Thursday, October 13, 2011

What Will be (Y)our Legacy?

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The birth of my first child and the recent deaths of two innovative American business leaders prompted me to think about what we're leaving behind.

The innovators I'm referring to are Steve Jobs of Apple and Ray Anderson of Interface.

Before their deaths, I'd fallen into the habit of reading The Economist's obituary upon receiving each new issue.  I found myself seeking information about how people were remembered upon their passing, and  appreciating the wide range of personalities featured there; "celebrities" of a different sort, most of which I had never heard of and maybe should have.  They made their marks in different ways and in different places in the arts, politics, social justice, sport, etc.  This weekly reading brings up questions about my legacy, our generational legacy, and society's values reflected in who we collectively remember, celebrate, or demonize.

With that in mind...

It's easy to understand the volume of celebratory media coverage; blogging, writing, reporting, and business hand-wringing about the loss of Steve Jobs.  He was truly an American icon in the technology world, contributing to the transformation of how we experience communication technology and consume information. In many ways, Ray Anderson was just as iconic a visionary leader in the corporate sphere, but instead of seeking to transform our lives with access to information through personal technology, he was seeking to transform manufacturing, rebuilding a company with zero impact on our planet.

It's easy to see why Steve Jobs is celebrated, his design influence has touched millions globally since Apple's early days with Steve Wosniak in the late 70's.  In fact, according to John Maeda at RISD, he brought "design" as a discipline into the world of technology, making it consumer technology such that just about anyone could pick up or plug in an Apple product and start using it.  Apple's products (with a heavy dose of his perfectionist design input) made it easier for people with access to the products to generate, experience, and share media in many forms and encouraged innovation in other disciplines like publishing and medicine because of what they could do with Apple's devices.  I may not own any Apple products (gasp!) and I'm a beneficiary of their innovations.

As a consumer society generally enamored with bright and shiny advances in technology, Apple's products fit quite nicely.  We celebrate them because they conform to our perception of advancement, moving forward, of gaining access to more and varied content, and looking ahead to the next great thing.  These are admirable qualities in many ways, though we tend to gloss over the underlying problems associated with relentless consumer electronic advancement, like where are these made?  Where does the energy required to make this device come from?  What happens to it when it's obsolete in 6 months?  What about the digital divide?

Ray Anderson took the entrepreneurial leap in the 70's as well, betting his future on modular floor-coverings, depending upon your point-of-view, not as sexy as consumer electronics.  After building a successful company through the 1990's Ray was asked by his employees to help them launch a sustainability initiative driven my customer demand.  Not knowing where to start, he read Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce and had what can be called an epiphany - his company, and therefore he, was a despoiler of the earth, an ecological criminal - their activities extracted natural resources, processed them into forms that were not digestible by nature at their end of life, leaving the responsibility for their disposal elsewhere.  It was then that he committed to making Interface an ecologically neutral company.  Consumers' wide-eyed Apple gadget awe may not be duplicated when they learn about the Interface FLOR carpet tile solution.  They're made of 100% recycled material that, when worn out, is torn up, disassembled, and remade into a new FLOR tiles, closing the loop of industrial nutrients.

What's more empowering, taking a picture and sharing it with the world from wherever you are or knowing that there's a company seeking to reduce their impact on the earth to zero?

Imagine if Ray and Steve had met and had a conversation, and Ray told Steve about his "spear in the chest" realization about his contribution to despoiling the earth and the need to take action to preserve the planet's resources for his children and grandchildren.  Imagine if Mr. Jobs' design vision not only encompassed the customer's use with the customer, but with the eventual return of Apple's products to the biosphere with no impact. Wow.  There have been advances in electronic recycling, and Apple is among the companies taking action, is it enough?

To be clear, I'm not seeking to tear anyone down nor do I have some clear-eyed answer to how we proceed as a society in times of rapid technological change and finite natural resources.  What I am proposing is that we pause to question our assumptions about what progress is, what we remember and celebrate, and perhaps cast our forward-looking gaze a bit further down the road thinking about how our actions will affect generations to come...what are we leaving behind?


Brian C. Setzler, CPA said...

Nice post.

Anonymous said...

Brian - Thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if they DID meet at some point...

Anonymous said...

Casey, that is a good question. If they did, what did they talk about?

Fabian Pattberg said...

Great post. A very good read.

I guess they would have talked about business first (shared experiences, etc), than family and after a while about supply chains. Ray could give so much advice on this. And Apple would need it as well.

At least this what I would like them to have talked about.

Anonymous said...

Fabian, it is interesting to wonder about what they could have talked about. Sustainability and supply chains could have been an hours long topic!

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