It’s time to put the idea of ‘planned obsolescence’ on the scrap heap
Consumers live in a world dominated by 12-month guarantees and in-built self-destruct buttons. Can this manufacturing model get better?
Tipping point: the lifespan of many consumer goods has never been shorter as new products render predecessors obsolete
The city of Livermore, California is home to the longest burning light bulb in the world. It has burnt continuously since 1901 (if you don’t believe me you can watch it live at www.centennialbulb.org. Ironically it has already outlived two webcams).
While often used as the symbol for innovation and invention, the light bulb was in fact one of the first victims of “planned obsolescence”, defined by American industrial designer Clifford Brook Stevens as “the desire on the part of the consumer to own something a little newer, a little sooner than is necessary”.
In fact, this approach has been central to almost all manufacturing processes since the 1950s. And here we are in 2014 with flat pack furniture designed only to be assembled once, operating systems staying relevant for a couple of years if we’re lucky, and smartphones that are out of date by the time they’re brought home from the store.
In other words, planned obsolescence has never been so commonplace. “You’re always designing three years in advance, and you’re designing with desire – rather than need – in mind,” explains Prof Alex Milton, head of the Faculty of Design at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin (NCAD). “It’s a growth model, the economy is based on growth.”
That growth is in part maintained by the development of future desirable products as well as consumer tastes and demand.
“There are many areas where the natural order of consumer demand will render the product obsolete,” explains Robert Tully, senior lecturer in design, at DIT.
“Both the fashion and technology sectors are shaped by this. In fashion, consumer demand around latest styles and trends dictates that there needs to be a continuous flow of new concepts, each rendering the previous obsolete. The technology sector is the same.”
These two industries are often cited as the worst offenders. “The IT industry as a whole, along with fashion? They’re as bad as it gets,” says Milton. “We all recently saw the horrors in Bangladesh caused by the fast fashion industry. Well if you go to Guangzhou, China where Apple products are manufactured, it’s pretty much the same situation: contemporary sweatshops.”
Because of the very nature of innovative technology, it is almost forgiven how quickly products and services are deemed out of date.
“It’s all about the new,” says Milton. “But the vehicles that carry new technological possibilities should have some durability. They don’t need to be disposable. We can update software very easily. So it’s more a hardware issue.
“However, manufacturers are wilfully not enabling us to do that because their business model is predicated on buying the new.
“I believe, however, the smarter technology companies – that will have a legacy and longevity – will start to sell systems where products can be repaired and parts replaced rather than the whole device ending up in landfill after 18 months.”
Phonebloks is a small start-up founded by three graduates from the Design Academy Eindhoven. Their product? A smartphone easily assembled with various blocks. Each and every part of the phone is replaceable.
“Samsung have looked at Phonebloks and they’re now going to pump money into it because they see its potential as a crowd sourcing model,” says Milton.
“They looked at this and thought ‘this is the future’. If they bring this to market I think their competitors will stand up and take a look because Samsung are showing that they get it, and that they care.”
There are other examples. Open source software programmes – like Linux – have been around for a long time but there are also new open source hardware providers.
“Arduino is like electronic Lego that anyone can put together to build a simple computer,” says Milton.
“It’s becoming very popular. In fact, a lot of software and hardware developers are now using really cheap stuff to create new things really quickly and then bring their inventions to designers to make them more desirable.”
The question is, are new DIY approaches to technology merely fads that will get nerds excited while the rest of society will happily continue to buy the newest, shiniest thing on the market? Perhaps not. It’s not that long ago that you would buy a PC and fit the hard drive yourself. Only in fairly recent times have computers become lifestyle products where there isn’t a screw in sight and “snap fits” designed not to be reopened are the norm.
“I think we’ll see a return to consumers taking more responsibility, especially when they realise they have to replace stuff at an increasing rate,” says Milton.
“There’s no reason why a new design approach couldn’t start here,” he says. “In the UK and Ireland there are amazing designers doing amazing things.
“Start-ups are looking at existing products and starting to think about challenging this stuff. Because the model is broken. And it is going to require a reinvention.”