Sustainable industrial design – for the throwaway society

(Originally published on Medium)

Sustainable industrial design – for the throwaway society

How not understanding the products we use helps trash heaps to grow

When I began studying industrial design in 2008, I thought that, over the course of my studies, I would create nice prototypes which I could then keep and use myself. Although this has sometimes been the case for simpler products, usually the slick, final design was intended for industrial mass production and required advanced manufacturing methods like injection molding to produce. This is unsurprising, as I came to learn during my studies that industrial design is predominantly understood to be the practice of determining form and function of a product that shall be made by repeated, automated replication — the very opposite of crafting one-off items.

The raging success of this profession was born in the industrial revolution. This paradigm shift in social and material culture ultimately framed the emergence of industrial design as a profession: When manufacturing is automated, someone needs to make a plan, a design of what shall be the outcome of production.

Over the past century replacement of manual labour with machines has made life easier and high quality physical goods have become widely accessible, but it ultimately alienated us from the products we use. Not only manufacturing was automated, but also our products perform tasks automatically. Today it is not a requirement to understand how a device actually functions to make it do the desired task. On the push of a button your washing machine starts to perform a sequence of actions in a pre-programmed order and your phone can recognize a face in a photo and instantly make it look like it belonged to a panda bear. We do not need to know what the electric components inside our machines do, how our phone chargers convert energy from the electric grid to harmless low voltages or how this energy is distributed to our wall outlets to begin with. Thanks to automation, engineering and design we have become passive consumers.

Companies usually have no direct incentive to create products that are designed so that the user may understand their inner workings. However, if we do not know what is happening, this also leaves us puzzled what to do with the device when it fails or becomes obsolete.

Consumers are presented with a finished product that helps them do certain pre-determined things — a shiny surface that covers an inaccessible mystery of technology. After some time we decide to put it out of use and the reasons for this can be varied: For example the product might have stopped working or have decreased in performance. Probably we desire an improved version of it or a product that addresses our needs better. Perhaps it became obsolete due to new technological standards (who sent a fax lately?) or we might start to question its reliability when it begins to show signs of wear. Sometimes we are just unhappy with its outdated aesthetics, when it starts to feel old and so on. In many cases the product or at least parts of it can potentially still serve a purpose, but it no longer holds any immediate value to the owner, who will eventually find a way to dispose of it.

Buy, use and dispose is what the consumer is supposed to do. The most obvious issue with our increasingly excessive consumption within this linear economy is two-fold: a decreasing amount of finite resources on the one hand and an ever-growing amount of waste on the other. Despite a growing public debate, the linear paradigm of manufacturers who provide disposable goods to passive consumers has thrived and developed on a globalised scale. If not the driving force, designers have surely been complicit to this system.

It is true that the shift from an agricultural society towards an industrial one has raised our living standards. When the world seemed still plentiful of natural resources and waste was not a big issue yet, promoting consumption and disposal to fuel the economy even appeared to be a good strategy and it cannot be denied that it has achieved its goals, but it also becomes more and more evident that it has serious flaws when applied permanently.

As a result we face global issues that need to be solved collaboratively by mankind as a community, while they have been created by a competitive economic system of national industries and companies rivaling each other for market shares.

So if we assume that linear production and over-consumption led to this situation and it is up to us as a community to solve the problem, where do we start?

Well, the good news is that first steps have already been taken to spread information and raise awareness and we can see how people who wish for a change start networking and form initiatives. Nowadays this is formally easier than ever before, as social media makes it possible to form communities of common interest instead of common location. And there is more to this dynamic nature of Web 2.0 that could potentially show us new ways to change the current one-sided relationship between producers and passive consumers. Classic media such as TV and newspapers employed relatively few ‘content creators’, whose output was consumed by the masses. Social media on the other hand is not only consumed, but also adopted, adapted and created by the users of the network. They are media prosumers, who create their own meanings collectively. This has a democratizing effect on public communication that is not limited to enabling anyone to create and share memes and cat videos. It promotes a participatory culture that allows collaborative information- and knowledge-sharing and open-source projects.

Now we can imagine that our current population of passive consumers of finished products could potentially become an active community of prosumers. Examples of such empowered product users can already be found in the so-called maker scene. Although critics of this movement tend to lightly dismiss their practice and often idiosyncratic creations as banal, they might overlook that makers could very well be the heralds of a fundamental change. As resources become more scarce and waste mountains continue to grow, an increasing number of users will seek to use products longer and more sustainably.

In addition to being repairable, this also means that their value will be determined by their potential to be adapted and upgraded over time to meet changing needs. Independent, mature customers will set trends of the future. That being said, physical products are of course different from digital media and cannot be created, altered and distributed as easily by the majority of individuals. However the dropping costs and increased accessibility of digital fabrication methods in public fablabs and the growing success of crowdfunding platforms show that product prosumers are on the rise and I will come back to them it in future articles.

It is more than ten years since I started my journey as an industrial designer. I am asking myself now how I can be part of the solution to this problem we have maneuvered ourselves into. It is clear that the way we deal with resources needs to change and that it is in the best interest of the manufacturing industry to embrace this change early. Those who want to ensure the future of their business must work on actively redefining the relationship with their customers.

Many small steps have gotten us to where we are today and it will likely also take many small steps, a variety of different approaches and the initiative of countless contributors to shape a positive future. Currently I am working on a project that addresses the consequences of the throw-away product approach, as I am convinced that committed designers taking a stand will play a crucial role in this process and I am eager to do my share.