How Sustainability Fuels Design Innovation

Steven D. Eppinger

Here is an excerpt from an interview of Steven D. Eppinger by Michael S. Hopkins that appears in the MIT Sloan Management Review, September 14 2010. To read the complete interview, please click here.

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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.

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.

Hopkins: 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. As you’ve worked with executives and organizations over the past few years, how has their thinking about sustainability changed?

Eppinger: I think there’s been a key transformation. The thinking first went from, “This is a bad thing” to “This is an OK thing” — and maybe we’re getting to the point now where it’s even, “This is a really good thing.” Let me draw an analogy with quality management. When quality management became a big emphasis of management education and practice in the 1980s, I think the initial attitude of managers was, “Well, we could improve quality, but it will cost more.”

And then after implementing it for a while, we realized that was wrong, that in fact good implementations of quality management also improved cost. It was bad implementations of quality management that worsened costs. This is the transformation that we’re now beginning to experience with sustainability. At first people said, “If I’m going to reduce the environmental impact of my product or service or business, cost will suffer, of course.” It was just an assumption — a gut reaction — with lots of bad examples to support it.

So it’s the bad implementations of sustainability that will affect cost in a bad way. But the good implementations — and there are plenty of examples today — save money.

Hopkins: So far, the most common way that companies attack sustainability is by making a pure operations play: identifying cost savings in cutting down on waste, improving on energy use. It’s what lots of sustainability people call the early win, low-hanging fruit that every company could gain from doing. Is that kind of resource-efficiency thinking related to what you call “design for environment”?

Eppinger: No, not really. The way to think of environmental sustainability when it comes to design and product innovation is by framing it as a materials problem. It’s about the materials that we use in the products and the materials that are used to run the processes that make the products. The reason that product design has a big impact is that’s where the materials decisions are made.

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Findings that caught my eye:

• 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 eliminate environmental impacts all at once. Try to get a little better each time you design any product.

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