Virtuous Innovation – A Way to Sustainable Design and Development


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Click to go to Virtuous Innovation Tool

Click to go the Virtuous Innovation Tool

For every good idea brought to fruition, for every implemented idea that sees the light of day, there exists the possibility that the product may be used for something other than what it’s intended for. It’s difficult to control what people will do with something once it leaves the hands of a designer or manufacturer and enters the world.

On the other hand, the creation and deployment of a product can be controlled. We can design power plants that use water and put it back into the environment cleaner than it was before. We can design pay structures and work days that respect people’s needs for family, relaxation, and personal growth.

All that is needed, is…


We don’t hear that word too much anymore. However, human history is replete with references to it and in some ways it can be considered an integral part of humanity. From the Greeks, to the Egyptians, to the Orient, the concepts of balance and morally excellent acts were things that humans were exhorted to. Virtuous people were good people who were solid and respected. A virtuous way of life was considered a good thing, and in some cultures, even a godly thing.

Virtue, by definition, is relational and contextual. It’s usually considered interpersonal (i.e. If I am patient with this person and I don’t over-react when he yells, hopefully we will be able to work together.) But virtue’s reach is deeper than that. Whatever we interact with, there is the possibility for a virtuous approach.

All human interactions fall into one of three groups:

1) People

2) Products (Services and processes are included here)

3) Planet (Actually it extends to all the cosmos as humankind already has sent things beyond the solar system.)

Just as virtuous behaviour between two individuals leads to greater harmony between those people, placing virtue at the center of all extended human interaction (the Three P’s) has the potential to create a world in which collateral damage to people and environments is minimized, if not eliminated.

To aid in this process I’ve put together a web app that helps people examine the interactions their product creates, guided by virtues.

The basic structure of the app is shown at the top of this post. Every time you go to the page it will show you a randomly selected virtue at the center of the People/Planet/Product Triad. This suggested virtue can be used as a guide to making interactions of a higher quality.

Let’s look at an example in which the virtue of ‘Honor’ guides the development and launch of a new computer:


Naturally we first need to define what “honor” is. A good idea is to take the high road – it’s what makes a virtue a virtue. Think in terms of universalities, as much as is practical. This will ensure a common understanding by others.

Once we have done this, the next step is to examine the interplay of all the prongs of the triad in relation to each other. The following combinations of interactions are possible.







(There is also one relationship that may appear to be missing and that’s the People>Honor>People loop. As ‘People’ are part of the planet and the environment, they should be considered there.)

Some of these combinations may seem odd (i.e. People>Honor>Product), and we can disregard them if need be. However, this shouldn’t be done too hastily as we may be surprised to find hidden relationships that need improving. We may also find possibilities for new business models and products based upon a particular virtue and how it impacts the various interactions.

For each combination we ask the following question, or a variation:

“In what ways does this Product-the computer- ‘honor’ People?”

We then would look through the ‘honor’ lens and judge how the product impacts people: Does it foster greater communication or greater alienation? Does it possibly create disease or create health? Is the cost fair? etc. The goal is to always create positive interactions that, in this case, honor the other.

With regards to Product>Honor>Planet we could ask:

Can the product -the computer- be made with non-toxic waste streams? Does the product improve the environment? Can the product be made without hurting people financially/spiritually, etc. Again, the goal here is to make sure that Product is honoring the Planet.

Let’s now look at an odd interaction, the Planet>Honor>Product. At first blush it might seem like this interaction can be disregarded. However, if we ask ourselves, “In what ways does the planet honor or dishonor the computer when used in various environments?” we now see that there are indeed some very pertinent questions that need answering:

Does a salt-water environment destroy the product by rusting it? Does the sun provide enough light to power the computer? Does cold weather make the screen go blank?

Ahhh, it actually does make sense, in the case of this virtue, for us to dig into how the Planet honors, or dishonors, the Product.

Continue questioning the interactions by looking at all aspects of product manufacture, use and disposal. It’s important to be honest as well as comprehensive with this process. In the end, the virtue, in this case ‘Honor’, should be present, as much as possible, in all the interactions. People, Planet and Product should all be honoring each other.

What virtues should be used for this process?

Any virtue is better than no virtue at all. If there are certain virtues that seem to be a natural fit, then use those. If you’d like to be creative and need some help in auditing your interactions of People/Planet/Product then again, head on over to my Virtuous Innovation page. Each virtue shown is chosen from a list of 104 entries compiled from various religions and cultures worldwide.

Don’t be intimidated by seemingly innocuous virtues. In fact, those that seem outdated or in no way apropos, may in fact be the best ground from which to harvest some creative ideas.

Embrace each proposed virtue as a tool to creating better products and a better world.

Oh, and one word of caution. When you apply this process to existing processes and products, you may be shocked to find that there is much room for improvement. That’s okay. That’s what living a virtuous life is all about.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Michael Plishka
Michael Plishka is the President and Founder of ZenStorming Solutions, LLC an innovation design consultancy. He believes in co-design methodologies, sharing design thinking essentials - empowering people and companies to make a difference with their products and services.


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