Designing the Next
Industrial Revolution

A Talk by William McDonough
at Bioneers 2000


The following text is a transcription of a videotape which has been distributed widely in Ukiah. Copies have been personally delivered to the members of the Ukiah City Council, the Ukiah Planning Commission, the academic senate of the Mendocino College and the Mendocino College Board of Trustees, and (soon) the Mendocino Board of Supervisors.

For more about William McDonough check out his web site at

Kenny Ausubel (introducing Mr. McDonough):

. . . His projects range from Oberlin College where he has designed the Environmental Studies Building to Herman Miller and many other corporations.

More than revolutionizing the field of sustainable design, he's gone much further, penetrating the core of our industrial processes and products themselves, and developing the nontoxic alternatives for building materials., solvents, dies and production methods. It is the beating of the butterfly's wings that will dispel the gray haze and return blue skies. His work is now in play in some of the worlds largest corporations, Nike and Ford Motor Company

Nor does this mean a sack cloth and ashes life style. Bill shows us that we can have the same abundance that nature has created but without harm.

Recently appointed as the founding chairman of the new China-U.S. Center for sustainable development and he is aiming to transfer leapfrog technology to permit a petrochemical bypass, avoiding many of the horrific mistakes currently in place in the developed countries.

If there was a sudden attack of sanity in our political system Bill and Michael would probably be contracted to create a Marshal plan in government for the next industrial revolution.

Bill is a ground breaking educator, former dean of architecture at the University of Virginia, a professor there, founder of the Institute of Sustainable Design and Commerce, Professor at large at Cornell, Chairman of Second Nature, bringing sustainability curricula to universities, authored the Hanover Principles on Sustainable Design. Received the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, Zero Population Leadership Award, and Time magazine name him a Hero of the Planet.

Here's one of the architects of a truly restorative future, William McDonough:

William McDonough:

I'm a designer. I want to talk about design itself because I think that design is the first sign of human intention and if you look around today at the tragedies in the making, you realize that the question is "Did we really intend for this to happen? Is this something that we designed?

We should look at some retroactive design assignments and realize that it is time for some new ones.

I'm going to ask you to join me as a designer. I am going to present you with the problem we are faced with and I going to ask you to help me solve them so you can see what we have to deal with every day.

Two fundamental questions for design

I can tell you this, there are two fundamental questions that we ask ourselves over and over when we are designing, and they are these:

How do we love all of the children of all species for all time? You notice that this is not how do we love our children. This is all of the children of all of the species for all time.

The other question is one that Wes Jackson has so eloquently asked, and that is: When do we become native to this place? When do we all become indigenous people?

Not many people consider themselves indigenous. I was at the Hanford Nuclear Plant, where they make the plutonium for the bombs, and they had some scientist there where they mark the ground where they bury the plutonium such that an extraterrestrial arriving 5000 years from now would not dare to dig. I call it the semiology of extreme danger. . . .

The .... tribe happened to be at the same conference and when they heard what the scientists were talking about they laughed and said: "Tell the scientists not to worry, we'll tell them where it is.!"

They weren't leaving. Why is it that we are always leaving?

There are many tragedies happening in the world today---plutonium, global warming, toxification, endocrine disruption. You realize that if we have this concern for all of the species for all time, how is that in Germany at this time, no mother's milk would be legal to sell on a store shelf?

How do you love all of the children if you toxify mother's milk?

So we need to look at these tragedies and realize that if we are designers, we have to take responsibility. We can't say it is not part of your plan that these things are going to happen. It is part of your de facto plan. It the thing that is happening because you have no plan.

And, you know, planning is most effective when it is practiced in advance.

We realize that we own these tragedies. We might as well have intended for them to occur. Essentially what we have done is become strategically tragic. Once you realize that our culture has adopted strategies of tragedy, perhaps its time to adopt strategies of change.

The is great humility in the search for strategies of change because we don't know what to do. Obviously we have great traditions that we can back to study, different peoples, indigenous people. But we don't know what to do .

