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The Journal

How Play Can Lead the Way to a Sustainable Future

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5 minute read

Try something with us: close your eyes and imagine yourself as a child stacking blocks higher and higher. Picture the tower teetering and collapsing. Undeterred, you start over, stacking the blocks a little higher before the same thing happens again. With each attempt, your structure gets a little bit taller until you finally get the base just right, the balance just so and manage to build a magnificent tower that brings a big smile to your face.


Circular Design + Play | IDEO

How would you describe what just happened? Was this work or play? While one may initially see this as play, a deeper exploration surfaces what could actually be seen as an ideal work scenario. The child you imagined was focused, driven, and resilient as they worked towards achieving their vision.

When play is observed in this way, we understand that play and work aren't opposites. In fact, work—when accompanied by a playful mindset—can be highly effective, even joyful. So, instead of shunning play when taking on hard work, how might we embrace it? How might we take on today's toughest challenges—like the climate crisis—through play?

IDEO’s Play Lab has spent 25 years not only designing toys and games, but also developing deep expertise in understanding how play can shift consumer behaviors, overcome organizational blockers and empower us to take action—three important lessons that can help us make significant strides in transitioning our world to a circular economy.


The single-use plastic bag is so ubiquitous yet comes with social and environmental costs. The Beyond the Bag Challenge set out to rethink it.

Play is key for: Driving consumer behavior change

Changing consumer habits in support of a circular model can be an admittedly big ask. We’ve become all too comfortable with a linear economy model where the most intuitive path is to simply throw an object away after use. Knowing this, how might we convince consumers to choose new climate-friendly behaviors that may not be as familiar, easy or cheap as what they’re currently doing?

Telling people “the world is burning!” might catch someone’s attention. However, research has shown that fear-inducing appeals can actually be counterproductive in the long run, as audiences become overwhelmed or desensitized. Rather than sparking action, many climate messages are stoking climate anxiety and contributing to a growing mental health crisis that prompts despair, not action.

Fear isn’t an effective motivator, but what about play? Can we use play to tap into feelings of joy, satisfaction, achievement, and community to achieve long-term behavior change? Growing scientific evidence is demonstrating the benefits of positive psychology in supporting pro-environmental practices.

According to Barbara Fredrickson’s “broaden and build” theory, positive emotions promote growth and build human capacity to learn and gain skills, as opposed to negative emotions, which tend to narrow one’s thinking. When we can align with what brings people joy, it’s easier to ignite passion, and passion is what helps people carry through on their promises—even if those promises require tough trade-offs.

We sought to drive environmentally-minded behavioral change through the Beyond the Bag Challenge, which was launched by the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag alongside the Managing Partner, Closed Loop Partners, and Founding Partners CVS Health, Target and Walmart. In reinventing the retail bag, we asked innovators to rethink the way consumers transport goods from store to home. It’s a mountain of a problem, both literally and figuratively, and replacing a wildly optimized plastic bag is no easy feat.

The nine challenge winners developed solutions ranging from a returnable system to a tag-and-app system that allows consumers to track environmental impact and earn rewards via the reusable bags they already own. Each of these solutions requires new behaviors, and aspects of play were leveraged to drive long-term engagement with the bag services.

For instance, customers could earn points for reusing bags and returning bags. We tested various ratios of points-to-reward to determine how we might motivate the desired behavior, while remaining financially sustainable. We had to determine what rewards (like being able to redeem points for coupons or carbon offsets) most resonated and what points system was easiest to understand, with a clear correlation between action and reward. Moreso, the reward system had to act as direct feedback for customers to see how their behaviors were aligning with intrinsic goals and feelings of pride and identity, versus falling into the all-too-common gamification trap of only serving up extrinsic rewards, which can often stop short of driving long-term motivation. Unless this system was designed with care, customers would lose trust and revert back to previous behaviors.

In addition to a thoughtful rewards system, we used narrative to align the program’s principles with customers’ personal values, reinforcing intrinsic motivation to encourage sustained behavior over time. A cohesive narrative can serve as a valuable frame of reference, validating the customer’s actions and reinforcing their decision to participate in a reuse program. With environmental efforts, customers often ask “why bother?” To answer this question, we discovered an opportunity to offer meaningful statistics in a way that feels relevant, human and tangible—for example, “If you commit to ditching the single use habit, you can save 72 plastic bags this year. If every adult in the US did the same, that would be a CO2 offset equivalent to shutting down a coal power plant for 7 years.”

IDEO and Mattel joined forces to offer a series of Circular Economy Workshops that gave Mattel designers new ways to think about future possibilities.


Play is key for: Overcoming organizational blockers

The transition to being a more sustainably minded organization is not an easy one. As a manufacturing company, how do you convince your employees to buy into a circular economy, change work processes and contribute to new climate goals? How does the lone sustainability expert transform an organization that desperately clings to existing processes, even while facing pressure from impending government regulations and changing customer sentiment? It can be truly daunting to have built your business selling goods and now realize that the rules of the game have changed to require you to extract fewer resources from the Earth and produce less waste.

