Rui Peng is a social entrepreneur, a designer and a man with a big mission. The question that guides his work and life is: ‘How can I align my deepest desire with the world’s deepest need?’ As a young designer based in the low socioeconomic neighbourhood of Mt Roskill, he is searching for the “sweet spot” where his talents can be directed towards assisting his neighbours to gain the skills and resources they need to determine their own futures. Right now, he’s working through the immense challenges that come with making the dream of the social entrepreneur a reality.
“One of the deep needs in our community,” says Rui, “is lack of employment. And my deepest joy is to make something from nothing, the ability to design, be imaginative and solve problems.” Combining these two aspects of his life Rui explains “anchors me in a deeper purpose, but doesn’t neglect how I am wired.”
Rui has always felt a tension between the pressures to become financially successful and his empathetic desire to be contributing towards social change and the greater good. Marrying the two is a struggle that continues to this day. As a child of Chinese immigrants who took great risk and sacrifice to move to New Zealand to provide Rui with opportunity, there was an obvious pressure at home that he sought success. “My parents grew up partly through cultural revolution in china, they went through a famine, through poverty and learned at a young age that in order to be happy you have to have opportunity, you have to have money, work hard and be the best at what you do.”
This dominant rhetoric around the ‘self-made man’ was also omnipresent outside the home, written into the values taught at school and university where he studied architecture. “At university personal success is massive, and the image for the greater good wasn’t valued. It was a lonely and hard environment for me.”
It was not until Rui moved to Mt Roskill and established himself in a sense of community that he began to be able to see a pathway where his career and his social mission could align. When he first moved, Rui lived in a five bedroom flat with four flatmates and two extra rooms that they opened up to young people in need of emergency housing or people experiencing mental illness needing respite from the world - those people that are often so lost they don’t know where to find help anymore.
“There was a group of us that realised our privilege,” explains Rui. “We’re not going to care about issues of social justice unless we make those problems our problems by making these people part of our lives. How do we deeply understand the needs of our communities? Not to solve it or be a charity but personally open our lives so they become our friends, our teachers, and our partners in creating change.”
It was from this place that Rui and his business partner Andy Crowe established their social enterprise, Critical in 2014. They hold one of those big, hairy ambitious goals where good business practice and social change are so intertwined that one cannot move forward without the other. “Our vision is that we want to see communities, single mums, 16 year old dropouts, refugee communities be able to have control and to determine their future and the future for the rest of us. We want to see communities in material hardship be able to self-determine their own future.”
Mt Roskill, Rui explains is one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the world, it is also one of the poorest neighbourhoods in New Zealand. For young people there is often a sense of having no control of their futures and with 24.5% not in education, training or employment, it is easy to see how this could be the case. So Critical have focused their starting place in all their projects with young people.
In their most recent ambitious undertaking, Critical was approached by Fonterra to assist in finding ways that they could divert their non-recyclable life-proof milk bottles into something more sustainable. Rui and Andy set up their design lab at Wesley Intermediate School where the plastics became integrated into the school’s design technology curriculum.
Using design methodologies they taught the young kids how to see a problem (waste going into our seas), how to design a solution to create value from the waste plastic, and then once through the design process how to make the products themselves. The kids learned about working collaboratively, how to listen the different perspectives in the room therefore becoming aware of their assumptions and learning to see value in other people’s ideas. Rui says that this process ultimately will “foster the entrepreneurial spirit and enable lifelong skills, develop career pathways and leadership capacity for your people who would otherwise be failed by the system.”
The resulting design was beautiful furniture that could be upsold - transforming plastic from a one-use waste product into something useful that can last a lifetime. Make Plastic Beautiful turned the bottles into sheets that could be “milled, cut, and transformed into bespoke furniture pieces.” Once they had the business off the ground they would be able to employ locals and train up designers. They were on the brink of bringing on board a single dad from their community who was struggling to find employment.
Until, they were faced with a significant roadblock: financial viability.
Although pleased with the waste-plastic prototypes that Critical had created, Fonterra was unable to support the project any further. Undeterred, they tried to do it alone.
“We thought we could take the plastics and grow it as a business by ourselves, transforming waste to value. We tried really hard to make it work. We thought that we could see how plastic material would sell. We developed them. Took them to different markets. Everyone was really positive. The products looked great. But no one buys it in the end because furniture is a saturated market and to compete in that space is challenging. Although recycling is favoured, furniture just wasn’t something that people need on a regular basis. In the end to achieve scale we needed $80,000 that we didn’t have.”
So, they have had to return to the drawing board.
Resilient in spirit, Rui views each failed experiment as an essential step on the road to fulfilling their mission. These guys are masters of the design process after all. Whenever they reach a roadblock that they can’t pass, Rui says that they take learnings from that mistake and then look at what they can do differently. “We hold Critical at a distance,” he explains, “as personal as it is to our own journeys, it’s something that is detached from us which means we can look at it critically.”
Now, he says, they have had to refocus their time and energy into what they do best - finding solutions to other people’s challenges. They are in the process of building Critical into “New Zealand’s premiere circular design lab and work with organisations to develop services, products, flagship initiatives for environmental and social impact.” They will work with five companies initially and offer circular design lab services which will help grow the capital they need to build a sustainable business. Starting with a team of three, they are going to trial a service based model. If that works, then and only then, will they find the young people in need of opportunities.
“We’ve learned that there’s two customers that you're creating value for,” explains Rui. “One is the person who pays you for your work; you have to produce a really good service or product that serves them well. The second is the individuals for whom your vision has called you to create this social enterprise in the first place. Our focus for the next six months to a year is to establish a really good business and be self-sustaining. Creating this and doing it really well will give us breathing space to bring on the people in our community we want to create value for, and to be able to pay them so we can scaffold them into growing leaders We already have the trust and credibility in our community. We’ll never have trouble finding the person who needs that opportunity.”