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  • David de Rothschild: Design Thinking for Planet 2.0

Published 25 July 2011

David de Rothschild is a man on a mission. Whether he’s trekking across the Arctic Circle, exploring the Amazon rainforest, sailing a boat made out of plastic bottles across the Pacific, or running his creative communications agency, this man is on a constant quest to deliver a message: the environment matters.

David de Rothschild: Planet 2.0

Having stepped out from the historical shadows of his influential dynastic banking family, this British-born, LA-based entrepreneur has carved out his own career path as a creative campaigner for the planet.

However, there’ll be no browbeating on his watch. De Rothschild doesn’t communicate through activism, protest or fear-mongering, but through storytelling, design and technology. This is the environmental movement in the 21st century, and he talks enthusiastically about the difference between Planet 1.0-thinking, and Planet 2.0-thinking.

“If you look at the green message from day one, it's often been wordy in places. It's often been quite exclusive, not very accessible, and it hasn't been very uplifting. It's been like: ‘The planet's f***ed: you are a bad person. Do you want to join my group?'.”

If you look at the green message from day one, it's often been wordy in places. It's often been quite exclusive, not very accessible, and it hasn't been very uplifting. It's been like: ‘The planet's f***ed: you are a bad person. Do you want to join my group?'.

David de Rothschild

Adventures in Creative Marketing

The key motivation for de Rothschild is engaging people in issues that matter by turning all that old-school negativity into positive action.

With a background in brand development for the music industry, and having studied computer science and politics at university, de Rothschild went straight into developing web shops and brand identities for huge music artists such as Bob Marley, U2, Björk and Massive Attack. But, rather surprisingly, it was Britney Spears who really got him questioning how he could put effective marketing strategies to better use.

“How can we sell Britney Spears as someone with substance and gravitas when she has very little substance, if any at all?” he thought. “How is Britney so inspirational, but your environment isn't, when the environment has the most substance of any of our assets?”

 How is Britney so inspirational, but your environment isn't, when the environment has the most substance of any of our assets?

Rothschild

The Power of Storytelling

This extraordinary disparity between the huge attention and devotion given to celebrity culture and the very little given to preserving the health of our planet pushed de Rothschild to create Myoo (pronounced Me-You). This recently launched environmental storytelling platform is more on a par with a dynamic communications agency than a traditional campaigning non-profit organisation, because de Rothschild has seen how difficult it has been for the green movement to gain traction in mainstream media.

“Visualising these issues is really important because you’re talking, for the most part, about stuff that's incredibly abstract. You’re talking about CO2 in our atmosphere. What does it taste like? What does it smell like? What does it look like? It's invisible, it's odourless, it’s tasteless.”

The Myoo website describes its mission as: “Bringing people together to protect the planet while, believe it or not, having fun. We believe that smart people working together can do incredible things. That’s why we created Myoo.com, an online home for fresh and compelling content that’s geared towards kick-starting a smarter 2.0 way of living.”

De Rothschild’s belief in people power is such that the rebranding and expansion of his expedition organisation Adventure Ecology as Myoo is based on the concept of community – or, as he phonetically spells it, “kuh-Myoo-ni-tee”.

Visualising these issues is really important because you’re talking, for the most part, about stuff that's incredibly abstract. You’re talking about CO2 in our atmosphere. What does it taste like? What does it smell like? What does it look like? It's invisible, it's odourless, it’s tasteless.

Rothschild

Chief Curiosity Officer

Myoo is a strategic way of building a following, by crowd-sourcing design solutions and collecting inspiring stories to motivate others. To build momentum, de Rothschild has cleverly put the currency of celebrity culture to good use by recruiting a number of glamorous and well-respected names in a variety of professional fields as contributors to the site. With the support of British adventurer Bruce Parry, supermodel Helena Christensen, American artist Jonathan Harris and Australian industrial designer Marc Newson, among others, de Rothschild hopes he will achieve what he calls “the sort of depth, excitement and stickiness that people want nowadays.”

Myoo has various divisions to support all of de Rothschild’s projects. There is Myoo Explore, Myoo Agency and the soon-to-be-launched community area, Myoo Connect. De Rothschild himself has the enviable job title of chief curiosity officer. He describes his role loosely as being creative director and chief executive officer. “I see myself always flowing across all divisions creatively,” he says. “We’re a small team, so we wear lots of hats. I call it a cloud company. This helps us to source the right talent for the right job while staying nimble.”

He also considers the work of Myoo Agency to be a direct result of the creative approach he applied to his Adventure Ecology expeditions. Clients are approaching Myoo to tap into de Rothschild’s communication skills, having seen the kudos he built up with the success of the Plastiki project. He is looking to build what he calls “integrated partnerships”, helping brands bring creative substance to their sustainability messaging.

Saving Millions of Litres of Water

Myoo Agency’s ongoing work with denim giant Levi’s on its Water<less campaign which started in late 2010 is a good example of brand partnership. De Rothschild and his team acted as consultants on the project to communicate Levi’s radical reduction of water use in the making of its jeans.

