This slide above shows my career in the 1990s, starting from when I was a fresh faced graduate working at BT Laboratories in the area of usability and design thinking, to becoming a co-founder of the world’s first mobile internet portal, Genie Internet, a subsidiary of BT Cellnet (now O2). I was a real gadget freak, and almost every month manufacturers would send me their latest handsets, meaning that I always had the most fashionable phones and PDAs.
And then something happened to me at I hit 30. I began to develop an awareness of ecological issues, and this transformed my life entirely. I began looking not so much at how to move away from the corporate world but to how I could deploy my commercial, marketing and design skills for the benefit and not destruction of the planet. Hence in 2009 I undertook my masters degree at Schumacher College, an institution at the cutting-edge of ecological thinking.
The director of my MSc in Holistic Science is ecologist Stephan Harding, author of Animate Earth – Science, Intuition and Gaia. He has written the introduction to a new report from the Gaia Foundation – Short Circuit – The Lifecycle of our Electronic Gadgets and the True Cost to Earth. This report is well worth reading, as it walks us through the birth, life and death of the gadgets we use in our daily lives and routinely throw away with little thought about the cost and damage to our ecosystems.
It is not all bad news. While the report documents both the projected increase in numbers of electronic gadgets we will be using over the next five years, it does also look a new paradigms for the development, production and business models which are currently being explored:
With the lifespan of electronic goods becoming shorter, and the extraction of the mineral and metal elements which make up these gadgets ever more destructive, it is clearly time for the electronics industry to take responsibility for developing a new approach. The depletion of our planet’s minerals and metals; the horrific scale and intensity of our capacity to gouge deep toxic wounds in the body of our Earth; the geopolitical scramble for control of ever more expensive and profitable Earth materials; and the volatility of commodity prices, make a new approach not only ethical, but a financial imperative for companies too.
The linear model of ‘take-make-dispose’, is not sustainable on a finite planet. Designing for recyclability is critical – we must close the loop. In order to do so, we have to face a number of challenges. The manufacturing process for these products must be designed to ensure there is no waste from start to finish. Furthermore, those who manufacture must be responsible for ensuring their products can be completely recycled. And lastly, during the lifespan of each product, its components must be removable, repairable, and easy to take apart for recycling. This new approach to product design must be integrated into effective and efficient recycling systems that can recover our Earth’s precious metals and minerals at each stage of the cycle, with a minimum of energy and pollution.
This essential transition is already beginning to happen. Production strategies – ranging from extended producer responsibility to ‘closed-loop’ or ‘circular economies’ – are being pursued by innovative organisations and individuals. These have much to teach us and pave the way forward for future creativity and transition.
As a member of BCI (Biomimicry for Creative Innovation) we discuss and help organisations transform themselves into businesses inspired by nature. We use a framework we call the 5E Spiral to help organisations develop a continual process of innovation.
The key stages of this framework are:
Explore the changing context, environment and conditions in which your business operates
Envision what your business really can be based on changing context, your core values, and what is fit-for-purpose
Empower your people and your networks with the knowledge, skills, understanding and skills they need to carry out your vision and values
Execute your vision by leveraging your people and your networks to reflect your values in spirit of Emergent Abundance
Evaluate your business performance against your vision, values and goals against Nature’s Principles, and relative to the changing context.
I would urge you to read Short Circuit. Yes, it is a demanding read, but we live in demanding times and as author of No Straight Lines Alan Moore puts it, we have to now think in terms of Epic Wins. BCI are now working with many major organisations around the world, including a number of mobile phone companies. I do see many great projects where there is a strong desire to enable this transition, and by becoming inspired by nature, nature which has already had millions of years to develop many solutions to complex problems and which already has the most elegant and sustainable solutions we know, we really can begin to make progress in the way we design and relate to the products, gadgets and services we use in daily life.