Sunday, March 18, 2012

Designed to Change

There is something seriously wrong with the way some things are imagedesigned.  My wife and I were away yesterday and I get a text from one of my kids saying “the fridge isn’t working”.  Sure enough when we get home later, it’s dead!  This is our second fridge in just over 10 years (our first was relatively expensive, the second inexpensive – didn’t seem to matter).  When I mention this to others most often people suggest that 5 years is pretty normal for a fridge.  I think fridges are designed to fail.  So, after I write this blog post we’re off hunting for a new fridge, oh joy…  I probably shouldn’t be writing this post right now in my less-than-happy-about-my-fridge state of mind.

However, as you know this is not limited to fridges and not just to products that stop working.  Think about the consumer electronics business.  Cell phones, for example, seem to be designed to be disposed of within 3 years.  Actually, even 3 years is a long time now when you look at the amount of change that occurs in 12-18 months.  Apple,  Android, and Windows phone manufacturers are certainly doing their part to drive the disposal smartphone market.  I just read an article on Zite yesterday suggesting the new iPhone 5, when available, will cause yet another massive disruption and may well be Apples (or anyone's) fastest selling phone.  Many of those who move up to that phone will be disposing of 1 and 2 year old perfectly functioning phones, many of which are recent iPhones.  We all experience this with electronics – new stuff comes out and suddenly what we just bought is no longer good enough.  I wonder how many iPad 2 owners are clamoring to purchase the iPad 3 now even though there’s relatively little “functional” difference.  What has happened to our society that we think it’s okay for so many products to be disposable?  And if you think I’m immune to this, I’m not.  I too get caught up in wanting the newest products although our TV, all 27 inches of retro CRT, still seems to serve us well with our rabbit ear antenna and digital to analogue converter…

How is it that our “environmentally conscious” society accepts the designed to change (or fail) mentality of manufacturers and marketers?  Our broken fridge is essentially not repairable and will be disposed of (not exactly sure what happens to it). What about all those cell phones, computers, TVs, etc.?  Why can’t our products be designed to last?  Not only is this model hard on our environment, it’s hard on our pocket books.

I was having a conversation with my eldest son the other day (he’s 24) about business (he runs his own) and fair wages (he’s hired two people recently).  I think it’s awesome that he is thinking this iStock_000017128753XSmallthrough.  He wants to pay his employees fairly for the type of work he needs them to do.  Anyway, the conversation moved over to talking about the impact of our lifestyle expectations on others.  For example, how often do we think about all the people “slaving” to produce, ever faster, our electronics, our relatively inexpensive clothing, food, shoes, etc.?  People in poorer countries are essentially working like slaves to supporting our disposable lifestyle.  I realize that what they may be paid sustains their families and without it, they may be worse off.  But, it doesn’t quite feel right does it…

We seem to be wired to expect that stuff is designed to change.  We expect the next tablet, smartphone, or car to have more features, be faster, cooler, whatever.  We’re pleased that companies are so innovative and capable of producing all these wonderful products for us.  But, isn’t it interesting that when we buy our new product we are quite pleased with our purchase, we’re happy, satisfied, etc., UNTIL, the next version or model is announced.  Suddenly, what was just bought (could be a month ago) isn’t quite as “shiny” and exciting.  I wonder what path this type of thinking will eventually lead us down.  It’s amazing how in tough economic times people have found so much disposable income to stay on this track of iStock_000019171659XSmallbuy and replace a year or two later…  I don’t have any worthy answers to my questions and wonderings but I think we need to raise our consciousness around this designed to change problem and perhaps adapt the model and scale back our expectations to be more about needs and less about wants.  We need to chart a new direction.  Easy? Doubtful. Important to our future? Absolutely.