The reaction to Steve Jobs’ death on Twitter last night was fast and furious. So much has already been written about his vision, his genius, and the way he changed how we all think about interacting through devices designed in a simple, elegant style. The world is undoubtedly worse off without his ideas, but the spirit he generated–at Apple, NeXT, Pixar, and beyond–is strong and will likely lead us forward, expecting new and better things from our technology companies every day.
Watching the dialogue evolve online, the Twittersphere–no doubt dominated by technophiles–responded with shock, then appreciation, a heartfelt outpouring for the wife and children he leaves behind, and a review of his legacy. As Dave Roberts (@drgrist) alluded to with this tweet, “Jobs perfected front-end design. Now we need designers to work on the back end, the substrate, the supply chain, the hidden,” there has been a deeper, on-going conversation of late about the sustainability of technology products that are such a big part of our lives.
The recent public dialogue about technology manufacturing has shed some light on the complexities of making the beautiful, ever-changing, and innovative technologies we all want–while striving to maintain a price that is considered “affordable.” It has also highlighted the need for more sustainable solutions to combat the rapid obsolescence of the technologies developed. I’ve spent time in China at the Foxconn facility, and with many electronics companies, active NGOs, and my colleagues at BSR as we have dissected the ICT supply chain and looked for ways to collaborate, influence, and change what is a complex set of demands, expectations, and cultural differences in the creation of many products. This ever-evolving conversation and commitment to incremental improvement is challenging but incredibly necessary to generate new ideas around responsible practices–both in how business operates but also what consumers want, expect, and most importantly, purchase.
Steve Jobs is often quoted as saying “stay hungry, stay foolish,” which, in his original Stanford commencement speech, is interestingly enough attributed to a quote he saw on the back of a Whole Earth Catalog. But he also said in that same speech, “Don’t be trapped by dogma–which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
If, in respecting his legacy, we take that advice and apply it to our conversations on supply chain, workers’ rights, and business impacts globally–for the electronics industry or any industry that impacts communities–we will all be better off. It is not news that the manufacturing of our beloved devices (“i-” or otherwise) come with complications and questions. These tools also keep us connected and increased the speed of information, and, in a sense, shortened the real and proverbial distance between the workers who manufacture and the users.
Working on the substrate is not the sexy work of design but could serve to change the fundamentals of our experience as users and consumers of technology. At BSR, we work with companies who are able to sail fearlessly into the future, tackling unanticipated challenges and engaging broadly where no solutions exist today. Jobs was a master at this, creating and fulfilling needs we did not even know we had. The possibilities presented by harnessing this type of power and intellect inspired by him–and directing it toward a sustainable future–are endless. Let us be inspired to apply the fantastic creative thinking on innovation and design that he championed to the sustainability challenges we see, inevitably creating a more elegant–and equitable–world.