The ongoing quest for bigger, better, smaller, faster gadgets and other consumer products is not environmentally sustainable and must be replaced by an approach to design that builds on the products of contemporary mass-produced culture by re-working them for current desires. That is the simple message offered by Stuart Walker of the Faculty of Environmental Design, University of Calgary, Canada, currently Co-Director of Imagination@Lancaster at Lancaster University, UK, writing in the current issue of the International Journal of Sustainable Design.
Walker points out that it is critical that we address issues of sustainability more substantially than has been done to date. The throwaway culture of the mp3 generation is not only filling landfills with mass-produced and almost disposable products, but wasting vast quantities of potentially recoverable materials, including precious metals. Moreover, the continued greed for novelty means that countless perfectly useful gadgets and other products are being discarded in favour of the next version much sooner than they need be given the robustness of many well-designed products today.
He adds that if design is to contribute to human culture in a more meaningful way then it has to move beyond the often shallow, style-based notions of product design that have become so prevalent over the last 50 years.
If the creation of new products is part of the problem rather than the solution to sustainability in a world of climate change, overburdened landfills and dwindling supplies of inexpensive mineral resources, then does the designer have a role if consumerist society were to desist from its quest for novelty?
“On the face of it, and within the conventional parameters of product design, it would seem that the answer would be no,” says Walker, “or at most, relatively little.” However, he suggests that a broadening of definitions of what design involves could lead to a new generation in design that exists not simply to create novel products but to use the creative skills of individuals to re-work old products.
Walker takes as a case in point the “old-fashioned” stereo radio-cassette player, which had its heyday in the ghetto blasters of the 1980s. Countless ghetto blasters will have hit landfills in the decades since and yet, with a little imagination, a once prized possession could become a new outlet for a portable mp3 player with a simple rewiring of the input circuitry.
Such re-purposing may not be fashionable, there is not at present any cachet nor retro-chic associated with the ghetto blaster as generation after generation of sleek touch-sensitive portable media gadgets hit the market month in, month out. And yet it would take only a few cultural innovators seeing the potential of this and other examples for rebuilding and repurposing to lead to a consumer tipping point in which such a primal approach to recycling became the height of fashion. Being an early adopter need not mean buying the latest gadget, it could simply mean repurposing an old one.
More information on Walker’s potentially revolutionary proposals can be found in “Extant objects: designing things as they are” Int. J. Sustainable Design, 2008, 1, pp 4-12
You can leave ideas for other potentially retro chic repurposed gadgets and products in the comment form below.