Talk about Innovation and we think of new, bright, shiny. We immediately want or ‘need’ the latest version of our phone, laptop or other device; we immediately assume we need to replace the ‘old’ version – which may only be 12-18 months old – to take advantage of the new, even if in reality the upgrade doesn’t provide a better experience or provide a truly remarkable progression of what we are currently using.
This mindset is not just tied to our ever-present devices but extends to everything we have: from big ticket items like cars and household appliances, to the small conveniences of modern life such as coffee machines. Over the holidays I was visiting with family when my sister was frantically trying to replace her pod coffee machine before 35+ people filled her house for the weekend. Her current machine had stopped working – after only 12 months – but rather than trying to fix it, the natural response was to replace it with the latest model. What used to be considered durable goods, that we expected to last for 10, 20, 30+ years, we now simply accept will be replaced annually.
What does all of this mean for us as a society – where are all these ‘obsolete’ products going? At Wazoku, we have joined the growing number of organisations supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As part of our commitment, we are looking at how we as an organisation, our customers and society as a whole can work together to change the world one idea at a time.
My question to us as business leaders: isn’t it time that we changed our approach to innovation? Rather than building disposable physical products that fill up our spaces and landfills, why not have innovation focus on ways to increase the lifecycle of those products? Why not make the innovations around the ecosystem that supports them and ensure that they last longer, while providing the positive user experience we’ve come to expect in our ‘right now, instant gratification’ culture.
Apple’s recent shareholder letter highlights how the mindset of organisations and consumers has led to this disposable society. Among the reasons cited for Apple’s lower than expected iPhone sales in 2018 was ‘some customers taking advantage of significantly reduced pricing for iPhone battery replacements.’ Analysts were quick to point out, this statement along with Apple’s acknowledgement that it had deliberately slowed down older iPhones, ostensibly to preserve battery life, and the year-long reduction in the price of out-of-warranty battery replacements, provided convincing evidence that Apple’s strategy was based on planned obsolescence, encouraging iPhone users to replace their phones far more frequently than necessary. For many iPhone owners, replacing the battery provided significant performance improvement, negating the need to upgrade and replace a fully functional device.
It is not just about the products, but also how we receive those products. We’ve all received the small, single item delivered in a ridiculously large boxes with extra paper wrapped around the item from Amazon; or tried to open a simple item such as moisturiser that comes wrapped in so many layers of packaging it takes 10 minutes to get it open. Where is all that packaging going? Even if retailers are using more recycled pack again and consumers are religiously recycling it, the packaging waste just in the US equates to more than 1 billion trees each year.
In a post I wrote here last year, Innovation doesn’t need to be the next Us v. Them Battle, I argued that The Maintainers who are concerned the innovation mindset that focuses on the new and shiny, ignores the majority of people who every day must deal with the ‘old’ stuff – and the need to repair it. Their second concern is that existing infrastructure, which is generally being ignored, making getting from point A to point B increasingly more unpleasant and unsustainable.
I stand by my original position: innovation has room for both ideas focused on the new and ideas focused on improving the existing infrastructure; they are simply different points on the innovation spectrum. I am, however, challenging us all to think about how innovation can be more sustainable.
In 2019, when many of us already have all that we need, why not focus our innovation efforts on building the infrastructure that will make the physical product we buy today still just as positive a user experience in five years’ time. Instead of putting up barriers to repairing these products, why not focus on building an ecosystem that is prepared to support the physical repair for many years. I’m not asking for businesses to ignore the need to continue to operate with a sustainable business model, but I am suggesting that it is those business models that need the innovation, not the products that are produced. Let’s make finding a way to extend the life of the existing product, while still giving consumers access to the latest enhancements and delightful user experiences, what innovation means in 2019.