Are We Designing a State the Next Gen Will be Lucky to Inherit?
If you’re sitting in an office chair that doesn’t make your butt ache, please pause for a moment of silence. Bill Stumpf was an industrial designer who created the first ergonomic work chair, and eventually the iconic Herman Miller Aeron chair. Stumpf loved Madison.
“Everything goes back to those days at the University of Wisconsin,” he says of his postgraduate years studying and teaching at the Environmental Design Center.
Beyond great task chairs, Stumpf made another enormous contribution to design thinking. His 1998 book, The Ice Castle That Melted Away, tenderly challenges us to see how care-filled design can add grace and civility to living. To illustrate, he shares a story about Herman Miller’s founder, D.J. De Pree:
“Throughout D.J.’s life, he had the habit of cleaning restrooms after he used them. No one knew of this charming habit until his son Max De Pree mentioned it at D.J.’s funeral. Of all his achievements in modern design and business, it was D.J.’s humane and anonymous caretaking that his son chose to remark upon. D.J. left things better than he found them. He also left people better than he found them.”
In my line of work—studying trends and the next generation—I often wonder, are we leaving things better than we found them? Will our children and grandchildren be proud to receive their inheritance from us, their elders?
Inspired by Bill Stumpf, I wonder, how can we add more grace and care to our systems? It seems that one reason there’s not more civility designed into our systems is because it’s too easy for leaders to commit fraud. Here’s what I mean. Fraud—in other words, “shorting the system”—occurs when three conditions are met: Someone has the opportunity, they can rationalize their actions and there is a motivation (usually incentive or pressure).
Take the Scott Walker train-killing headline. Walker, as our governor, has the opportunity to kill the train. He has tried to rationalize his actions by suggesting he could use the money elsewhere and he has a strong political motivation to do so. After all, it’s the folks who will fund Walker’s reelection who don’t want the train. This is incentive enough for Governor Walker to overturn his original, train-favoring opinion. This is how easy it is to fraud the future.
But there is another way. Leaders should think about designing systems that their children’s children will inherit as well as pay more attention to reading the tea leaves and thinking about how future generations will work and live.
When leaders do that, they recognize that their children will have to compete in a world that is more mobile, and therefore must be more connected. When leaders consider the totality of their decisions, they learn things like this: Commuting by car is the single daily activity most injurious to happiness. What’s more, Harvard economist Robert Putnam found that for every ten minutes we spend in traffic, we decrease our civic participation by ten percent. So if we want a Wisconsin with happier, more civically engaged citizens, we do what we can to decrease their car commute times.
If leaders were paying attention to the Millennials who will soon be paying taxes, they’d notice (like Detroit has) that our next generation considers cars both an enviro-hazard and a productivity killer.
What do we do when our next generation can’t vote us out of office, when the trends they will have to live with tomorrow are marginalized to make room for today’s pundits and PACs? Do we fraud the systems we impact, or do we commit an act of grace, of civility?
Do we—like D.J. De Pree—quietly leave the places we touch a little better?
Rebecca Ryan is a local trend watcher who’s exceedingly concerned about what our next gen will inherit.
Read more NEXT columns here