The ‘churning of the cosmic ocean’ framework for impact-driven category design
Every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction — Newton’s third law
When I was a kid my parents used to tell me this story that existed in Hindu philosophy. Loosely translated it was called churning of the milky ocean. And it goes something like this. The angels and demons discovered that if the cosmic/milky ocean is churned the elixir for immortality would be found. But how can you churn an ocean? They used Mountain Meru as a churning stick and the snake Vasuki as the rope. The demons held the head and the angels held the tail. Soon the elixir was starting to reveal itself. But the tired snake Vasuki vomited out her venom. The elixir was about to be contaminated, and Shiva swallowed the poison whole. Eventually, after many battles, the angels claimed the elixir for themselves.
As a child, it was just a bedtime story. But as an adult, I started to understand the allegory in the story. Our life is the cosmic ocean and as we churn through it fighting our demons, we are responsible for both the good and bad that emerge from it. We cannot simply hope to only partake in the good and leave the consequences of our actions to someone else.
Let’s turn this story into a framework for impact-driven category design.
The Ocean — Your category
The Mountain — Your purpose and impact
The snake — Your passion and desires
The poison — the negative consequences of your actions/category
The elixir — Success
The angels and demons — You
Functional category creators design categories without taking into consideration the negative consequences/repercussions of their categories. They go on to enjoy the elixir of the category leaving the poison behind. The poison then becomes society’s problem. Case and point — Meta/Facebook.
But, impact-driven category creators understand that designing for impact means designing for both the good and the bad. Merely by existing we all inadvertently contribute something negative towards the planet. Categories are the same. Recently Patagonia said something that was very telling about how they have designed the company for impact.
“For businesses ourselves, the first step must be taking a long hard look in the mirror. The private sector faces a massive — and understandable — trust deficit on the back of widespread greenwashing, spin, and straight out lying. Therefore, we must get a clear picture of our impact and use this to open honest conversations. At Patagonia, we don’t use the word “sustainable.” Why? Because we recognize we are part of the problem.” Source — https://fortune.com/2021/11/02/patagonia-doesnt-use-the-word-sustainable-cop26/
So what does this mean? Can category-leading companies not be for-profit entities? Are they doomed to fail even before they start? No. The problem is one of mindset. We approach profit with an all-or-nothing mentality. Either we can have a profit or we can look after the planet. WE never stopped long enough to develop categories where profit and impact — both good and bad can coexist. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Impact-driven category designers know this and design their categories to fall within certain markers. They are honest about the shortcomings of the category. But they continuously strive to minimize the negative impact of their categories.
A few months ago three billionaires on a space race, captured the attention of the world. There was much debate on whether it was really necessary or not. But the debate we should have been having is — why wasn’t it designed for impact? The World Inequality Report noted that “an 11-minute flight emits no fewer than 75 tonnes of carbon per passenger once indirect emissions are taken into account (and more likely, in the 250–1,000 tonnes range).”
To put this into context a wealthy billionaire’s 11-minute space flight will emit much carbon into the atmosphere as a person living at the bottom of the pyramid will emit over a lifetime.
It is in our DNA to innovate, to explore the unknown. We are born with a natural curiosity that needs to be satisfied. But in doing so we need to put our innovation within the “churning of the cosmic ocean” framework. Are we designing the category only to partake in its success — money, power, fame, etc and leave the “poison” for society to deal with?
Or are we taking responsibility for the bad and sharing the good? Going back to the original story, the reason the angels obtained the elixir is that Shiva took responsibility for the consequences — he swallowed the poison. The demons tried to leave the poison as is and steal the elixir for themselves.
Wealth is neither good nor bad. But when the wealthy can use wealth to not face the consequences of their action, then we create a ripple effect that will impact the very survival of our species.
But by designing impact-driven categories and designing for both the good and the bad we create an ecosystem of accountability, shared wealth, shared purpose, and shared values. Impact-driven categories are designed to avoid extremes — extreme wealth, extreme pollution, extreme poverty, and extreme inequality.
Will leave you with this telling graph.