How Much Can I Give for What I Get? (2002)

Reflections on the Transformation of Economies

By William McDonough


Several centuries of hard, ingenious thought about supply and demand chasing each other around, tails in their mouths, have told us almost nothing about the rise and decline of wealth. We must find more realistic and fruitful lines of observation and thought than we have tried to use so far.

Jane Jacobs


We are living in a propitious moment. Within the noisy chaos and bustle of our fast-paced global economy are signals of a transformation, a fruitful rethinking of the principles of economic life. In some imaginations, the passing of the old rules is cause for fear; in others it represents an exciting opportunity to listen and develop new models of enterprise and capital activity in tune with what the world needs today.

Nothing means quite what it used to mean. Consider environmental regulations. Long seen as the bane of the bottom line, regulations actually represent tremendous opportunities for enterprise. When seen as signals from society to the corporate world of problems worthy of close attention, they can drive design innovations that produce profitable solutions and competitive advantage. They can also move business further along the road to a rich definition of corporate performance and product value.

Consider Ford Motor Company’s response to new environmental regulations. As Ford planned the restoration of its huge Rouge River manufacturing complex in Dearborn, Michigan, the project’s design team was well aware that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was developing tough, new storm water management rules. Rather than aim for compliance with conventional technical controls, Ford and its team of design consultants developed a natural drainage system that will exceed regulatory requirements while adding value to the site.

The centerpiece of the system is a 10-acre living roof, a thin mat of soil cultivated with succulent plants. Along with a porous paving system and a network of natural swales, the living roof will retain storm water, allowing it to percolate slowly through the soil rather than flow swiftly from impervious surfaces into the nearby river. The system also creates habitats on the site for native plants, birds, butterflies, insects and microorganisms, generating a productive landscape and a larger biological order. Compared to conventional controls, the new design offers estimated installed cost savings of nearly $35 million.

Ford was able to act creatively on the Rouge site because the design team pursued an unconventional notion of value. As the founders of the Social Profit Network have pointed out, value used to mean “How much can I get for what I give?” But what if we redefined value with principles of product quality that generate not only economic growth, but social and ecological well-being as well? What if we asked “How much can I give for what I get?”

Suddenly, designing products and facilities becomes the pursuit of a rich understanding of quality. A factory becomes not simply a box full of tools, but a life-affirming place that creates habitat, filters water and provides a safe, pleasant and productive work environment—all cost effectively. A business becomes a generator of social health and well being, as David Green is showing in Baltimore as he develops a strategy to give hearing aids to needy children and elders for free, and to everyone else at a substantially reduced cost. In other words, focusing creativity on generating a wide spectrum of value can yield good growth for all.

The pursuit of good growth can be integrated into business strategy. “How much can I give for what I get?” is what my colleague Michael Braungart and I call a triple top line design question. Rather than measuring at the bottom line the reduction of liabilities, triple top line design pursues solutions that enhance value—more health, more clean water, more nutrition, more cultural wealth.

This is creative work, but not guess work. Designers and business leaders can assess every decision by measuring how much top line value it creates. And top line value translates into cost-effectiveness. The notion that intelligent design is too expensive, a common stumbling block in the design process, simply doesn’t hold up to close inspection. Just ask the engineers at Ford Motor, who are already considering replicating the Rouge Center’s storm water management system.

“How much can I give for what I get?” It’s a question with transformative power. Used as a tool to drive design it can generate a dynamic field of economic inquiry and a new direction for business. And as good questions are apt to do, it could perhaps lead to more “fruitful lines of observation and thought than we have tried to use so far.”


How Much Can I Give for What I Get? © 2002 William McDonough
Greenpeace Business


William McDonough, an architect and industrial designer, is the founding principal of William McDonough + Partners, Architecture and Community Design, and McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a product and system development firm. He is co-author, with Michael Braungart, of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, published in 2002 by North Point Press.