The passing of Steve Jobs was in no way surprising -- we knew it had to be serious for him to leave the company he loved. But it's still a shock that we're robbed of his brain and all the amazing things that he would have invented.
I had always hoped that this once-in-a-generation genius would turn his prodigious mental powers to solving the world's largest challenges. Imagine a Jobs-designed, must-have iCar that people would want as badly as an iPad... Or an iHome that uses drastically less energy with its iFridge and iWasher... Or how about an iCity or iTrain to tackle urban design and transportation challenges?
We'll never get those products from Jobs, so other innovators will have to fill the void. But there is one incredibly important lesson that sustainability-minded leaders can learn from Jobs' legacy: You should lead your customers and show them a better way.
Steve Jobs did not ask people if they could use a tablet computer. In fact, in a long list of amazing quotes from the man, one of the most powerful is this: "It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."
Before the iPad came out, plenty of pundits asked why anyone would really need a tablet. After all, laptops were fairly small already and we had connectivity and games on our phones. Why add this midsize device to our lives? Steve Jobs made us want to.
In my experience, most large companies today are "fast followers," a strategy of letting others take the risks associated with being first to market, then coming in, often at a lower price or with a better product. It's a strategy that is seemingly lower risk for a public company. But just look at how many companies have tried and failed to beat Apple at the tablet computer game. Second-place can sometimes be very expensive. And yet fast following still seems like the preferred (or default) approach for most companies.
This fiscal and strategic conservatism breeds a culture where execs prefer to wait and talk to customers before doing anything drastic. Of course customer (and other stakeholder) perspectives are critical. But as with tablet computers, when it comes to sustainability, often the customers don't really know what they need.
Companies often gather data on what their business customers think a sustainable product should be, and the survey might show that including recycled material is important, even if that's a tiny part of the real footprint story. Nobody knows the value chain of your product and service as well as you do (or if someone else does, get them in the room pronto).
So figure out where the impacts really lie and what you can do to reduce your customer's footprint in ways they hadn't considered. This might require asking heretical questions about whether the product should even exist in its current form or should be converted into more of a service.
Do most people think they need a hybrid car, or would they even imagine that they'd share a car using a service like Zipcar? Probably not, but if the experience can be made fun and profitable enough, perhaps they will. The Toyota Prius has sold well, in part, because it did some exciting new things (ran quiet on no gas at times) in a familiar midsize car framework, much like the iPad looked like a big iPhone but could do so much more.
I wish I could come up with more examples of companies truly leading with sustainable products. It's a sparse field for now, but that will change. The next generation's Steve Jobs will most likely focus on sustainability since that's where the largest challenges and business opportunities lie.
Consider the case of William Kamkwamba, a boy from rural Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. At 14, this self-taught "Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" built a working wind turbine from scraps. He's now at Dartmouth College.
The world contains some true innovators. Will our big companies find these leaders and harness them... or be brought down by them? I know which one I'd pick if I were normally a "fast follower."
Here's hoping we find the next Steve Jobs quickly, someone who can bring us green things we never knew we wanted so badly. Rest in peace, Steve.