Each year the Botwinick Prize recognizes an outstanding leader who exhibits the highest standard of ethical conduct in business. The prize is given to someone whose actions inspire and instruct. This year it was awarded to William A. McDonough, an internationally renowned designer, the first year that a designer has won the award.
I was particularly interested in this year’s award, given the debate over the new component of our core curriculum. I continue to question the ethical systems that we are attempting to address, both within our courses and within our school and business undertakings. I believe that we are provided with an invaluable opportunity to discuss debate and learn differing points of view. As Prof. Matt Rhodes-Kropf pointed out last week, “We should be thankful that we are fortunate enough to have the choice to discuss such issues.”
So, it was with this perspective that I sat in Uris 142 watching as the Botwinick Prize, our school’s highest honor in the field of ethics, was presented to Mr. McDonough. Quietly spoken, but certainly not a quiet person, Mr. McDonough opened his acceptance speech by looking at ethics and design in the simple context of what you do.
“Andrew Carnegie at the end of his life was said to have remarked that as he got older and older he spent less and less time worrying about what people said and more and more time watching what they did. And so, what do we do?…For me, everything looks like a design question. The question of design is the question of intention, because at this point in our history we have to realize that design is the first signal of human intention. We have designs on the future. As students, I am sure you have designs on your future, well that involves your intentions. What are your intentions?
“Under the current systems of production in our economic structure it appears that our intentions are tragedies. As we see tragedies occurring in the world…what we realize is that it is no longer possible to say that this is no longer part of our plan…it is our de facto plan. It is the thing that is going to happen as we have no other plan. So we can no longer say that it is not ‘our responsibility.’ Therefore, the question has to be … once you know (that these tragedies are occurring)…at what point are you negligible?
“It is time for us to look at the world strategically once again and realize that our culture seems to adopt a strategy of tragedy. And anyone who is in business realizes that if their business plan is strategically tragic it might be time for a new plan! So then the question becomes one of humility because we don’t know what to do as we’ve never done it before. We need a strategy to change. If we need a sense of design humility all we need to do is reflect on the fact that it took us 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage. We aren’t that smart of a species!”
From an individual perspective, however, I have enough difficulty trying to figure out a career plan, let alone putting my resume together! A plan of action, a strategy, that enables me to do my part? I knew what I believed in, and I knew that I put a lot of my beliefs into action on a personal level, but the challenge I face is how to build a career that will do justice to the ethical framework that I stand by. And if I looked at the world in such a light as Mr. McDonough was painting, I think I would end up a very depressed person. Are things only achievable if I am to look at things from a negative standpoint?
McDonough says “no.” “The fundamental idea is that, in the end, the world is a wonderful place. It is not a place of limits. It is a place of abundance. If we look at the laws of nature, and as an architect I have to follow the law of gravity, it’s not just a good idea - it is a law!, there may be other laws that nature has for us to follow. And as we look at them by design we can understand how they might relate to our intentions. So our endgame would be a solar powered world, full of safe and healthy things in biological and technical cycles, elegantly and equitably deployed. That’s it. Is there anybody who doesn’t want that?”
But is this something that only the designers, architects and planners of this world can achieve?
“Is there anybody here who can tell me that they want to go into commerce to produce things that are unsafe and unhealthy, that destroy the world…If that is how you feel, then make sure you say it. Very seldom do I have a corporate CEO who is willing to sit at their desk and say, ‘Give it to them toxic!’ Because it goes beyond ethics. Once you get to understand the fundamental science, one has to act.”
So now I thought that I was getting it. Sitting around and discussing business ethics wasn’t enough. I actually had to do something about such beliefs and the way I approached commerce. It is not simply about not buying something that I think is flawed and harmful, but it is about being positive in commerce. Of course, we all know this, but how many of us articulate it, and then, more importantly, do something about it?
But what had he done? What made him someone to stand in front of us and impart this wisdom? Someone worth listening to?
In 1977, Mr. McDonough was founding principal of William McDonough + Partners (WM+P), Architecture and Community Design. WM+P is an internationally recognized design firm practicing ecologically, socially and economically intelligent architecture and planning. WM+P designed the Environmental Defense Fund offices, completed in 1985, helping to launch the “green building” movement. WM+P has set new standards for design quality, environmental sensitivity and functional effectiveness with award winning projects for Gap Inc., Nike, Herman Miller and Oberlin College. Mr. McDonough is also cofounder and principal, with German chemist Michael Braungart, of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (WMBC), a product and systems development firm assisting prominent client companies in designing profitable and environmentally intelligent design solutions at scales ranging from molecules, to products, to buildings, communities, cities, and regions. In 1996, Mr. McDonough received the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, the nation’s highest environmental honor, presented by President Clinton in a White House ceremony.
To give you a sense of his ambition, while a student at Yale University, Mr. McDonough built the first solar powered house in Ireland, but as he pointed out “There is no sun in Ireland.” Once completed, the house was opened with a poetry reading. The poet stood there silently for five minutes before stating “Ah! This is a fierce commotion!” Now according to Mr. McDonough, “Here we are in the silence in the middle of a fierce commotion.”
