Chicken or Egg? User-Education or System-Implementation?

I talked a bit about this in my video from last week.

What comes first: the chicken or the egg?

What comes first: a more aware user or the implementation of a new system?

Before, I was all rah-rah-rah for education: creating critical thinkers and influencing people’s habits by changing their minds and teaching more awareness around sustainability to create demand for new systems.

Now I’m not so sure. Even if you ingrain “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” into kids’ brains at an early age, if they grow up and go to an outdoor concert where they buy a drink in a plastic cup because that’s the only container option and there’s no recycling bin at the venue, then they’re going to throw that cup away.

If there’s no system in place to support user awareness, then it is (usually) wasted. We rinse out cans and save plastic bottles at home only if our neighborhoods has a recycling system in place. We may put paper into the bin provided at work, if the office has a system in place to get that paper to a recycling facility. If the restaurant we eat at uses real silverware, we automatically don’t generate plastic waste. If the grocery store we visit doesn’t offer paper or plastic, we automatically have to invest in reusable bags. If the toy we buy has no packaging, we are automatically generating less waste.

I also think the systems can create awareness that can’t exist before. These are the two-tiered flushers in the toilets in my rented “green” townhouse in the Meuller Development:

As Victor Papanek points out in Design for the Real World, Americans have cultural blocks that prevent them from talking about the taboo subject of body wastes. Yet, if a designer creates a toilet with this kind of flushing system, and it is bought by housing developers who are trying to certify their buildings sustainable under LEED, then the end-users are presented with a new way of thinking about saving water.

Even if people were educated about conserving water all their life, they never would have proposed this solution and picketed manufacturers for new systems. That’s our job—as designers—to create the systems that enable people to practice what they’ve been preached…and to practice what they don’t yet know they need to do to save the earth.

And the examples in this post are very small and aren’t even very forward-thinking. Imagine if we thought bigger, about the foundations of our existing systems. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I might have more impact on the world as a designer than I could have had as an educator. As interaction designers, we use design tools to drive behavior change. As a designer, I can create new systems that have built-in expectations of more sustainable behaviors and thus mindsets.

Where does education fit into all this then? Emily Pilloton of Project H “believes the best way to design for social impact is to grow design thinking from within communities, rather than importing talent and dragging-and-dropping solutions.” Hence, her new work with Studio H in a North Carolina high school.

I don’t know where I land on all that yet, but I do know this will affect my preference about our potential clients, as one seems to be supporting an education-geared system, and others seem to have more potential to create new systems.


While reading through recycling topics today, Ryan and I ran across the phrase “Rethink. Reuse. Reduce. Recycle.” I think you’re on the right track to Rethink!

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