BY LINDA BAKER
Ziba Design creative director Eric Park in the firm's Pearl District headquarters.
// Photo by Adam Wickham
Eric Park is a creative director at Ziba Design, a design consultancy based in Portland. For nearly 20 years, he has helped lead research and design innovation programs in consumer goods, durable products and health care. His clients encompass startups and Fortune 500 companies and have included MSR, Clorox, Nike, Philips Healthcare, Intel and P&G. In addition to spearheading a sustainable design practice at Ziba, Park, 47, serves on the board of the Northwest Earth Institute and is a mentor for the Portland Seed Fund. He spoke with Oregon Business about the evolution of sustainable business, consumer experience and service design, and how large brands are bowing to the “inexorable motion of change.”
OB: Sustainable business in the ’90s revolved around the triple bottom line, then expanded to include corporate social responsibility and life-cycle concerns. What is the sustainable business story today, and how does branding help shape
Before, sustainability was about not doing bad things. Then more enlightened corporate social-responsibility people started working with branding departments to create story lines that would resonate with consumers. Sustainability is a difficult thing for the average person to get behind. But people can get behind words like “local” and “organic.” They can also get behind social movements. So in 2010, Pepsi took its advertising campaign and, instead of funding advertisers, said, ‘We’re going to give [the money] to our brand advocates and let them assign causes or projects to fund.’ Or American Express is seeing its “Small Business Saturdays” buy-local campaign. The trend is about a big brand activating local connections and finding meaningful ways to engage consumers.
OB: What are some internal business trends reshaping the sustainability trajectory?
Social innovation, startups and the new economy. It’s about moving beyond social media and [bringing about] behavior change through social innovation. Within this trend is the sharing economy and the “B Corp,” a recognition that we need to move beyond the constraints of the C-corps universe.
OB: So green business includes the creation of new business models.
When we talk about social innovation/new economy models, such as car sharing, Airbnb, part of that is realizing the old framework for exchange and business is actually getting in the way of sustainability. Businesses are realizing that you can work your supply chain to some extent, but more systemic challenges need to happen for things to actually improve. Even business schools recognize they have to change; instead of new business plans, it’s about prototyping new business models.
OB: Is social innovation a niche or a mainstream trend?
The mainstream is actually changing very quickly. Today the real question is not whether this kind of change should happen, would happen or could happen — it’s how quickly can you make change? Most thoughtful people know things have to change. But change is hard. So what are different ways you can grease the skids for change more effectively? For larger consumer-goods companies, the question is how you can be the first to establish a new normal that is connecting to a real significant shift in mainstream culture and that has kind of seeped into the consciousness in ways you don’t always realize.
OB: How do these issues play out at Ziba, a design firm?
Our heritage is in product design but our work has extended to UX, environmental and service design, and consumer-experience innovation. We’re working on a health care project looking at how you mobilize communities to improve health. We worked with Panasonic on LED lighting to anticipate people’s relationship with lighting. We are working in the very competitive apparel business to create retail environments that remain relevant. The question is how you reimagine the consumer experience in a way that is authentic and appropriate for the brand and the context in culture: the marketing, the technology trends. We’re constantly trying to understand where this kind of thinking applies to sustainability, and we’re at an interesting moment because so much is happening.