Our ecological problems are really design problems in disguise

Lets take an ecological problem we can pretty much unanimously agree needs to be fixed today; the take-away coffee cup.

It was only 2 years ago when I learned with everyone else, that these disposable cups cannot be recycled due to a wax lining. So we can all agree; this is a problem. But as designers, we love problems and we clearly love coffee.

There’s an old saying: Great designers don’t fall in love with their solution. Great designers fall in love with the problem.

The realisation that these cups are not recyclable drove me to purchase a reusable coffee cup. I tried using it several times, but it had major drawbacks;

  1. I would often forget to clean it and my office drawer would stink of mouldy coffee, much to the dismay of my colleagues.
  2. After about a week I realised it took about as much time in my morning commute to wash this thing out as it did for me to just sit down and have a double espresso with milk.

I came to the realisation, the reusable coffee cup is a ridiculous invention. It’s essentially a crap flask that doesn’t keep your coffee warm…I mean, maybe its useful for truckers.

So, during my morning commute I started ordering; “espresso for here, please” and enjoyed my coffee in a ceramic cup in a timely fashion. But something would often happen in cafes when I did so, I would order at the til and the staff would assume that I wasn’t in as much of a rush as the other patrons. So the ‘to-go’ customer who had ordered after me, would often receive their coffee before I would.

An excellent book about whole systems design solutions

Clearly we have some way to-go before we bin our ‘to-go’ cups for good. In his book “How to Thrive in the Next Economy” John Thackara makes the point that there are many cultural practices around the world that achieve the same outcome as our technologically advanced, ecologically deficient solutions do.

So lets look at two cultures where the to-go cup never got going:

Austrians — “To-go”, but where are you going?

I remembered a trip to Vienna and a tour guide telling us that they didn’t have the concept of coffee ‘to go’. He said the Austrian approach is; “if you don’t have time to have a coffee, why are you having a coffee?”. For them the experience of sitting down for a coffee was a ritual that was worth the time it took to sit there.

What can we learn from Austria? It’s cultural differences that mean the ‘to-go’ coffee cup didn’t take off. They already had a strong culture around coffee that wasn’t going to be up-ended by an incumbent ‘to-go’ cup.

Italians — If you’re in a rush, have an espresso

Italy is the birthplace of Futurism, so hardly a country where sentimental rituals would get in the way of efficiency. Then what is the Italian solution? An espresso bar! I can’t say how many times I’ve longed for a quality espresso bar with shelter for the harsh Irish weather.

Espresso bar — Naples

The espresso bar is probably one of the great Italian contributions that cafe owners, architects and service designers can adopt to tackle the of the coffee cup. It solves the problem without sacrificing on quality, speed or even price; espressos often cost a maximum of 2 euros.

What have we learned? The only way to solve ecological problems is by considering the Jobs-To-Be-Done framework.

Enter Jobs-To-Be-Done

It’s funny to think now, but there was a person who bought the first coffee cup ‘to-go’. Some brave soul, who thought, “Finally, I need coffee and I need to be on my way This solves literally all of my problems! Huzzah!”. I’m sure others looked on dismay.

They used the ‘to-go’ coffee cup to do a job for them. If you are aware of jobs-to-be-done, its a powerful way of thinking that uses first principles design to solve for real-life problems.

Its origins can be traced back to a quote:

People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole. — Theodore Levit

The implications are obvious, people hire and fire products and to perform tasks for them, be they tangible, cognitive or social tasks. So the answers can be alternative , say an espresso bar, rather than a redesigned “eco” product, such as the reusable coffee cup.

This is the way we need to think about the coming ecological problems we will undoubtedly face as a society. What are the jobs that customers are hiring the offending product or service to do for them. How can we, as designers and business owners, solve for these problems in a sustainable way? Both practically, but also culturally, considerate of price and without compromising on quality.

I believe that it can be done, but it will need to be a multidisciplinary design, research and business team working to solve a problem, rather than designing an ‘eco’ version of a current solution.

And this trend is increasing, just look at the increase in glass bottle milk delivery across the UK.

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