Thomas Jefferson as a designer

If we look at this idea of strategy of change, you can go back in this western culture, to Thomas Jefferson. I was the dean at the University of Virginia and as such I had the great privilege to live in a house designed by Thomas Jefferson. If you spent five years living in a house designed by Jefferson, you think of this Jefferson as your architect. He clearly was my designer and I though about him and I'd say he was a pretty good architect. You know, he had a lot of other things on his mind, but he did pretty well. He also saw himself as a designer first.

You can see that in his home and his tombstone which he designed. On it, you will notice that it records only the things he designed. It says Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, Author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom (which matured into the Bill of Rights) and Father of the University of Virginia

Notice that he is only recording his legacy, not his activity. There is absolutely no mention of having been President of the United States, twice.

When the Exxon Valdeese goes down in Prince William Sound, the GNP goes up because there are so many people there cleaning up. What are we measuring? We are measuring activity, not legacy. This is not design.

If we look at the Declaration of Independence as a design, what is the design assignment of the Declaration of Independence. The document calls for " life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, free from remote tyranny. Imagine racking you brain for those three things that you would hold onto most fiercely, that you would become a revolutionary: Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness, free from remote tyranny,

We realize that this idea of freedom from remote tyranny caused them to become revolutionaries: Washington, Madison, Monroe, Jefferson, all within 60 miles of each other woke up every morning planning sedition.

I think it time for a new revolution.

We know that Jefferson, Franklin and the founding fathers were aware of the Iroquois nation and their confederacy. We know that Franklin spoke Mohawk, for example. If we look at the tradition there, you realize that the great peacemaker instructed that the make all decisions on behalf of the seventh generation, ?? says that we often forget the second half which is "even if it requires you to have skin as thick as the bark of the Pine." It means don't eat your seed corn.

Jefferson understood this, too. When he designed the federal government, another one of his small projects, he was looking at the idea of the federal bonding authority and what the terms should be and he decided that a federal bond should have the life of one generation. This was his logic in a letter to Madison in 1789:
He wrote: "The earth belongs to the living. No man may by natural right oblige the lands he occupies to debts greater than those that may be paid during his own lifetime. Because if he could, then the world would belong to the dead."

That was 1789.

If we look at his other designs: the Bill of Right, we can recognize, as Rachel Carson did, that none of the founding father would have suspected they would allow anybody to put toxins in a river that would destroy children's health, because they would never imagine that we would do such a thing.

If you look at the Bill of Rights today and you walk into a carpet manufacturer today and tell him: You have 16 know carcinogens in your carpet. And they say; It's not against the law.

Where are we here? If Jefferson were to return to day he would be calling for a Bill of Responsibility.

The idea that we have a full range of legal conditions which allow people to do these things is insane from a design perspective.

The Guardian and Commerce

According to Jane . . . ., Humans have evolved two syndromes for survival:: the guardian and commerce

The guardian is the state, the university, the knights of the round table, Commerce is business. The characteristics are completely different: The Guardian is very slow, very serious, it wants to preserve the public will, it reserves the right to kill. It can send rockets to Afghanistan, troops to the Gulf, It reserves the right to be duplicitous (the CIA is legal) and it shuns commerce. As a dean if you came to me and said you had a million bucks, put my kid in school, I'd say "We can't have this conversation."

Commerce, on the other hand, is very quick, it very inventive, and it's honest, because you can't do business for someone very long unless you are honest. And so these two conditions are fundamentally different. When you put the tow together you get a monstrous hybrid. If you put commerce into the Guardian, you corrupt it. If you put the guardian into commerce you slow it down.

What is a regulation: A regulation from a design perspective is a pure signal of design failure. It's the Guardian stepping in and saying "Wait a minute, you want to put cadmium in this river and kill children's brains downstream. We never gave you the right to kill. We reserve that to ourselves. We'll tell you a what rate you can dispense death.

From a design perspective, a regulation is a sign of design failure.

What do we call someone who is trying to defeat a regulation and is not being punished. The words betray the act itself: We say they are "getting away with murder." Indeed.

Jefferson's third design, the University of Virginia, is still there. He got a lot of complaints form the legislature that his ten professors were always arguing with each other. They didn't understand that. He said, "In revolutionary times and in education, we require the fierce clash of ideas."

