Smart Things That Will Save the World

Smart Things That Will Save the World

Today's products were designed for the industrial era. It's time to rethink that model.
Chris Grantham
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What do you do with your stinky, worn out sneakers? How about that empty lipstick case? If you answered, “Toss it in the trash, of course!” you’d be completely normal. What other choice do we have?

Today’s products were designed for the industrial era of browsing store aisles and making choices based on packaging. But now that we’re largely buying stuff online, it’s time to rethink that model.

So, IDEO’s London and Munich studios teamed up to create an exhibition of six circular design fictions called Never Finished. (We also worked on a design guide with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which you can find here.)

Circular products and the materials they’re made of are designed to be kept in use, to be regenerative, and not to be thrown away. Tomorrow’s things will also be smart—with sensors and software built into them—which will allow us to improve their usefulness over time. Circular products promise to save both money and the planet. (You’ve heard about the great Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean, right?)

Take a peek at the potential future of product design:

What if your makeup got better with age?

Infinity is a makeup service with packaging that is designed to get more beautiful, more useful, and more valuable as you use it. Housed in luxurious, long-lasting brass, Infinity’s lipstick holder and blusher case are designed to grow old with you. A built-in scanner (sensor) also captures skin health data, and orders (customized) refills when empty.

What if food packaging was redesigned for online shopping?

Food packaging is designed to attract people’s eye on a supermarket shelf, extend the lifespan of the product, and protect what’s inside from damage. But it’s over-engineered for online delivery, and it's hard to recycle. Clean is a new food packaging system designed for online delivery services. It’s refillable and easily decanted, recycled, or composted.

What if sneakers could be made better than new?

Once these sneakers are worn out, the owner simply bags them up in a pre-paid shipping pack and sends them back to the factory, where the sole is scanned and the materials are disassembled and processed for reuse. The factory then uses the scan of the sole to print a new shoe using the reclaimed materials—perfectly tailored to the user.

What if your household gadget sold itself?

Use Me/Lose Me is a usage-monitoring service that aims to get the most out of household appliances—even if that means changing owners. Using a web-connected chip, Use Me/Lose Me sends a text message to a gadget's owner quoting the latest price they could get for selling it. If the user wishes to sell, they can simply reply to the text message, which automatically uploads the item to an online auction site, arranging the entire sale, payment, and shipping.

We had a lot of fun pairing circular design principles with user needs. By exploring “what if” scenarios, we believe we have found more elegant solutions to the traditional linear path of make, use, dispose.

Of course, moving to a Circular Economy won’t be easy. Consumerism is a huge, gnarly, systemic problem, driven by shifting business models. But change will be driven by people who choose to buy products and services not because they’re circular, but because they are better.

We hope Never Finished feels like a gauntlet thrown down to you designers out there. Let’s make things that are better for the user, better for business, and better for the planet.

Already working on something circular? Tell us more!

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Chris Grantham
Chris is an executive director at IDEO, where he leads IDEO's consultancy business in the circular economy and works with organizations on systems change and breakthrough innovation. Chris has been closely involved in developing IDEO's partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to generate innovative solutions and new business models that move us toward a more circular economy (one in which products and materials are continuously reused, never discarded).
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