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For healthy humans, start with the ecosystem

Are we losing earth? This week’s single-themed issue of the New York Times Magazine explores the realities we face today for failing to take decisive action against climate change in decades past. It’s a compelling account that puts recent heat waves, prolonged drought, and deadly floods in heart-wrenching perspective. The window of prevention has passed, and climate change is upon us. It’s so hot, even the arctic circle is on fire.

From these and other news headlines, one might think humanity is on the verge of collapse. As a father, I worry for my three kids and what their future holds. But as a designer, I’m determined to problem-solve.

Recently, while pondering next steps, two lessons emerged from two unusual sources: Johann David Wyss’ Swiss Family Robinson and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. In their own, uniquely whimsical way, the stories describe people and creatures interacting with their physical environment. But also, the perils of short-termism and other undesirable outcomes that can result when we disregard our interconnections and the larger ecosystem in which we operate.

At least, that’s where my mind went when watching a film of the Wyss classic and re-reading Dr. Seuss’ celebrated fable with my son—here’s why:

Lesson one: human-centered design is not a silver bullet

Imagine a group of us facing the same challenges as Wyss’ protagonist pastor and family, shipwrecked on a deserted island with loads of livestock and needing shelter. As human-centered designers, we assess and prioritize our needs as well as iterate potential solutions. We note that coconut palm trees are plentiful, so we cut a few down to make our first house. Does the prototype withstand the elements? Somewhat, so we optimize the design. When additional problems arise, we conceptualize, test, and create new solutions—including how best to construct multiple houses at scale.

Fast-forward a few generations, and our footprint has expanded. We need more wood, but after our initial construction boom, only a few palm trees remain. There aren’t any viable saplings to replace the old ones because they’ve been eaten by an invasive species of rats carried over from our boat. Like with Easter Island, the introduction of rats—flourishing over time without a predator—has been slowly collapsing our ecosystem. And now a key resource is depleted, compromising our survival. What if we had taken an ecosystem-centered design approach rather than a human-centered one? Could we have anticipated the negative impact of our shelter designs and found a more sustainable solution? Could breeding more cats have kept the rats in check?

Lesson two: category-disrupting innovation doesn’t get a hall pass

In The Lorax, an entrepreneur named the Once-ler cuts down Truffula trees for the development of “impossibly versatile garments” that he calls Thneeds. The innovative clothes are a huge hit with consumers in Truffula valley. The Lorax (an objector who “speaks for the trees”) expresses concern, but the Once-ler disregards him in the name of growth and prosperity. Demand for Thneeds skyrockets, and the Once-ler’s small business quickly expands. More Truffula trees are logged, and the Once-ler builds a factory to produce more and more Thneeds. Soon after, the Lorax reports that the small bear-like Bar-ba-loots, who eat Truffula fruits, are short on food and leaving the valley. The Once-ler ignores these reports. Then the Lorax reports that the factory has polluted the air and water around it, forcing other creatures out. The Once-ler is unrepentant and declares his business a great success, not realizing that his loggers have just uprooted the last Truffula tree.

The design opportunity

The tech sector is not alone in its drive to develop the next category-disrupting Thneeds, and not every techie or tech company is a Once-ler. But in aggregate, we’ve been cutting down a lot of Truffula trees with seemingly little regard for the Bar-ba-loots and other “unintended consequences” that can result from bad actors leveraging our product innovations to do self-interested things, or worse. For too long, we’ve been ignoring the less visible but important forces that influence the systems we construct—from the rats on the island and dark money supporting fake news to business models that are misaligned to the wellbeing of our shared ecosystem.

And yet, as dire as the headlines are, there is hope.

Part of the design challenge is recognizing how truly connected we are, and why maximizing the health and sustainability of our larger ecosystem is critical to our communities not only surviving but thriving. Artefact’s Tarot Cards of Tech can help. With each card, a distinct prompt or provocation will get you thinking differently about the potential outcomes of the innovation you are designing. For example, “What happens when 100 million people use your product?” or “Who or what is displaced if your product is successful?” We call this future-forward product visioning, but mostly it’s the chance to ask the hard but necessary questions about the choices we make on the road to creating a more equitable, sustainable world. Because as the Lorax once said: “Unless someone like you cares a whole lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”