From Natural Rights to the Rights of Nature

If Jefferson was talking about natural rights, then we need to talk about the rights of nature. And if you look at the tradition of rights as Jefferson did, of Anglo Saxons, it was noble males, and his Declaration of Independence, 1776, it was white, land-owning protestant males of a certain age, only 6% of the population. Emancipation, women suffrage, native Americans, the civil rights acts of the 60s, and then in 1973 was the first time human being gave something other than humans the right to live, with the Endangered Species Act.

Well if you look around today you realize that the question now is the rights of nature and the endangered ecosystem. Look what's going on with the Everglades.

And so we need to understand what nature is, and in 1838, Emerson engaged this question, just at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. His question at Harvard was: If humans are natural, are therefore all things done by humans part of nature?

His conclusion was that nature is those things that are immutable, what he called the unchangeable essences, the things that are to big for humans to effect. And his examples were the oceans, the mountains and the leaves. Well, we now understand that we can effect these things, and the whole concept of "away" has gone away. Remember, you used to be able to throw things away?

So we need a new design, but what is design?

In 1831 Emerson's wife died and he went to Europe on a sail boat and he returned on a steam ship. If we extract this for effect, he went over on a wind power, recyclable craft, operated by craft people practicing ancient arts in the open air, and he came back on a steel rust bucket putting smoke in the sky, oil on the water, operated by people working in the dark, shoveling fossil fuels into the mouths of boilers.

The funny think is that we are still designing steam ships. We are here. The sun is shinning gloriously outside, and we are here in the dark, shoveling fossil fuels into the mouths of boilers and creating nuclear isotopes so we can sit here and talk about global warming and nuclear isotopes.

We need a new design.

It's what I call a vote for Thoreau, because all sustainability, like politics, is local. Thoreau didn't travel very much. When he was asked why he didn't travel much he said, "What do you mean? I've traveled widely in Concord."

All sustainability will be local. Who's going to do this then? Who's going to lead? You are.

Peter. . . at the Sloan School of Management asks the CEOs who come in for the Learning Laboratory: Who is the leader on a ship crossing the ocean? The answers he gets are the captain, the navigator, etc. He says, No, it's the designer of the ship, because you could be the best captain in the world but if the ship is not seaworthy, you are going down.

We need a new design. Designers must become leaders; leaders must become designers.

Personal background

I was a born in 1951 in Tokyo, Japan. I grew up in Hong Kong. When I was a little kid, my mother would take me to the money changer to change my Dad's pay check, and I would be at eye level with an 80 year old woman holding a dying or dead baby for begging sympathy. This is what happens when you have 6 million people living on 40 square miles and no water. And I thought this was ordinary life.

I spent my summers in Puget Sound. My grandfather had been a lumberjack cutting down the old growth. He and some friends won the Yukon lottery and he went out an bough a thousand acres of old growth and built a log cabin and lived there with my grandmother, raised oysters, traded raspberries for flowers with he neighbors, composted, put things away for the winter, and I thought that was ordinary life. This incredible abundance.

Then in the early 60s by father became the president of Seagram Oversees. We moved to New York. That's when we built the Seagram Building. I lived in Westport Connecticut, the third richest town in America, where 16 year olds have Porches. And I thought that was ordinary life. I didn't get to do that, I had to dive a hardware truck, because my Dad was a depression baby. Thanks Dad!

Then I went to Dartmouth College, and then I went to Yale and while I was at Yale Architecture School, I built the first solar heated house in Ireland. That should give you a sense of my ambition. There is no sun in Ireland.

In the early 80s I was asked by the environmental Fund to design the new national headquarters. Fred Kropp, their executive director at the end of the contract negotiations: By the way if anyone in our office gets sick form indoor air quality, we're going to sue you.

So I spoke to our attorney's, and I asked, what does this really mean. He said it's called negligence. It means that you know better and you do it anyway, and I said, well great, we have no problem: We don't know anything?

And neither did anybody else apparently, because we went around and found a couple of people , one in Colorado and another in Connecticut. We started calling manufacturers and asking what's in your carpets, your glues, your particle boards and they all said "It's proprietary, it's legal, go away.

