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Mirror, signal, manoeuvre: reflections on ten years of product design and sustainability

Peattie, Kenneth John ORCID: 2005. Mirror, signal, manoeuvre: reflections on ten years of product design and sustainability. Presented at: 10th Sustainable Innovation Conference, Surrey, UK, 24-25 October 2005.

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There is one particularly troublesome question relating to the product design and development agenda from a sustainability perspective. That is "If sustainability is such a paradigm shift in terms of how our economies and societies will develop in future, why is so much of what we produce and consume little different to what we produced and consumed ten (or even twenty) years ago ?" Computers may be faster, cheaper and even prettier, and Windows XP a lot slicker than Windows 95, but the essentials remain unchanged. Many cars are more fuel efficient than their predecessors, but the change is essentially evolutionary and somewhat negated by the growing tendency to design and drive over-specified 4x4s. These are only two product categories, but it is sobering to think that these are two categories where (a) there has been a constant flow of investment in innovation, but without taking us in a substantively more sustainable direction, and (b) they represent two categories of consumption within which the growing middle-class in populous less-industrialised countries are most keen to follow the lifestyle example of the industrialised West. This is not to say that there are not areas where improvements are being made. The growth in markets such as organic food, eco-tourism and social/ethical investment products is promising. The improvements to the handling of end-of-life products in industries like electronics and cars now being enforced by new European regulations are also leading to innovations and environmental benefits in terms of waste reduction. So although the product designs for cars and computers have not changed radically, their post-use experience is changing. However, such bright spots typically represent the "boats travelling up the Mississippi". They provide heartening examples and show that improvements can be made, but are effectively travelling against the mainstream flow of the economy. A pattern seems to have emerged over the past two decades. Firstly there are intermittent events or reports that effectively hold up a mirror to society, revealing our impact on the environment, and the implications it has for the quality of life on Earth in the future. The Brundtland Report provided one such important mirror in 1987. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report provides the latest, and perhaps most worrying reflections. These revelations are then followed by signals amongst governments and businesses that things are going to change. These signals include the resolutions and agreements coming out of Rio and Johannesburg, proposals for new legislation, or new consultation exercises. The final stage is a process of manoeuvring in which the efforts of governments and companies to stimulate innovation seem more usually geared up to producing valves to relieve the pressure, than to producing levers to translate that pressure into much greater movement and change. What those interested in more sustainable product design are going to need in order to make progress over the next five years, are changes that reduce the "turning circle" of companies. This will allow them to respond more readily and nimbly to the signals currently flashing, and to the forecast congestion and poor conditions ahead on the road that we're currently on. Creating this reduced turning circle will require product and process innovation in terms of the "hard" aspects of the business. Equally important, and perhaps even more challenging, will be the need for an accompanying re-design of the "software" of our business systems, in terms of management thinking, management education and the relationships between key business stakeholders.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Date Type: Completion
Status: Unpublished
Schools: Business (Including Economics)
Sustainable Places Research Institute (PLACES)
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HF Commerce
T Technology > TL Motor vehicles. Aeronautics. Astronautics
Last Modified: 24 Oct 2022 12:06

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