It’s natural to feel stuck. When faced with constraints of cost, optimized tooling and processes, existing manufacturing and transport partners, as well as consumer expectations for a rotating assortment of fresh, new products, how can one even think about doing anything that might upset this perfectly balanced machine?

Rather than be paralyzed by these constraints and the need to get it right from the start, adopting a playful mindset can help an organization reframe the move to a circular economy as an opportunity for innovation—a chance to try creative new approaches and processes that haven’t been evolved for decades.

When Pam Alabaster, Mattel’s Head of Global Sustainability, joined forces with IDEO to develop a series of Circular Economy Workshops for the company, she came to us with an inspiring mantra of “Progress, not Perfection.” Through play, we could introduce circular design principles while creating a protected space insulated from real-world stakes, so that participants could temporarily put aside the constraints of their jobs, challenge assumptions and dream of new possibilities.

By imagining how they might battle the “villains” of a linear economy—like the Monstrous Hybrid, with multiple materials fused together, or Packagus Maximus, who is surrounded in excess packaging—designers from various departments at Mattel had permission to step out of long-held boundaries and experiment, while removing the heavy mantle of "this is overwhelming and impossible."

“Through education and a common understanding across the organization of what we can do together, we’re equipping our amazing group of talented and passionate people with the tools they need to not stand on the sidelines but be part of this transition and help move us forward,” says Alabaster.

Indeed, in polling the designers at the beginning and end of the workshops, we saw them grow increasingly confident in their company’s ability to achieve its sustainability goals. Many people entered feeling uncertain about what a more sustainable path might look like but left with practical tools and a mindset that made it seem possible.


The quest to identify promising reusable and single-use fiber cup solutions was a multi-step process that incorporated play.

Play is key for: Piloting and prototyping sustainable solutions quickly

When considering climate action there are many good intentions but there’s not always a lot of forward movement advancing solutions. Because the consequences of our actions don’t feel immediate, it can be easy to spend more time talking and strategizing than diving in to implement plans to see what might actually work.

Play, on the other hand, is active. This is obvious when you watch kids play. Rather than sit and read the directions, they’d much rather dive in and just start experimenting to see how a new toy might work. Often, because of this, they find ways to interact with products that the product’s designers never even imagined.

In Tom Wujec’s Spaghetti/Marshmallow Tower experiment, kindergarteners regularly outperform CEOs and recent business school grads because, when asked to build the tallest possible tower with the given supplies, the kindergarteners bias towards action, trying different configurations and iterating with each lesson learned. Younger children don’t stop to wonder what’s possible—or worse, what isn’t possible. They simply jump in and try. For them, failures aren’t seen as obstacles; they’re learning opportunities to fail fast and succeed sooner.

IDEO partnered with the NextGen Consortium, convened by Closed Loop Partners, to explore the question: “How might we design the next generation fiber cup to be recoverable on a global scale, while maintaining the performance standards we know and trust?” Tackling it meant creating innovation at a systems level and considering the entire cup ecosystem: brands, suppliers, municipalities, materials recovery facilities and mills, the general public, and more.

There’s the cup itself, and there’s also the way it’s used: changing how customers order, how baristas select and serve the cup, how customers dispose of or return the cup, and how the cup is washed or thrown out. The sheer scale can feel so big as to be immovable. Adopting a mindset of play helped us get moving quickly.

The NextGen Pilot Readiness Program was a series of live, in-market pilots in the San Francisco Bay Area to further test and refine promising reusable and single-use solutions in local cafes. As compared to a traditional retail pilot, we weren’t trying to validate the solutions but rather identify challenges and test solutions around those.

On the very first day, we engaged in role play activities to work out how the cashier would engage with the customer about the service. Every time we played through it, participants’ explanations of the service became clearer, and it became obvious how we could change the order of operations to run smoothly. It allowed us to arrive at a script we had confidence in sharing with the cashiers in the field.

This process is representative of our approach: start on a smaller scale in an environment with limited risk. From there, gather feedback to iterate, experiment and test. By prototyping not just at the end but throughout the process, we come to see how elements of the solution can readily be re-evaluated and evolved. When it comes to prototypes, very little is sacred. This is an opportunity to push wide, experiment, and learn in service of surfacing new ideas and approaches.

In the course of role playing, one of the participants told us they felt a little silly engaging in this way. The comment was unsurprising. As adults, we often regard play as fun and lighthearted, as something extracurricular to our working lives. We don’t always see the connection between play and progress, but it’s there. There may have been elements that felt a little silly in role play (we actually believe that laughter throughout the creative process is an indicator that it’s going well!), but this was also a very concrete first step. It started an important conversation, underpinned with excitement about innovation and problem solving.

These are the kinds of conversations that companies and organizations need to be having if we are to move the needle with sustainable solutions. Sustainability sounds good to just about everyone, but the process of getting there may be fraught with challenges. In order to overcome obstacles and change behaviors for a broad audience, we have to make sustainability feel good, and we have to make it easier to get started. Play can help get us there.


- A collaborative piece by IDEO Play Lab with special thanks to Takashi Wickes, Matt Callahan, Matt Hovde, Keren Wong and Michelle Lee

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