But we're still at it. We now work with about a half trillion dollars worth of companies. We're asking the same question.

In 1987, I was asked by a member of the Jewish community in New York to design a memorial of the holocaust at Auschwitz, a place for the Jews to pray. I went to Berkinow at Auschwitz, I stood in the center of Berkinow, a mile in diameter two miles in circumference, and I realized that engineers and architects had come together to design a giant killing machine. If design is the first signal of human intention then this was signal of the worst of human intention. And I thought to myself, at what point does a designer say: Wait a minute. You're asking me to do this? They design a gate that says "The work shall set you free.", and the engineers design a rail head that brings people in on cattle cars to be taken out on one side where they will be taken into gas chambers and exposed Cyclon B being developed by E. J. Farbe and Chemical Works. Then some of their skin would be stripped, gold would be removed from their mouths, their hair might be taken for stuffing of mattresses, and then their corpses would be taken to the crematorium, where German engineers were calculating how to most effectively and efficiently stack the human corpse, depending on fat content, so that it would burn most efficiently.

And if you came out on the other side of this car you were taken to a slave labor camp and you were forced to work for E. J. Farbe Chemical works. And do you know that all of the cosmetics you are wearing in this room were tested in human eyes at Auschwitz.

At what point does a designer say, I can 't do this kind of work. Not only can I not do this kind of work, I can't even participated. Not only that I have to rail against it. Wait a minute, I have to revolt against this. I have to go to war. I have to become a revolutionary.

I got back to New York. We were designing Paul Stewart's Men's store. I looked at our specifications and I realized that without being able to do very much about it, I was designing a gas chamber. We're sitting it one right now. These fabrics that you sit on contain antibodies, carcinogenic heavy metals. Don't squirm!

Designing the Last Industrial Revoltuion (A "retroactive design assignment")

I realized that if I looked at the first industrial revolution as a design assignment, it would have to look like this. And while i give this assignment to you now - You are all the designers - I want you to think about Berkinow. Think about Auschwitz. Think about designers intention.

I would like you to design an industrial system for world culture that treats nature as its enemy to be evaded or controlled; that measures prosperity by how much of the can be cut down, bury, burn or otherwise destroy, which measures productivity by how few people are working, progress by the number of smokestacks---If you are especially proud, put your names on them; destroy biological and cultural diversity at every turn with one size fits all solutions; require thousands of complex regulations to keep people from killing each other too quickly; and while you are at it, produce a few things so highly toxic that it will require thousands of generations to maintain constant vigilance while living in terror. Can you do this for me?

Welcome to this morning.

It's time for a new design assignment.

The Hanover Principles of Sustainable Design

In 1991, I was commissioned by the town of Hanover, Germany, along with my firm and friends, to write the Hanover Principles. The same culture that created the worst of human intentions---the Germans had gone to a deeply dark place in the 40s---was asking what would the best of human intentions look like. And so we wrote these principles:

1) Insist on the rights of humanity and nature to coexist. This is not please hope that they will.

2) Recognize interdependence. Expand design consideration to recognize even distant effects.

3) Respect the relationship between spirit and matter.

Now the Germans tried to get rid of this one. It was number 8 at the time. I said, wait a minute, all the native people who looked at this said there was only one principle and it was this one. The rest come form here. So why don't we make it number 5. They said, you don't understand, we're trying to remove it. It's too fuzzy. I said, why don't we make it number 3. Do you see where we are going? They said, OK, number 3, It's fine. So there it is: number 3.

I work for businesses, and I remember calling the Chairman of Monsanto to say that we need a conference on the ethics of genetic engineering and he asked why does the spirit-matter connection matter? Well think about this from a business perspective. If you cross bt with plants in soy and so on, what have you done? You crossed the animal kingdom with the plant kingdom, something that God never tried to do. At what point is the world's largest market, Hindu, unable to eat American food? When can you no longer be a vegetarian? That's a business question. Six weeks later, they started burning Monsanto crops in India.

How about the human genone project? Do you know that they put the human genone into swine to get medical serum for humans. That's very interesting. What happens to the pigs? Did you eat human genone for breakfast this morning? Do you think someone might want to ask you if you want to be a cannibal? Does it matter?

