sustainable business

Think Big, Bet Small: Inspiration from Compostmodern

Carolyn McMaster | April 1, 2013

The Compostmodern conference in San Francisco March 22–23 tossed designers and like-minded thinkers together for one day of TED-like talks and one of hands-on creative work, all focused on design and sustainability. Like the event in 2011, it was amazing—you could practically see glowing light bulbs (LEDs of course) floating above participants’ heads.

The theme was resilience; we got excited about all the great examples of how much branding contributes to the success of a new project, whether it’s for an underserved community, getting people to eat local sustainable crab, or creating a cool café in a small town. I’m still digesting the inspiration and ideas. Here are a few bits of advice from conference speakers who made a big impression.

John Bielenberg, Project M
Make small bets. One of the biggest things that gets in the way of innovation and new ideas is fear of failure or looking dumb. So make the risk small, act fast, adjust, and repeat. The steps of his Future Blitz Cycle of Rapid Ingenuity are: Be bold > Get out > Think wrong > Make stuff > Bet small > Move fast.

Ezio Manzini, DESIS Network
Centralized systems are very fragile and brittle. Designing for resilience means designing distributed systems, pursuing collaboration and innovation, and focusing on groups of people with capabilities, not individuals with needs.

Tiffany Shlain, filmmaker
“Courage is a muscle you constantly need to exercise.”

Terry Irwin, Carnegie Mellon School of Design
“Humans’ propensity to produce monoculture is amazing.” Designing appropriately has as much to do with how we think as it does with skills. Designers tend to impose order—grid systems become an obsession. But entropy eventually dissolves the order. So, design to take advantage of that, and take cultural and social systems into consideration.

Madeleine Lansky, psychiatrist
Relationships and unconscious dynamics determine a project’s success—80 percent of all projects fail. People are passionate, diverse, and competitive. They come to projects with different knowledge, facts, and expectations. When people feel unheard or undervalued, they go into fight or flight mode. Acknowledge group fractures and use them as a way to grow.

Julie Sammons, chief community officer, Hylo
Resilience is not about bouncing back. It’s about adaptation and response, and having more than one option available. Design can adjust, adapt and maintain. Look to nature. Reshuffle, remix.

Howard Brown, co-founder, dMass
Everything in our built environment is the earth’s crust redesigned. Products are a medium, not the benefit: we don’t need batteries; we need portable energy devices. Most products are mostly waste. Consider products’ naked value: what they deliver to the user minus their embodied mass (all the resources used to make them).

David McConville,
“The universe we design for is the one we’re going to get.”

One speaker said that design is a gift of seeing the world as it could be. At Thinkshift, we’re more inspired than ever to be bold, get out, act fast, collaborate, and be resilient.

  1. This is AWESOME, Carolyn! Thanks for sharing this! It was great to meet you at Compostmodern, and work/play together as part of Team 11 at Autodesk Gallery in John Bielenberg’s amazing Future Blitz workshop on day two! Cheers :)

  2. Kelsey says:

    What a great distillation of diverse, multifaceted, passionate, change-making inspiration!


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