Attending Etech last week for the first time, I was impressed and inspired by the talks and the attendees. I loved the energy and exchange of ideas. One presentation in particular grabbed my attention: Thor Muller and Lane Becker?s ?The End of Obsolescence: Engineering in the Post-consumer Economy.?
Muller and Becker (from crowd-sourced customer support service GetSatisfaction.com) explained why they believe we're moving towards a post-consumerism economy and discussed some of the trends and opportunities that are now arising from this culture shift.
Our consumption-driven economy is taking a beating; people are becoming unable or afraid to continue buying as they have in the past. Much of the run-up in the economy in recent years drew on credit and home equity in order to purchase goods at unprecedentedly high levels. Now, with home values dropping, credit difficult to come by, and unemployment at an all-time high, many people are fundamentally changing their spending habits. In addition, increasing numbers of people are considering how the products they buy affect the environment.
Muller and Becker think of consumerism as a cultural construct with rules, or design patterns, that we don?t question because they?ve worked well up till now. One example pattern is planned obsolescence: products are disposable?you buy a new model and throw away the old one as soon as the next new model comes out. Because the system is being challenged, new rules arise to move us away from consumerism and towards a ?loanership? society. They talked about some of these new patterns and the opportunities they see emerging from this societal shift. It?s important to acknowledge new trends and emphasize them in ways that make sense.
Design Pattern 1: Free
Some things become better the more often that they are used. For example, giving away music makes it possible for more people to listen, creating buzz, and influencing leaderboard rankings. This creates a market, or increases demand for the music.
Another example of this pattern: create a free version of a product, then charge for more feature-rich versions. If people can easily get to use and love your product, they may decide to upgrade.
Design Pattern 2: The Repair Culture
One result of consumerism has been the practice of ?planned obsolescence?, whereby products are designed to fail after a certain period, and it is then more expensive to fix them than to replace them. Because products lose their value so quickly, we don?t hesitate to throw them away. However, if products are well-built, and last a long time, we value them more and tend to repair rather than replace them. Also, the Internet is a great source of information for fixing everything from cars to toasters to vacuum cleaners.
Design Pattern 3: Reputation Scaled
According to Wikipedia, ?Reputation is the opinion (more technically, a social evaluation) of the public toward a person, a group of people, or an organization. It is an important factor in many fields, such as education, business, online communities or social status.? Reputation was important in the past within small societal groups, but due to the Internet, it has scaled to the global level. For example, users are asked to rate and review the products they buy and the people they buy from on sites like eBay and Amazon.
Design Pattern 4: The Loanership Society
Underutilization of products is common. We fill our houses with stuff, but then have little time to use it. Most people own an electric drill. How often do they use it? Once every few months maybe? if you own a particular movie on DVD, how often will you play it? Once every few years? Each house in a neighborhood has many underutilized products. Replacing this old model is a newer one based on subscriptions and stewardship. People can subscribe to a third-party service to maintain and lend out products as needed to customers. Companies that are leading this trend include:
Design Pattern 5: Virtual production
Physical products are quickly being replaced by virtual goods, especially digital goods. Music files produced in MP3 or another file format ?played on a portable music player such as an iPod--are fast outnumbering CD music tracks. ?Play it Now? on Netflix may soon become more popular than their snail-mail-based model of doing business. Digital photos are now more common than film photos?you can share your pictures via email or upload them to Flickr, play tunes on your ipod, and read books on your Amazon Kindle device.
There's never been a better time to reconsider whether you really must physically own everything you'll ever need. A cultural shift, following routes in these design patterns and others, could lead to a more efficient, less consumption-oriented society that still offers opportunities for innovation, creative self-expression, quality, and profit.