4) Accept responsibility for the consequences of design.

5) Create safe objects of long-term value. Don't tyrannize the future.

6) Eliminate the concept of waste. I think this is the one that rang true for most people. This is not minimize waste. This is not efficiency. Remember this is 1991. This is before Factor 4. This was when eco-efficiency was about to be launched at the Earth Summit. Instead, this is to eliminate the whole concept of waste.

7) Rely on natural energy flows. Nature doesn't mortgage the past or the future.

8) Understand the limitations of design. Be humble

9) Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge.

Einstein and Growth

Think of Einstein as a poet. Now imagine the sun is energy, it's physics; the earth is mass, it's chemistry'; and the two come together, c squared, and guess what happens, magic, we get biology, the single photosynthetic cell, our common ancestor. It becomes sentient and it develops spiritual consciousness. Isn't that amazing! And then all heaven breaks loose on the planetary surface. All of the sudden we have more and more niches being created occupied by more and more species and it is fecund and it grows and grows, and growth is good!

Now, ask a 6 year old if growth is good.

The debate today between commerce and the environmentalists today is growth versus no-growth. What a ridiculous debate. Commerce is saying that they have to have growth for the interests of commerce and the environmentalists are saying that growth is destroying the world. But isn't the question really: What do you want to grow?

Wouldn't we rather grow prosperity and not ignorance? Wouldn't we rather grow intelligence and not stupidity? Wouldn't we rather grow health and not sickness? What do we want to grow? Growth is good.

Our design criteria

The criteria we use are different than most people. We use Cost, performance and aesthetics, the same one everybody uses. But we the next three we add: Is it ecologically intelligent? Is it fair? And is it fun?

It is interesting that the other day I was with Michael Dell of Dell Computers, because Dell is adopting our protocols, which should be quite interesting. I was looking at our design criteria and I said, isn't that amazing, I just realized something: Ecological intelligence is Life, justice is liberty, and fun is the pursuit of happiness! And Michael Dell said, you know, you and Jefferson are interesting people but you forgot the most important thing. I said, really, what's that? BANDWIDTH!

OK, if waste equals food, everything is nutrient, and if everything is a nutrient it belong (?) in a metabolism. What are the metabolisms of the world? Well there is the one of life itself, we call the biological one, and there is the technical one. And so we design to go into these cycles.

A biological product is something you can consume. It goes back to soil. We have to rebuild our soils. It takes 10,000 years to build an inch of soil.

Other products we call products of service. You want the service not the ownership. If I had a TV hiding behind this podium and I told you I had an amazing object that provides incredible service, but before tell you what it does, let me tell you what it is and then you tell me whether you want this is your house: It has 10,360 chemicals, it's full of toxic heavy metals, has an explosive glass tube and we think you ought to put it at eye level with your children and encourage them to play with it. Do you want this in our house?

Why are we selling people hazardous waste? What you want is to watch TV, not own hazardous materials. We call these products of service. You want to design them so they go back to the same industry from whence they came.

But the idea of designing for durablilty is insane at this point. If I told you that I just bought a computer and it was going to last me for 25 years, you would say: You are an idiot!

What I want is the service of this computer until new chip are developed or whatever. A computer should be designed to go back and back forever, instead of destroying the world.

This is not eco-efficiency. We got into a lot of trouble with the environmental world because we say ecoefficiency is a dead end. What does ecoefficiency mean from a design perspective: You wake up in the morning feeling 100% bad; you spend your day trying to feel less bad and your goal is zero.

Show graph here.

Can you imagine Thomas Jefferson putting that on his tombstone?

The problem with ecoefficiency is that you run out of steam. Monsanto can reduce its toxic emissions by 90% over 5 years. That's very nice but there still two questions: What were you doing in the first place? And now that we are worried about endocrine disruption, our concern went from parts per million to parts per trillion. So while you have reduced the pollution by a factor of ten its danger was increased by a factor of 1000s so now you have a new 100%, and a Zeno's paradox, and you're never going to get there. I can leave here and go north to Canada or south to Mexico. If I find myself going 100 miles per hour towards Canada, but I'm supposed to be going to Mexico, it's not going to help me to slow down to 20 miles per hour.

