User-Centered Innovation Harms the Environment

Last Updated Mar 29, 2010 7:14 PM EDT

Most of us want business growth that is sustainable on a planet with limited resources. Just don't ask your users to help you in your pursuit.

User-centered innovation has been all the buzz over the last few years. The idea is to tap into the depth of knowledge and experience of your best users to guide you in improving existing products and creating new ones.

The problem: user-centered innovation does not lead to environmentally friendly outcomes, argues Roberto Verganti, an author on innovation and a professor at Politecnico di Milano.

"User-centered innovation has helped conduct us into an unsustainable world," he writes on "The reason is sustainability is not embedded in the anthropology of our existing culture, society, and economy. Yes, people are starting to be concerned about the environment. But their concerns about many other things -- their budgets, health, safety, well-being, and emotional fulfillment -- are increasing, too."
He points to development of the Toyota Prius to underscore his point. If you had asked users what they wanted in a car in 1994 when the Prius was first contemplated, they would have led you in the direction of building more environment-unfriendly SUVs, he argues.

So here is his point, and today's idea to contemplate over the weekend.

"Only forward-looking executives, designers, and, of course, policy makers may introduce sustainable innovation into the economic picture. They need to step back from current dominant needs and behaviors and envision new scenarios. They need to propose new unsolicited products and services that are both attractive, sustainable, and profitable."
So by all means follow your users home, see how they use your product, ask them for a list of improvements. Just don't expect them to overlook current needs in favor of a long-term social good.

Do you agree with this observation?

Related Reading
Robert Verganti on Radical Design, Radical Results (HBS Working Knowledge)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.