Les Hirst, P.Eng.
Design Guide, Berlin KraftWorks Inc.
My Dad taught me a lot of life lessons, but two of them really stick. The first is to be honest; the second lesson is to buy the best quality products that you can afford and take care of them - they will reward you with a long life of use.
What products do you use – whether it’s a tool, an appliance, an article of clothing, a musical instrument, camping gear, or anything else - that have had a long, useful, life and are a pleasure to use? Bring to mind the older things that you consider to be vintage.
Recently I listened to a podcast featuring Satish Kumar, where he says: “whatever we have should be beautiful, useful and durable at the same time.” It’s advice that he got from his grandmother. He calls it the ‘BUD’ principle of elegant simplicity. Let’s break that down a little - and as we do, I encourage you to think about how this applies in your life and experience.
Later in this article, we’ll look at why forward-looking companies can benefit from adopting these principles for the products they design and manufacture.
When something is beautiful, we will want to use it for a long time. What do we mean here by beautiful? I can hear the discomfort among our engineering readers about something so subjective, so let’s qualify it:
Think of the presents that you may have received in the holiday season. What will you still want in 5 years? What will wind up in donation pile, trash, recycling, or garage sale? Just so that we don’t get too puritanical here, useful items include toys, musical instruments, and so on. The question is whether this is something that you will want to pick up and use over and over.
When I recently downsized from a four bedroom home to an apartment, I needed to purge about half of my possessions. What do I miss? Very little – in fact there’s a sense of freedom and lightness of only having what I need.
Products that last many, many years, potentially even lifetimes. Durable products are repairable with simple replacement parts and able to retain their functionality for years to come.
The Business Opportunity
The Turning Tide
We are witnessing rapid transformation in the world. The last 40 years or so have represented a time of conspicuous consumption for many and an emphasis on low cost products that were designed and manufactured for planned obsolescence. This philosophy and behaviour has contributed to a lot of the environmental problems (landfill, pollution, climate change) that we’re just now starting to deal with.
Considering that most of us are now aware of the problem, there’s an increasing desire for products that truly provide benefit (that are a joy to use and contribute to a better world), that minimize pollution and energy use throughout the lifecycle, that are usable for a long time, and that can be transformed well after they are no longer usable.
Paying for the True Cost of a Product
Our economic system privatizes profits and socializes costs – environmental (pollution, use of land), and societal (pressure on wages, benefits, safety, local economic collapse through plant closings, etc.). Governments, communities, and families are often the ones paying the cost of poorly made, low cost products, but this is starting to change. Just recently, the Ontario government announced that it will start charging producers for waste diversion. When the costs are borne by the producer, different product design and manufacturing decisions are made. The successful organizations of the near future will be the ones who consider these costs now and shift their design and manufacturing decisions accordingly.
Our North American Opportunity
How will we, in North America, be successful in designing and manufacturing products right here? I believe there’s an emerging market for high quality, well designed and made products that are affordable for most – the market segment between the low cost/marginal quality and the expensive/ultra premium end of the market.
Many of the best designers and makers will want to work on these products and many consumers will turn to these products as their true value becomes appreciated.
What goes around, comes around. Maybe my Dad was on to something.
Les Hirst, P. Eng.
Design Guide, Berlin KraftWorks Inc.
In this article we discuss sustainability, lay down a vision beyond sustainability, consider the role of design, and offer a few tips and questions that address the practical aspects of design for a healthier planet.
When engineers think of design and sustainability, what often comes to mind for us are straight technological fixes: energy efficiency in products and processes, reduction in toxic materials, recyclability. Although these are important, they only present a partial view of what’s necessary to solve the problems that we’ve created - to shift to a healthier physical and social environment.
Let’s first look at the concept of sustainability. What is it that we want to sustain? In the developed world, we’ve mastered taking care of our material survival needs – at least for those who can afford it. We’ve created a world where entertainment is literally at our fingertips, or at the command of our voice. We can travel at high speed and in comfort to almost anywhere. The list goes on. We’ve also created a world of (mostly exported) wars, depletion of land, species extinction, oceans choking in plastic, huge landfills, rapid climate change, social disconnection, and alarming rates of addiction, anxiety, and depression. In this context, what does sustainability mean? Do we want to keep this going for another 100 years? 500 years? We might ponder this thought: Maybe if we were to only to do half the harm, we’d be able to carry on more or less like we have been.
Change our perspective. Change our world.
The world and the products that we create are a reflection of what’s going on inside of us, of our society and of our corporate and work environment. As Indian teacher Sadhguru says: “How can we create a world of peace, when we have no peace in our own minds?”
As designers, when we increase our own awareness, our compassion and self-compassion, our empathy for all living beings, our capacity to listen, our accountability, integrity and honesty – we begin to change our definitions of what’s important. When we combine these soft skills with our technical ability to create safe, functional, and cost-effective products, we create products that are more supportive of life and healing of the physical and social environment.
This may all sound like wishful thinking, however I believe it’s the shift that’s necessary to begin turning things around. After all, isn’t doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result the definition of insanity? Changing our approach only sounds so radical because the promotion of the current approach (faster, cheaper, more, …) is so entrenched in our systems of education, media, government, and corporate culture.
When we begin seeing beyond what we’ve come to believe, the creative space opens for new possibilities.
Where Do We Start?
A good place to start is to consider the world that we’d love to inhabit and create, then refocus our thoughts and efforts toward that. For each of us, this will be different. And it will not take place overnight. What is your vision? For me, this world and my place in it includes:
Some Questions to Ask When Designing
The Product Itself:
What are we designing? How aligned is it with the vision that we hold for the world we want to live in?
The Design Process:
How are we designing? Is the work environment supportive or depleting? Are we rushing to get the product out to the market or taking the time required to produce something brilliant? Are we considering what our customers truly want?
What are the social and environmental impacts of production (from raw material extraction and processing to manufacturing processes and assembly)?
Is the product designed to be durable? Is it serviceable? What is the impact of the packaging? How much energy does it consume when it’s used? When its life is over, how will it be transformed (recycled, burned for fuel, re-purposed, composted, …)?
We can design, as MIT professor Otto Scharmer writes in Theory U, what the emerging future is calling of us. Successful companies of the near future will be the ones who inspire. Who inspire the very best designers and makers to work with them? Who inspire customers who are thirsting for well designed, well made, and affordable products that truly enhance their lives? Who inspire their suppliers to co-create with them? Who are in right relationship with the planet and the beings that live on it?
Let’s wake up to possibility. Realize that we’ve all had a hand creating the current reality. It’s time to create a new one. I’ve laid down a vision. I’d love to hear yours.