Tony Fadell: Want to Design for a Sustainable Future? Think Different

March 6, 2019, 6:17 AM UTC

The man who helped invent the iPod and iPhone and co-founded the smart home company Nest was traveling around the world with his family and kept seeing the same problem: trash.

It was everywhere. Seas of garbage scattered across Southeast Asia, in his face every day.

“You see the trash. You see what global corporations do,” said Tony Fadell, now the Paris-based principal at advisory firm Future Shape. In Southeast Asia, he added, trash is not recycled, but burned or buried.

“As designers, we designed this world,” Fadell told attendees Wednesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore. “We created this. We need to think much more broadly about where this stuff is coming from … and where it goes. Because we’re the only ones who are going to get us out of this.”

“We’ve got a real problem,” he added drily.

Fadell’s observation reminded him of when he co-founded Nest, now owned by Google. The same trend applied then: “Everybody had the same energy and control problems and everybody had the same products and they hadn’t evolved,” he said. Getting out into the world beyond Cupertino, Calif., where Apple is headquartered, helped him see that the problems of people in different communities were surprisingly common.

“As a designer and an investor, you have to think very differently and locally when you come and work with people,” he said. “It stretches your brain in the best way.”

There’s a lesson there for designers, Fadell said.

“I don’t think we’re going to have this homogeneity” in terms of design solutions, he said. “We have to have that diversity. Because that’s what actually drives us to innovations.”

Solving the problem of the world’s garbage—the literal product of thinking in a linear way, rather than a circular one, about the things we create—is equally as challenging. But it’s worth pursuing, Fadell said.

“You need business leaders to say, ‘This is important for the health of our customers,'” he said. “If we’re not doing this, we’re not going to have a planet.”

One way Fadell is doing his part is through his advisory and investment firm Future Shape. The company is “really about helping entrepreneurs who are doing really hard problems [and] hard technologies that we want to bring out of the lab and into your life,” he told interviewer and Fortune Asia editor Clay Chandler.

The firm takes a long view, Fadell said. It’s interested in the kinds of developments that could “dramatically change the way you live.” And it wants to incentivize that process in a way that’s different than a conventional investment firm.

We tell them: We give you money to hire us to help you,” Fadell said. That might mean improving communications, or engaging in product development, or establishing market fit. “Most of the time, they’re trapped in the lab,” he said of his target entrepreneurs, and they can’t meaningfully explain to the world what they’re working on.

“It’s about helping them communicate and find the networks,” Fadell said. “We’re not angel [investors] with a little check. We’re literally large checks—but we’re involved.”

It’s going to take novel approaches to solve big problems like the world’s trash. It’s going to take patience, too.

“Silicon Valley didn’t happen because everybody was getting three year returns,” Fadell said. “We have to go back to these long plays. But these plays are 100X, 500X kind of returns.”

And it requires a new mindset, he added, making an inadvertent reference to his famous former employer.

“We have to think differently,” Fadell said. “And the designers have to push it.”

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.