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Sustainable Digital Ecosystems

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this Ted Talk by Dan Barber I saw a while ago about a sustainable fish farm.

It’s called Veta La Palma, an aquaculture farm located in Spain. Wikipedia tells me that it produces 1,200 tons of sea bass, bream, red mullet and shrimp each year. Unlike most of the world’s fish farms, it does so not by interfering with nature, but by supporting it.

When Barber asked Miguel Medialdea, the lead biologist at Veta La Palma, how he measured success, he pointed to thousands of pink flamingoes blanketing the water and said, “That’s success. Look at their bellies, they’re feasting!” He explains that the flamingoes travel 150 miles every day to feed on his fish “because the food’s better.” His fish farm is also one of the largest and most important private bird sanctuaries in Europe.

Barber asked him, “Isn’t a thriving bird population the last thing you want on a fish farm?” He explains that the flamingoes, by eating mostly shrimp, create an abundance of nutritious algae left for his prized fish. “We farm extensively, not intensively,” says Medialdea.

Barber describes Veta La Palma as:

1. A farm that doesn’t feed its animals.
2. A farm that measures its success by the health of its predators.
3. A farm that’s literally a water purification plant.

As interested as I am in sustainable aquaculture, I find the model compelling as a blueprint for healthy ecosystems of all kinds. Imagine digital environments that could be described that way: places that require little maintenance, that provide value to everyone (not just the ‘farmer’) and contribute to improving the overall health of the wider digital environment.

It seems like everyone is talking about the importance of ecosystems these days, especially in the context of ‘brand ecosystems’. And although I think this is an interesting topic, I am using the ecological metaphor to talk about something a little different.

The Problem: Digital Landfill

Many award-winning digital campaigns are really very empty experiences. You are led along an arduous (though often very pretty) path for a “chance to win” something great. Which is fine – it is what it is – but I don’t think these represent excellence in digital experiences; marketing or otherwise.

Two well-received campaigns that spring to mind are Volkswagen’s “Hitchhike with a Like” and the Shoppers Drug Mart “Spin to Win” contest. Both are brands that I really like, but after going through the motions of their game mechanics (spinning wheels, clicking to ‘hitch’ a ride), I left both experiences feeling a bit used. I didn’t get anything out of them except for that chance to win and the likelihood of winning anything is slim. Both of them present themselves as games, so even if I don’t win, I should be having fun, right? Instead, I left both experiences with a tangible film of regret, my life energy being converted into a “time spent” stat for someone’s impending measurement exercise.

What is the goal of these programs? That I spend half an hour on their Facebook promotion? I know it’s a game, but it’s slow and unfulfilling. It’s pretty, but I expect more from my game experiences these days.

And what happens to these sites when the quarter is over? Some will be recycled but most will drift off toward the garbage heap. Which makes sense because they weren’t built to last.

Made by Many coined the concept of ‘landfill marketing’ or ‘digital landfill’, which is a great way to describe disposable digital marketing efforts. They don’t provide much value to anyone and are a threat to the health of our digital environment. Good digital experiences, on the other hand, are designed to be durable and to provide to long-lasting benefit to everyone involved.

An Alternative Model: Sustainable Digital Environments

How do we create digital experiences that are sustainable and that function in a way that benefits both customers and brands … and even our competition?

I was inspired by Big Spaceship’s case study on creating the Crayola website:

“Unlike many websites, the purpose of is not to keep visitors on the site for as long as possible. The site is a tool for driving product usage so we made it very simple for users to get inspired and start creating.”

Healthy digital environments should leave you feeling refreshed and energized or empowered in some way. But in order for them to do that, brands need to think of them as something that can exist long-term and have that sort of effect from the outset.

How do we do this? Using Barber’s description of the Veta La Palma as a guide, let’s look at digital experience through three lenses we can use to question our efforts. If we aren’t providing value to someone, somewhere, then maybe we should rethink our approach or our motivation.

1. Support natural behaviour (Don’t feed the animals.)
The first lens is probably the most straightforward. Healthy digital environments aren’t about carrots and sticks. When people are self-motivated to participate in something, they are fed by the environment in a more substantial way. They are not taken out of their natural state and asked to do something unnatural. People behave in a certain way already, so it’s important to support them in that rather than distract them from their goals. And let’s not mistake conditioned reflexes for engagement. Think Nike+.

A less obvious example comes from Yancey Strickler, one of the founders of Kickstarter. He talks about how the classic formats for Kickstarter videos have evolved since they launched. He says, “We never told people how to structure the rewards or how to make their videos or anything … there’s sort of a collective intelligence that emerged over time on how to do this thing.” Letting go of some of the control can yield interesting and ultimately more authentic results. If you can commit to supporting the experience, other things will sort themselves out organically.

2. Be generous (Measure success by the health of your predators.)
This quality points to the importance of what Tim O’Reilly refers to “creating more value than you capture”. How this manifests will depend on the goals of the brand. But if we agree that the best experiences are those that provide people with something they need or want, it would indicate some level of success if people want to use, share or outright steal what you’ve got on offer.

A good example of this is how ProPublica uses Creative Commons on their stories to encourage other publishers to distribute their articles. The terms of their license are laid out on a page titled: Steal Our Stories. The result is a substantially wider reach, which supports their mission to have an impact and spur reform.

3. Improve the world around you (Be a water-purification plant.)
The fact is, most of us don’t get to work on world-changing projects all of the time. But there is something inspirational about creating digital experiences for the people of Planet Earth that actually serve their needs. By holding ourselves to some of these standards, we can improve the cultural environment around digital making and marketing.

If you support the environment you rely on and don’t take more than you need, you can improve the lives of your customers (and neighbouring communities) in tangible, and often intangible, ways.

An admirable example is the MAKE phenomenon. It’s a magazine, it’s a festival, it’s a community. Sure, they sell things, but it’s so much more. They describe their audience as: “a growing culture and community that believes in bettering ourselves, our environment, our educational system—our entire world. This is much more than an audience, it’s a worldwide movement that Make is leading—we call it the Maker Movement.” Importantly, this movement is not an accident, it’s by design.

What’s In It for You?
Sustainable Relationships.

Understanding the real relationships that exist between your customers and your brand helps support the development of brand utility. Instead of force-fitting your brand’s product into customer’s lives, the sustainable ecosystem model helps us to ask: What is your brand really doing for its customers? Or, as Ingmar Delange asks in his presentation on brand utility, “What can we do for you?”

It is not possible to create and maintain healthy digital environments for customers without understanding what motivates and supports behaviour in context. A healthy digital ecosystem simultaneously provides sustenance and room to breathe – that is, meeting customer needs while also getting out of the way.

Thinking about digital experience design in this way helps us keep customers in focus – instead of trying to create faux experiences around marketing objectives, we can strengthen the mutually-beneficial relationships that exist in these ecosystems.

Kyra Aylsworth More posts by Kyra Aylsworth