And so was I. My school was attempting to impart ethical wisdom upon me, and here was a man of action, our Botwinick award winner telling me that it simply was not enough to listen and to discuss.
He spoke of his company and its achievements. He spoke of the companies with which he worked and his belief that “Growth is good.” Not greed, all of you Wall Street fans, but growth.
“When was the last time you heard an environmentalist say that growth is good? And yet businesses want to grow. Why?…Growth, by definition is a requirement of life. Well, business talks about growth, and does the world get better?…Well, if we look at our endgame then we need to look at our economics differently.”
As an example, WM+P just finished building the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan (“Ground Zero of the world’s first industrial revolution”). This was a $2m project and included the construction of the world’s largest habitat roof, being twelve and a half acres, resulting in seventeen species returning to the site. The performance of the company doubled and estimates show that the building pays for itself every three months. “We gave all of the workers a view of the outdoors, daylight, fresh air and the Beach Boys. Performance doubled! Go figure!”
“What we are looking at is not the bemoaning of the ‘human footprint.’ Many are saying that we should reduce the ‘human footprint’…perhaps we should increase the ‘human footprint’ but leave behind wetlands and restored habitat.”
So is business ethics simply a matter of bringing an ecologistic view of the world to our commerce?
McDonough argues that “an ecologistic person would say that a child being born in India is a population problem. And the minute that a child being born is not loved, human rights cease to exist. So we have a real design problem, because we can’t bemoan the human population, but [we need to] celebrate every single child that is born. Can you imagine that you were born and someone looked at you and said ‘Population problem!’ So what are we going to do by design? We need a new strategy for equity and we need a new form of commerce as well. So we are looking at a new form of business. We are looking at how to create businesses that produce the revenue to self generate so they don’t have to keep going back to the well.”
Mr. McDonough explained that he has constructed the new model based on an Indian eye doctor with rheumatism in his hands who has operated on, and given eye-sight to, over 1 million people for free. The doctor was brought to Silicon Valley to explain his theory and in the course of his dealings he met a man who had hearing problems.
“He turned to the doctor and said ‘That’s an amazing thing. Do you think you could do that for hearing?’ The doctor looked at him and stated “Hearing. No you don’t understand. I am an eye surgeon. That is not what I do!”
And it was with this the Mr. McDonough challenged us:
“But what do you do!?! He gives eye-sight to a million people for free. This person went off and created a hearing-aid company. We are now making hearing-aids in India for $42. Here it costs $1,700. They are selling them for $250 with an extra set of batteries, solar charged, so the kids don’t have to go back to the drug store for every pair we sell, we give away three free. Buy one, give three free. 30,000 children can now hear. This is in six months. If human beings are smart enough to put wheels on their luggage, to design digital hearing aids … to give eye-sight for free, then why are there children who can’t hear and people who can’t see? I thought we were meant to be a clever species.”
The solutions are there, right in front of us. But sometimes we can’t see the wood from the trees. Maybe it is simply because we have chopped down all of the forests?
Mr. McDonough also serves as U.S. chairman and member of the Board of Councilors of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development and recently joined the Board of the H.John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment.
“What we understand is that the countries that will be the lowest economic producers will always be the place that businesses move for production in a marketplace that wants lower costs. We have to honor that fundamental principle. China is the lowest cost producer. And what will they do? They will manufacture products that are all toxic, toxifying themselves in the process, and then they’ll send them to us and then…we’ll toxify ourselves. Because most of these products, within two months, are in a land fill or incinerated…and we will then send them the worst of it back…so by design, these two countries will destroy each other.”
“But you are business students. Do you know the etymology of the word ‘compete?’ Competere. Together we strive. To compete means that we go together. Go forward together and to strive together. Why do Olympic athletes train together? So they get better together. What if the two countries competed with each other that way? What you discover in this process, the things that come out have a strange connection to one of the oddest sources of business advice (offered by) Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who once said: ‘You don’t want to be the best of the best. You want to do what only you can do.’
“As we move to China, and we develop low cost solar collectors made from aluminum, for example, we can then go to scale quickly. Because China is nothing if it is not scale. And the minute we go to scale, prices collapse.…[We must] try to share ideas, take advantage of the scale in China and then bring it back to the U.S. because you can’t get an American kilowatt hour from the sun in China.
Here was a business person, who espoused environmental principles, built them into his models and plans and implemented them, successfully. That was something to honor.”
But as Mr. McDonough stated, “It is just common sense!” So why weren’t we all doing this?
Dean Feldberg stated “Mr. McDonough is a model of a deeply committed professional who Columbia Business School students can be proud to learn from.”
I was proud to learn from him. And what I learnt was that unless I do something, everything I say, and write, and talk about, is just that … talk. I realized that it wasn’t a matter of being fortunate enough to choose to discuss such issues, but it was a matter of necessity to choose to actually do something about it.
“In the end, it is an ethical question. Because we have to ask ourselves, ‘what are the conditions under which we are working?’…Is being less bad, being good? Or is it simply being bad, but less so?”
So, I guess the question is, the question of what do you do?
And the answer?
Mr. McDonough, looked at us, paused and simply stated “Good luck. Just Do It”