Myoo commissioned artists and filmmakers to produce illustrations, animations and even a creative public demonstration in New York on World Water Day (March 22 2011). “More than 100 people laden with bright blue water canisters marched through the city to symbolise the average 3.7-mile walk that millions of people in developing countries undertake to collect water each day,” he says.

Myoo’s content is bright, bold, and full of beautiful images, while not being afraid of using a fun-loving, irreverent tone. Its current video campaign series, Caught in the Act, features amorous animals going at it in public with the slogan: ‘Make Love Not Climate Change’.

Evolving Designs for Life

In contrast to the old, dreary, and literally hopeless environmental communications of yesteryear, de Rothschild’s revamped 2.0 model is turbo-charged with action – not only on the communications side, but also in material solutions. He says that we need to evolve our designs for life by “designing solutions through material innovation, reflectively taking Planet 1.0 products that were designed with an excessive mindset – cheap fuels, infinite resources, vast horizons, places called ‘away’ – and reverse that methodology”. 

Challenging and changing the current model of the way our world works is a fundamental process for de Rothschild, who sees it as his duty to highlight wasteful, polluting, destructive systems through his projects. He is aware of his media image as a member of the social and financial elite, but he has purposefully played down the perception that he indulges his family fortune in whimsical adventures dressed up as environmental messages. With the Plastiki, he carefully sought to send a solid message.

"I think one of the things that was missed in the media soundbite side of things is that a lot of people just saw this as some sort of environmental stunt to try and gather attention to this issue, but didn't look at it as an innovative platform for designing solutions for the future."

I think one of the things that was missed in the media soundbite side of things is that a lot of people just saw this as some sort of environmental stunt to try and gather attention to this issue, but didn't look at it as an innovative platform for designing solutions for the future.

Rothschild

A New Level of Material Innovation

Currently, de Rothschild, with his materials innovation lab Level 2, has more than 70 patents pending for new applications for Seretex – the upcycled plastic material that was developed to build the Plastiki boat. He is excited about the potential for this new material and the value that it brings to the waste industry. “It changes the story we tell ourselves about plastic,” he says. “Recycling has often been like-for-like or a downcycling process. We need to make sure we're not taking waste and making more crap. Let’s focus on producing stuff that is going to go up the production cycle.”

In Seretex, which is made from recycled PET, de Rothschild sees a future where we move away from recycling like-for-like, or downcycling and disposing, to a new system where material innovation allows high-value products to be made from low-value waste. “So a bottle becomes a wind tail line, a roofing tile, a surfboard fin, or a container for shipping goods around the world,” he explains.

We need to make sure we're not taking waste and making more crap. Let’s focus on producing stuff that is going to go up the production cycle.

Rothschild

Our goal is, obviously, not to just hoard patents and sit on them. We really need to look at an open-source licensing model – similar to something like the Green Exchange, which Nike set up – so people could actually take on these materials and use them for socially and environmentally positive outcomes. This would be an amazing and unexpected legacy for Plastiki.

Rothschild

Recognising Market Opportunity

The value proposition for material innovation is clearly set out on Seretex.com with the following statistics: “Twenty-five billion PET drink bottles were consumed in North America last year. The raw material for those bottles is worth over $2 billion, and less than 20% was recycled.” De Rothschild describes the results of such an open design opportunity as an “unfolding innovation race” for closed-loop manufacturing, where materials are transformed into endlessly reusable resources. Most importantly, he wants everyone to join him in moving away from linear production models.

"Our goal is, obviously, not to just hoard patents and sit on them. We really need to look at an open-source licensing model – similar to something like the Green Exchange, which Nike set up – so people could actually take on these materials and use them for socially and environmentally positive outcomes. This would be an amazing and unexpected legacy for Plastiki."

Embracing the Competitive Spirit

With the success of the Plastiki project, the recent launch of Myoo, and another challenging expedition in the pipeline, de Rothschild has cemented his status as one of the most ambitiously creative minds working in the environmental sector today. He passionately believes that design and creativity are the tools we need to turn apathy into action.

The key to his success is his ability to see market opportunities in sustainable design and innovation, while being savvy about keeping pace with the mainstream in order to keep delivering his message effectively. Planet 2.0-thinking has to be competitive with the still-dominant Planet 1.0 media culture.

"Whether you like it or not, we are part of that consumption advertising model throwing imagery at us,” he says. “Everything is instant purchase, instant coffee, tactile, touch, taste, smell. It's bigger, faster, stronger. Then we compete with that by giving someone a PDF full of scientific jargon? Forget it – that’s never going to win.

"We must use the same mediums – visual mediums, design mediums, storytelling mediums. We have to market nature as the most valuable and important resource we have to protect."

We must use the same mediums – visual mediums, design mediums, storytelling mediums. We have to market nature as the most valuable and important resource we have to protect.

Rothschild