Embracing sustainable digital design (Part 3)

The most sustainable Web design is maintenance. The greatest creativity is reuse. Fixing what you have nearly always reduces waste and increases value more than buying something new.

One of the core principles at Netlife, a Norwegian digital design agency, is: “We make what humans and the world actually need.” Sometimes, that means making the decision not to make, not to buy, not to create.

Bjørn Bergslien, a senior consultant for Netlife, was working with a new client on their intranet. There was a major budget involved. However, after examining the existing intranet, Bjørn went back to the client and told them that they didn’t need a new technology solution for their intranet. They needed to make the existing intranet work. This was brave advice. Netlife left budget and profit on the table because they sought to do the right thing.

Most intranets I’ve worked with are dumps. They’re like libraries with all the books on the floor and the lights turned out. If an intranet professional screams in the forest, nobody hears them. It’s been like this since 1997, in my experience.

No interest from senior management, other than occasionally complaining and allocating a budget to buy some new tools. No responsibility for what is published, resulting in the fiasco of distributed publishing. Everyone wants to find an expert and nobody wants to update their own professional profile. The intranets that I worked with that improved things didn’t buy new technology. Instead, they fixed the hard problems. They deleted the 90% of useless information. They created a small team of trained professionals. Bjørn was doing the right thing. He was telling the organization what they needed to do, not what they wanted to hear.

We can do good for the organization, good for the employee, good for the customer and good for the planet by doing less and doing it better, by focusing less on technology and more on the organization, management and maintenance of information.

We must shift to a culture of information maintenance. “Valuing the time that people put into managing stuff, deleting stuff,” as Beth Stensen, CEO of Netlife explains. “Finding out what’s the most important things—the top tasks—and getting rid of all the other stuff. It often means deleting 90% of stuff. For one client we did that and it tripled the sales. We need to focus on maintaining what we have. Not get carried away by new this and new that. Focus on making less impact on the planet.”

“Designers get a kick out of making new things,” she continues. “If I tell them they need to maintain, they’re all going to leave.” She laughs but she’s only half joking. “We’ve become very fond of people who are great at making shiny, new things, but if those things are to keep shining, we need some other types of people as well.”

We’ve got the mix wrong. Sure, we need those who create. But we need far more maintenance skillsets. We need far more circular economy thinkers, who think of end of life as much as the launch of the shiny, new thing. We produce too much. We consume too much.

The greatest design challenge today is how to get people to do less with technology and more with their minds and bodies. To walk with the lightest footprint possible.

Beth Stensen interview

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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