(For a fuller critique of ecoefficiency, see the Article in Atlantic Monthly by McDonough, et. al.)

You see nature's not efficient. You don't look at a cherry tree in the spring and say: Oh, my God, how many blossoms does it take! I mean, can you imagine Mozart being efficient. He would hit the keyboard with a 2 X 4: Bong! Got 'em! All the keys at once!

There's nothing about efficiency that we humans delight in. Can you imagine an efficient Italian dinner: a little red pill and a glass of water.

So what we want to do is celebrate the abundance of the natural world. We want those cherry blossoms to become trees; we want to close our cycles. It's too bad the first industrial revolution was invented by northern Presbyterians; They have to bury everything, including their emotions. (Laughter) Those are my people: It's OK. What we are looking at is the celebration of abundance instead of the lowering of limits.

Let's just imagine we are 10% sustaining and we want to go to be 100% sustaining. You notice I'm not saying "sustainable." When I won the award from Clinton at the White House, the press all came up and said: "Oh, Mr. Sustainable, what does it all mean?" and I said I'm not that interested in sustainability, really, because if it is just the edge between destruction and regeneration, if sustainability is just a kind of maintenance, is this exciting? If I were to ask if you were married and you said yes, and I asked, What is the relationship to your spouse like, and you said, Oh, ah, sustainable. Who cares. What we are looking for is fecundity, sex, children, movement.

Anyway, at least this way we have to imagine what 100% good looks like which is different from just trying to keep the world going in a way that is less bad.

So here's the science part of the talk; (shows graph). We're using too much stuff over time. We see this tragedy. We say Oh my God we're using too much stuff over time so we have to use less stuff over time. Well that's nice, except no business person is trained to like this chart. and on top of that it doesn't change the story.

This means that by being more efficient, Mitshubishi can make twice as many cardboard boxes out of the trees in Indonesia. That's very nice, but does it change the story. It still good bye to the trees in Indonesia.

Gregory Bateson in Mind and Nature when he was coining the term cybernetics, asked the computer a question: He said: Tell me computer, when do you think computers will begin to think like humans? There is a long pause, and finally the computer says, "That reminds me of a story."

Well what is the story? Let's change time to stuff, stuff to intelligence, make the line time, and then watch this: Over time, we are using too much stuff, but we are getting smarter and smarter, and using less and less stuff, and we have sequestered materials for human use in techical or biological cycles and we can leave the rest of the world alone.

What has happened is between capitalism and socialism, we have a social market economy, but any extreme positiion, and ism, Naziism, sexism is a dangerous thing.. Does efficiency have any value? Ask the philosopher. Does it have any value? No. An efficient Nazi is worse then and inefficient Nazi.

So what we are looking for is effectiveness. What we want to do is the right thing. What is that? If it were just a social market economy, we realize that the capitlist will destroy the world: they cut down the trees and destroy the fish . socialists will destroy the world because as Alexi ..., Russia's chief scientist tells us, Russia is now 16% uninhabitable. They call it ecocide. That's an area the size of Texas.

And ecologism would be just as dangerous. If I said, you must go solar. What am I saying? Make your neighbors nervous because you are about to put ugly heavy metal rectangles on your roof, learn electrical engineering, take high technology risks, negotiate with your local energy monopoly and do something completely uneconomic. Go for it!

So what we are really looking for are things that bring things together. We have developed the famous triad of sustainable development. When we talk to our commercial clients we use a design tool we call a fractal triad.

Above: the "Fractile Triad"
More about the Fractal Triad

((more to come: there are a few more minutes of this tape, concerned with the diagram above and with projects, some of which are listed below.))


New Environmental Studies Building at Oberliln College

Redesigning the River Rouge: $2 billion, 20 year redesign of the Ford Motor Company plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

More about changes at Ford

"My sister told me the other day that I'm sounding more and more like a '60s idealist. But there's one big difference. In the '60s we could see a lot of environmental problems emerging, but we didn't have the solutions. Now the technologies are coming onstream so fast that the solutions really are in our grasp. I have not been half as outspoken in the past as I intend to be in the future."

Henry Ford, III


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