September 3, 2019
Themes I'm Exploring
In the past year, my focus has reflected my nomadic lifestyle — I've bounced around — from Portugal to South Africa to Mexico — from web design to biomimicry to growth consulting.
Among the many ideas and inspirations over the past few years, a few themes have emerged. I'll be exploring these themes and going deeper in the coming months.
Theme 1: Closing the Loop
In January 2018, China stopped accepting trash from the United States.
For the previous 25+ years, China had been accepting plastic, paper, and other waste from the US and processing it, often at the expense of their environment.
China's refusal to accept US waste has caused a problem for cities across the US. Municipalities are piling up semi-valuable recycling material and have nowhere to put it. There isn't yet a domestic market for plastic waste. As a result, valuable plastic and other recyclables are ending up buried underground or burned.
Plastic waste is a high-visibility topic, but other supply chain waste issues are prevalent, including food waste, fast-fashion, consumer packaging, e-waste, etc.
Luckily, some people are taking a different approach, such as:
And smaller enterprises are developing creative solutions:
Ecovative Design: Creates biodegradable packaging and materials by feeding fungi (mycelium) organic byproducts like woodchips.
Mobius: Converts lignin, a paper byproduct, into a biodegradable plastic alternative.
Closing the loop turns waste to wealth. To me, that's good design and sensible business — operating within constraints — doing more with less. The circular economy looks to remove inefficiencies. It designs for re-use rather than planned obsolescence.
The supply chain is full of waste. It's also full of opportunity. If you can learn to see waste, then you can begin to see opportunities.
Here are a few ideas I'm exploring:
1. Growing mushrooms on organic byproducts and selling them wholesale to the myco-centric wellness industry
2. Creating custom-molded packaging for sustainable brands using Ecovative's MycoComposite technology
3. Develop a vintage, second-hand e-commerce marketplace that builds inventory by helping senior citizens de-clutter (or death cleaning as it's known in Sweden)
Theme 2: Back to the Land
During the '60s and '70s, thousands of Americans left the city to start lives in the country. Disenchanted with the Vietnam war, heartbroken by the MLK assassination, and weary of urbanization, young, (typically well-off) urban dwellers moved to rural America to seek an alternative lifestyle farming, ranching, and living off the land.
The back to the land movement originated in urban centers, like Boston, NYC, and LA, but grew to be nationwide. Broadly and idealistic, it focused on living simply and building a life supported by the land. Both independent and interdependent, it attracted young people from various walks of life.
Many "back to the landers" succeeded as farmers, while others, like Bernie Sanders, translated their experience into other careers. However, most "back-to-landers" returned home after discovering the grueling nature of farming. Running a farm is all-consuming. Most people just weren't cut out for it.
I believe we're on the verge of a second back to land movement — one that is less intensive, less political, and more flexible. My definition doesn't require complete self-sufficiency but instead focuses on a broader desire to reconnect with nature.
Here are the conditions I've observed that support this trend:
1. High levels of political dissatisfaction and turmoil similar to the Vietnam Era (especially among urban millennials)
2. Work is becoming increasingly technical, digital, and remote. Many knowledge workers are seeking tangible jobs as a reprieve from abstract technical work.
4. Residents of growing cities like Denver, Austin, Seattle, San Francisco are being priced out by rising rents
5. High-speed internet has penetrated much of the rural US. Internet connectivity and communities can substitute for the creative effect often cited as an urban byproduct.
I've seen a handful of organizations doing exciting things that can be grouped under this loose definition of going back to the land.
Hipcamp: Recently raised $25 million dollars to grow their land-sharing platform. This points to a growing demand for bucolic experiences.
Here are a few ideas I'm exploring:
1. Launch seasonal coworking or co-living retreats on farms or ranches that provide an opportunity for location-independent workers to learn hands-on skills such as gardening, composting, beekeeping, and raising chickens. I've seen examples in Portugal and France, but nothing yet in the US.
2. Create a boutique brand and marketing service focused on helping rural municipalities attract remote workers. Similar to Tulsa Remote or Vermont's Remote Worker Program, with a focus on brand, communication, and marketing rather than financial incentives.
Theme 3: Silence as a Service (SaaS)
It's good to be bored. In the absence of stimulation, our brain creates its own entertainment. It works through the backlog of ideas we absorb and finds insights and novel combinations. Our brain thrives in the quiet moments between stimulation. Like others, I often have my best ideas in the shower — the last frontier of distraction.
The relaxation app, Calm, recently raised 88 million dollars at a one-billion-dollar valuation. Take that in for a second. There is a billion-dollar company whose product is sitting still, breathing, and doing nothing. I realize meditation is more than that, but it also isn't.
There are hundreds of apps and self-help books focused on helping us reduce distractions and create quiet time, but sometimes the most effective option is to physically limit distractions.
Here are a few examples of companies that physically separate us from distractions and provide quiet:
Trip Tribe: A directory of meditation and yoga retreats around the world. Part of a much larger trend of wellness travel focused on helping people disconnect from the world and reconnect with themselves.
Unlike the first two themes, this theme is broad, ambiguous, and widely practiced. People have been meditating, camping, and going to spas decades. We've always had quiet, but now realize how much we need it. New businesses can design experiences for the market. Established companies can alter their communication to speak to this growing demographic.
Here is an idea I'm exploring:
Ironically, the experience many people are searching for, a total disconnection, can be created with little capital. Modular or Amish-built cabins can be built for less than 20K and moved to a remote piece of land. Yurts or canvas tents can provide asimilar experience. With the right branding and distribution, basic, off-grid cabins near urban centers could be very successful.