Learning about how to apply sustainable product design strategies early on in the creative process is proven to be of high value and importance to all stakeholders involved. Our previous article demonstrated how these strategies can offer many advantages to both the entity creating, manufacturing, and selling the artifacts, all the way to the end users themselves.
In this second article of our series, we therefore offer a continuation of our case studies on sustainable design practices, specifically in the tech world. We demonstrate briefly how the practical consideration of some of the sustainable design strategies we introduce in our circularity workshop can help enhance the ecological performance of mainstream tech products.
The different sustainability principles we have identified are meant to be integrated early on into the creative process if you are developing a new product or service. However, they can also be retrofitted into existing products, services or projects if you are looking to become more eco-responsible. Our ultimate purpose is to first familiarize your team with these different sustainable strategies and their impacts of the product/service’s lifecycle. Then, we can demonstrate exactly how and where they can be applied, implemented, and used to optimize the ecological performance of your project. Lastly, our ultimate goal is to empower your team to assimilate these strategies and to be able to independently utilize them in the future.
As we have mentioned previously, e-waste is seen to be one of the fastest growing global waste stream issues our society is collectively facing. In that sense, we decided to select a few mainstream tech products almost every person is bound to purchase & own in today’s modern world: a keyboard and mouse. Both these products are arguably an imperative - and irreplaceable - part of standard computing systems, as we require both of their input systems to transform our intentions into electronic formats.
To start, we began brainstorming solutions the same way we begin most of our creative processes: by asking ourselves difficult questions, and then reflecting on them to find creative answers:
When it comes to a standard mouse & keyboard, which sustainability design strategies can help enhance their economical and ecological performances?
Our design teams first researched and then mapped out our understandings of our problem field using some practical analytical tools such as literature reviews, historical timelines, concept mappings, and categorizations. We were able to quickly and effectively describe our understanding of the subject using keywords, action verbs, qualitative and quantitative descriptive nouns, etc. We were then able to take a step back, analyze, and organize our findings by grouping together some of the sustainable strategy cards. We then added hierarchical relationships between the strategies, and connected the interdependent ones together using a big mind map.
Then, based on this first heuristic map, we identified 3 general brainstorming subjects linked to a different sustainability strategy. Based on very short brainstorm sessions, we translated ideas into problem statements and sketches, and we were able to come up with a rich variety of potential solutions.
For example, we can try to imagine what a standard keyboard and mouse would look like if we were to prioritize design for disassembly. Eliminating all permanent assemblies (e.g. welding, glue) and optimizing the design to make every part easily disassembled requires planification early on in the design process: this means that the assemblies need to be conceived and produced to withstand multiple disassemblies.
This also means that the number of parts that need to be assembled needs to be brought down to the bare minimum: some elements will need to be combined, and some will need to be optimized & transformed.
Then, depending on the type of non-permanent assembly selected (e.g. snap-fit with clip, mechanical screws, magnets, etc.), the user experience needs to be considered: Why & when will the user need to disassemble the product? How will they go about? Is a special tool needed to achieve the disassembly? And so on… One thing is certain, that a design that is conceived for disassembly opens up the door for a wide range of sustainable actions: once the sections constituting the product are separated, they can be repaired (through service kits for example), upgraded, replaced (through a spare-part service for example), reused (in other applications such as the toy industry for example), repurposed, & ultimately recycled.
When reflecting further on other beneficial sustainable strategies and desirability in design, we fell upon Design for Collecting aspects which we judged very relevant to our subject matter. Although this principle can be seen to encourage consumerism, we chose to approach it from a sustainability perspective. In that sense, by creating these iconic, unique, high-quality, and desirable collectible items, users are enticed to preserve them, fix them, and extend their life cycle.
Once we started exploring how to increase desirability and product attachment in sustainable ways, we discovered complementary principles which can be both beneficial for you as a seller (by offering more high-end products) as well as an end consumer (by appreciating the durable and aesthetic qualities afforded by the product).
From that principle, multiple others can be derived to offer a sense of flexibility, adaptability, and resilience within aging artifacts over time such as design for modularity (opening the doors to different configurations), design for multifunctionality (resulting in various utilities, affordances, and functions), and design for multigenerational use (becoming significant or useful for more than one type of user), to name only a few.
In the past years - and even decades, recycling has risen to become one of the most important sustainable actions our consumerist society can utilize in response to pollution ,global warming, and other ecological consequences. However, we often found the term to be either very generic, or not specific enough. This is why we dug deeper to unravel more distinctive aspects which we can individually apply to our ideation, or even combine.
Thus, to further incentivize recycling, we can make sure to think of mono-material designs through intentional and purposeful material sourcing, optimized distribution strategies, and circular manufacturing processes, amongst many other aspects.
Furthermore, on a more operational level, business strategies can be enhanced with sustainable intentions, and infrastructures can be put in place to encourage a circular economical model. This can be achieved through involving a third party for take-back-systems or collection services, or empowering the user themselves to stay away from the current throw-away culture through reusing, reselling, and retrofitting various elements depending on their needs.
It is needless to say, countless creative - and sometimes ludacris - ideas came out of our circularity brainstorm sessions as you can imagine. Some were very simple (e.g. reducing the weight and volume of materials used by optimizing structural design via 3D printing, etc.), others were more experimental (e.g. reducing transportation volumes through a 100% flat packed design, etc.) or thought-provoking (e.g. completely eliminating the need for batteries through wireless charging pads, etc.).
Additional research proved that numerous initiatives and programs have been set in place by different stakeholders to remedy the growing problems caused by e-waste, particularly when it comes to mainstream electronic products which are heavily consumed by a wide majority of users.
For example, Swiss electronics company Logitech has put in place end-of-life stewardships and sustainability programs, collaborating with third party partners for end-of-life recycling and integrating eco-labels into their products’ life cycle (Product Lifecycle Approach, Logitech.com, 2022).
Other tech giants such as Microsoft now offer a plastic mouse containing 20% recycled ocean plastic, which gets shipped and delivered in a 100% recyclable packaging made from recyclable wood and sugarcane natural fibers. In addition, they also offer a free mail-in program available in some countries, allowing consumers to send in their old tech products so that they can be recycled through their contracted partners (Microsoft.com, 2022).
These are a few examples of existing sustainable initiatives, proving that the need for more responsible tech products can be both ecologically and economically advantageous for companies of all sizes.
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