Product Design in the 21st Century


What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament? ~ From ‘Cradle to Cradle’ by McDonough and Braungart

Taken together, the ants on planet Earth would weigh more than all of us humans combined. We know ants are incredibly industrious. Their work nourishes plants, animals and soil. We humans work hard, too. Yet in just a couple of centuries, human industry has brought about a decline in the quality of our ecosphere. We have treated Mother Nature as an enemy to conquer rather than a friend to conserve and nurture.

Perhaps we should think more about our work, and what it means, and its impact on our world. In their book, ‘Cradle to Cradle’, the architect William McDonough and the ecological chemist Michael Braungart make a compelling case for rethinking product design.

Why is modern design modeled on a cradle-to-grave model? Why do more than 90 percent of our raw materials extracted to make durable goods become waste almost immediately? Why are normal products in day-to-day use, including products meant for children, made with chemicals that are known to be toxic and carcinogenic?

The authors instead propose a cradle-to-cradle approach to design. Buildings should produce more energy than they consume. Factories should produce drinking water rather than toxic-waste effluents, and products that become food instead of waste. Transportation should improve the quality of life. We should revel in a world of abundance, not one of limits pollution and waste.

There are two discrete metabolisms on the planet. The first is the biological metabolism – the cycle of nature where one entity’s waste is another’s food. The second is the technical metabolism – the cycles of industry, including harvesting of technical material from natural places. Mimicking nature, we too often believe that with the right design, all the products and materials manufactured by industry will safely feed these two metabolisms.

A cradle-to-cradle approach offers enormous opportunities in the coming decades. Virtually every product can and must be analyzed and redesigned with simpler and safer material. The process of manufacturing has to be rethought, ideally around small-scale production units that minimize the need for long-distance transportation.

A whole new service can be set up to collect and disassemble products after their useful lifetime. We need to initiate systematic approaches to dismantling the existing factories and supply chains in an ecologically safe manner.

Our new approach will also have to rethink the manner in which products are packaged, distributed and consumed – especially since packaging adds (a) a level of material usage and (b) recycling concerns. Localization of manufacture presents an opportunity to use local material and labor, as opposed to the one-size-fits-all industrial approach.

In countries like India that have not fully experienced the pleasures and pains of industrialization, the time is ripe for leapfrogging to the next wave of products and production. The design talent available in India can come up with innovative and useful products that have global impact and help everybody, rather than financial products like derivatives and swaps that help only a few wealthy bankers.

The small scale sector can be revived to localize production. The local kirana (recycling) shop, in conjunction with sophisticated supply chain systems, can convert wholesale product packaging to smaller customer-supplied servings that reduce packaging material.

Do share your own thoughts and reflections on how to accelerate cradle-to-cradle thinking? What part will be played by legislation, by markets and by innovators? Be engaged and keep contributing.






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