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Designing for a sustainable future

4 September, 2013

Flemmich Webb asks if emotionally durable design can create a deeper, more sustainable bond between people and products.

 

In the developed world, we live in a throw-away society with a global production system that’s riddled with inefficiency and waste. Most of us are guilty at one time or another of chucking out or recycling often relatively new products that look “tired” or that have become unfashionable or that are simply not “new enough” any more. We live in a world in which new is desirable and out of date is disposable, a society in which most business models are geared towards selling as much product as often as possible. After all, shareholders want their returns.

 

But what if a product developed as it aged, improved over time? Would we throw it away so readily then?

 

Imagine a teacup, say, that as it gets older develops a pattern in the glaze that has been designed to appear as it becomes increasingly stained or trainers that, as they age, fade to reveal a previously invisible pattern. These are not just concepts: University of Brighton students in the United Kingdom have created both these products to explore the concept of “emotionally durable” design — design that creates a deeper bond between people and products, extending their “use-career”.

 

“Say you have a product that lasts on average 12 months; if you can extend that use-career to 18 months through emotionally durable design, you have bought about a 50% reduction in waste consumption in all the materials and energy and systems associated with that product,” says Jonathan Chapman, professor of sustainable design at the University of Brighton, who developed the emotionally durable design concept. Professor Chapman advises a number of global businesses on how they can make their products and services more sustainable — environmentally, socially and financially.

 

“Companies are thinking, ‘How can we get customers to shop with us more regularly?’” he says. “The idea is to use product and brand as talking points; the product is a conversation piece that creates a lasting connection between the business and its customers and, ultimately, increases loyalty to the brand and drives sales.”

 

Wandular, a mobile phone concept based on emotionally durable design, was created to explore this connection — to see how technology might help people lead more sustainable lives. Part of Futurescapes, a co-creation partnership between Sony and others, including Forum for the Future, Superflux and Engage by Design, Wandular is a modular phone, up-datable through hardware add-ons that change its appearance and cloud-based software upgrades that keep its functionality up to date.

 

“As a result, the narrative experience of Wandular unfolds over a rewarding period of years and is unique to individual user,” runs the marketing blurb. In other words, it looks and performs better for longer, extending the amount of time before the owner replaces it.

 

At the moment, Wandular is just a prototype but its very creation proves that emotionally durable qualities can be integrated into a mainstream commercial product.

 

Of course, the obvious question is will products designed with emotional durability sell in the marketplace on a scale that will have a meaningful impact on resource use and waste reduction? That’s going to depend on consumer attitudes and the quality of the products — and therefore the skill of advertisers and marketeers in convincing consumers that these types of products are as, if not more, desirable than their traditional competitors.

 

Emotional durability is one of a number of sustainable design approaches; others include cradle-to-cradle design and energy efficiency. When you consider that, on average, an estimated 80% of the environmental impact of a product is embedded at the design stage, it’s clear that sustainable design is an important mechanism for reducing the impacts of consumption.

 

“Design priorities are different for individual categories and products,” says Chris Sherwin, head of sustainability at Seymourpowell. “For electronics, improving durability or recyclability is essential; for something like a kettle, it’s about increasing energy efficiency; for other products, such as ‘smart’ thermostats that ‘learn’ a resident’s living patterns and adjust room temperatures accordingly, thereby saving energy, it’s about how the design can make consumer behaviour more efficient.”

 

This applies to new business models, too. Already customers are getting used to not owning physical goods — books are now digital, you can rent access to music, films, and cars, for example. If people do own hardware, its functionality can often be upgraded via software updates, meaning they need to replace it less often.

 

Within this paradigm, brand identity and relationships with consumers become even more important. A 2011 Euro RSCG survey of 18-25 year olds found that 56% of those questioned believed it was important to find brands to which they could be loyal, and that those brands reflected their values and boosted their social status.

 

“Companies are going to have to meet customers’ demands and needs with different business models and (in some cases) service-based systems,” says Fiona Bennie, head of sustainability at design agency, Dragon Rouge. “This requires them to think about how different the world is going to be in 20 years time, then trial and transition to alternative business models. If they don’t, it’s increasingly likely a clever start up will.”

 

“It will be interesting to see how many of the big incumbent brands will be around in the future — given the current lack of sustainable innovation, I’d bet on lots of them not surviving.”

 

An indication of the extent of the changes companies may have to make to survive is demonstrated by Dragon Rouge’s Brand Futures project, published in 2012, which considers how some of today’s well-known brands might have evolved by 2030.

 

In its projections, mining company Rio Tinto is a global leader in sourcing, grading, re-purposing and processing the world’s used metals, plastics and minerals, mining discarded materials from landfill sites; easyJet has become Europe’s premier high-speed rail company; and Argos leases its products to consumers instead of selling them, and provides an ongoing repair service.

 

These may seem far-fetched but some in the design community think changes of this magnitude are essential if businesses are to succeed in a world where raw materials will cost more, and in which today’s rampant consumerism and related business models may not be possible.

 

Could changes this seismic occur? “The only way that things will change is by designers and businesses being bold and creating successful examples of popular sustainable products and services that make a profit,” says Professor Chapman. “They need to lead by example.”

 

Perhaps that old pair of trainers doesn’t need replacing just yet.

 

Original article

Source: Making It, 30/08/2013