designers to create a journey based on the pain points and unmet needs of community farmers. It also focuses on understanding business motivations for going green. The bank aims to be a transformational innovation tool that will direct one billion dollars a year to farmers and forest communities. Its goal is to protect and restore ecosystems, building a direct relationship between carbon credit generating projects and credit buyers, offering highly credible carbon credits and claims with biodiversity and community impact​. 

Digital Transformation as a sustainability accelerator

Today, new technologies showcase solutions supporting specific industries in the race to net zero, like utilities, food production, or oil and gas. Today, the Internet of Things (IoT) helps us capture new data to be analyzed and leveraged for decision-making. Artificial intelligence allows us to interpret that data and automate it towards science-based targets (such as carbon intensity, energy, and water efficiency) and sustainability-driven decision trees.

Blockchain is now granting private organizations, governments, and international entities the option to have visibility, traceability, and a trusted environment for information management, especially relevant for sustainability reporting and the sustainability-linked financial instruments. 

Within the past decades, organizations have recognized the importance of having a digital transformation strategy and rethinking their own business models. However, still many organizations are not addressing their sustainability challenges, seeing sustainability and digital transformation as two separate paths, without including their Chief Sustainability Officers or sustainability projects and teams in the conversation.

We see digital transformation as an accelerator of sustainability. Not only for the sustainability-related data management, reporting, analytics, and efficiency, but for the possibilities that technological developments can address, aiming towards sustainable business needs and sustainability goals, or what we call Sustech.

According to Harvard Business Review, “companies can make the software an integral part of their sustainability efforts by taking its carbon footprint into account in the way it is designed, developed, and deployed and by rethinking some aspects of how the data centers that provide cloud-based services operate.”

The challenges we are facing

Although climate change and sustainability action are urgent, some obstacles are ahead. First, the focus is on profitability and income. Being sustainable requires a significant economic investment, an active effort, time, and an aligned vision with sustainability objectives. That’s why many profit-driven companies refrain from choosing the sustainability road, as the investment required is seen as unfeasible or not beneficial in the short term.

However, a business solely focused on profits is no longer sustainable in the long run, especially with regulations and evolving customer expectations focused on planet care, responsibility, and transparency. That’s why another major challenge is changing the minds of top management. Most companies are not aware of the untapped hidden opportunity of sustainability. Some believe that sustainability is the antagonist of profit, but we’ve seen that when companies shift towards sustainable business approaches, they thrive and increase their market share and brand presence.

Consumers are now making conscious consumption decisions around ethics and sustainability impact. We’ve observed how new competitors are entering different markets with sustainability-linked value propositions – for example, Flowe, a digital bank targeted for millennials with a focus on sustainability. Industry giants are transforming existing value propositions, like BBVA, with their sustainability measurement services for SMEs.

Sustainability is an opportunity not only for compliance, and businesses contributing to ESG goals will capture the loyalty of their customers through sustainable value propositions, as well as the financial market lens, through new instruments such as impact funds, green, sustainability, and social bonds. With a clear goal of working towards the common good that impacts our whole planet, not just a company’s interest.

Splight, a sustainability success case

Splight is one of our front-runner partners disrupting the energy industry, using a planet-centric design approach and exponential technologies such as the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and Blockchain. They created a set of solutions that increases at an enormous scale energy generation and injection, allowing for the prioritization and augmentation of the capacity of renewables into the grid while not requiring the additional construction of electricity infrastructure – resulting in giant Co2 avoidance. They are living proof that tech solutions build resilience and accelerate the completion of Sustainable Development Goals.

Final thoughts

To create sustainable and responsible products and services that promote the wellbeing of humans and the planet alike, we have to become aware of the impact our production and elaboration processes have on the environment. To change the mindset of businesses and industries that have worked the same way is a big undertaking. However, our commitment is helping them identify the technology that will lead to sustainable purposes and goals. Part of our mission is sharing our experience and expertise with brands that have evolved towards a planet-centric design. We’ve witnessed how these visionary clients are reaping the benefits and profiting from making the right decision, strengthening their commitment towards the planet. 

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To be ready and stay relevant in the new green economy, companies need different rules, processes and expertise. The Sustainable Business Studio provides organizations and stakeholders with the tools and know-how to build their climate roadmap in favour of just transitions and climate actions. We support organizations embracing a problem-solving approach based on Agenda 2030 to achieve responsible business.