Justice as a Blueprint for Product Design

Abdul Semakula
7 min readJul 16, 2023

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Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Nature’s design signature is one of balance & justice. So, one way to scale climate justice is for teams to see justice as a customer need.

We can build an equitable and thriving world. We just need to change what we pay attention to — i.e. justice instead of passion and profit.

The climate crisis requires us to shift from incremental or reactive changes offered by behavioral change designs, towards regenerative design, and this means we must change the way we think. If we reshape what we think about, and what we pay attention to, we can change what we design, and therefore what customers buy. Let’s explore how we could be thinking about design — particularly in the commercial system.

The commercial system is operating below its potential.

We interact with the commercial system more than any other system — so it has prime time with our intentions, decisions, and behaviours more than any other social system. It shapes our identities with its own values like weights shape muscles. Yet, its strongest value proposition is to ‘endlessly optimise material satisfaction for the person.’

The downside is that obsessing with material value has blinded businesses from seeing the person as a holistic being and serving the civic value, moral value, and spiritual value that a holistic person needs.

It’s important to note that;

  1. Civic, moral, and spiritual value are all interwoven with the material value we get from the products we buy daily.
  2. Neglecting other forms of value starves the person’s sense of justice, and disconnects him/her from nature & society and from inner well-being.
  3. The commercial system has strategic leverage points we can reconfigure to offer these forms of value while nurturing a sense of justice that permeates from the person to nature and society.
One way to scale climate justice, is for product teams to see justice as a customer need, redraw customer personas from material beings to holistic beings and serve them as such.

In seeing citizens only as material beings, the commercial system focuses on profit, and is therefore operating below its potential, and so are its participating actors.

Small Leak Sink Big Ships

Contrary to one of our many blindly inherited beliefs, our spirits/souls make more economic decisions than religious ones. So, the word ‘SPIRITUAL’ has little to do with religion and more to do with daily product choices — which (unknown to us) are major sources of healthy/unhealthy spiritual value.

Choice (incl commercial ones) is a function of the spirit/soul — which is a collection of our emotions, memory, knowledge, experiences, insight, judgment, images, personality, intelligence, cultures et. c.

Spiritual value enables the person/customer to access order of purpose and meaning to serve life as it shifts from individual human potential to the business’ potential, to market potential, to the potential of society, the living world, and the entire universe.

Businesses serving spiritual value not only gives customers inner well-being, but also radically shifts their perception of commercial reality from individualistic to wholistic.

Compared to its titanic size and might, the Titanic sank because of a pinhole. If only it was possible to patch Pinhole size leaks that sunk the Titanic and mighty civilisations before ours!

The leak letting in more floods, wildfires, heatwaves, droughts, inequality to sink our mighty civilisation is equally small and unpatched. It’s the commercial system’s neglect of spiritual value — i.e. businesses not embedding justice in the products they bring to market.

This means we are unproductively searching for justice at the top/global level when it is waiting for us to pick it up at the bottom, at the personal, at the product or transaction level.

Fortunately, we can start patching this leak by businesses becoming aware that;

  • Broadly, a product choice has as much material value as it does spiritual value — i.e. just purchase decisions are healthy food for customer souls, and it’s the business’ duty to;
  • Serve spiritual value centering justice at business models, and processes of products, and communicating those to customers. Just products aim at balancing personal needs with the needs of the whole — respecting the health of other beings.

Justice as a Blueprint

We can disintegrate a customer purchase into two broad gains. The more visible material gain, and the invisible gain of deciding to buy that product. For measurability, businesses reductively focus on maximising material gains for customers often at the expense of the whole.

However, everything is connected to everything and everything flows on justice. The universe is founded on and run on justice. Justice is the blueprint the nucleus follows to control cellular activities that keep the cell, organs, and organisms healthy, functioning, and thriving. Justice or balance is the blueprint the universe follows to keep planet Earth rotating and revolving within the solar system through which nights retire and days reenergize cells, organisms, and ecosystem services that feed into human commercial activity. And justice is the blueprint the human spirit/soul uses to control decisions of access to material resources that keep the person and the whole healthy, functioning, and thriving.

The human being can be likened to a device with a specific purpose and complex devices come with user manuals. The manual for humans can be ‘decoded’ from the ways nature does things because nature isn’t corrupted by self-interest — rather it’s biased toward life. It’s not a utopia but nature’s design signature is one of balance, discipline, and generally justice.

Life is like this great device and without decoding lessons from nature, we don’t know what to use it for. Therefore it’s incumbent on us (designers, engineers, marketers, policymakers, et.c.) to use justice as a blueprint in all our activities — so as to sustain the ‘balance and harmony of the natural order’.

No doubt our constitutions and policies endeavor to optimise justice and it’s important to note that, compared to billions of years Earth has lived to optimise natural justice, human justice is a two-minute baby that we’re pampering with material prosperity for the individual — while neglecting its mother — earth.

Equally important is to remember that the baby in us is prone to irreversible deformities if we keep denying it the proteins and vitamins of justice. i.e.

If businesses keep denying customers the spiritual value they need to make daily decisions that respect a healthy whole, the transition to an equitable future will be as scientists have warned — too little too late.

This is why, whereas the self/body experiences peace from material wealth accumulation from the whole to the individual, the spirit/soul/mind experiences peace and harmony from material distribution away from the individual to others (the whole).

This natural balancing force is designed to ensure that resources to and from the individual feed the spirit with justice at the self-level that then feeds into justice at the systemic level.

In line with this natural flow of justice, several studies show that beyond a certain threshold of income — “the satiation point, people reported lower happiness and wellbeing because their motivation to earn more money was not by purpose and meaning but by comparison to others and a desire for material gains”.

This means that we — at least most individuals and businesses pursue limitless wealth accumulation not out of purposeful need — rather because of a competitive race to the top against peers — a race whose rules break justice as a blueprint to the natural flow by extracting the whole while denying it the means to regenerate.

Harnessing the Potential of the Commercial System.

In the commercial context, businesses are at the nucleus of justice — through innovation, they control resource flows from the whole to the individual and back.

This means a ‘purchase decision’ doesn’t come with only the material value of the purchased product, rather the ‘decision’ itself is a valuable intangible that feeds the mind and spirit of the buyer. As a muscle grows with exercise, an unjust purchase decision today predisposes the customer to unjust decisions tomorrow. A billion customers making unjust decisions over a decade is why climate change and inequality are growing with a growing but unjust global economy.

Spiritual value is really about business using justice as a blueprint to respect the material needs of the whole when creating products — we can call this civic value, which feeds into the general well-being of the whole — we can call this moral value that in turn feeds into inner wellbeing for the customer.

In a just commercial system, the goal is balancing business needs, customer needs with those of the whole. It’s thus the duty of a business to create a just product using just processes and just models as much as it is a duty for the customer to choose just products.

However, the hard work is in coordinating such a commercial system with justice as a core value and blueprint.

Commonflow attempts to do this — starting with the aspect of distributive justice, by increasing the volume and velocity of funds that flow from the commercial system to climate solutions.

In this new model, all participants in the commercial system are empowered to expand their self-interest toward systemic health.

At the product design level, there are several tools that inspire a product development paradigm that centers justice in products, processes, and business models. For example, this tool by Doughnut Economics Lab sets out how businesses can engage with Doughnut Economics.

Originally published at https://justicemindset.substack.com.

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Abdul Semakula

Systems Innovator co-creating bottom-up a distributive & regenerative future at https://opencollective.com/nvc