The Disappearance of Products

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Worldwide, we use too much material and energy for our increasingly resource-consuming lifestyles. A transformation to increase sustainability via transformative products is no longer an option, but a necessity. However, there are different opinions concerning the design and effect of these products. We asked a panel of three experts for their opinion: Peter Wippermann, trend researcher, Ortwin Renn, technology assessor, and Harald Welzer, transformation designer. 

By Ralf Bindel

(Translated from the German by Inga Festersen)

Relationships instead of Products

In the eyes of the futurologist Peter Wippermann the smart phone is one of the transformative elements in modern society. In an interview with factory, he states that sometime soon, the smart phone will serve as the remote control for our daily life, spurred on by technological networking. In his opinion, the modern mobile phone computers are part of the overall cultural understanding and they lead to changes in resource consumption. Energy will become extremely important, he continues, but instead of the oil industry, the electronic industry will predominate.

However, transformative products play only a minor role for Wippermann. He finds it more interesting to abandon the classical idea of a product, and in fact to make it disappear. The smart phone is nothing but a device, the remote control is the display. For the trend researcher, the actual transformative product is the network. Relationships are the new big issue that will also lead to more sustainability. Wippermann explains that already today and especially in the future, everything, whether on a personal level or on a larger economic scale, is and will be about relationships. Even during the transformation process to a sustainable society, relationships play a more important role than products; the new buzzword is: the share economy. 

Relationships would work everywhere where networks exist, not only in industrialised countries. He points out that no country in the world does without networks. Basically, they are the realities where transformation takes place. He is convinced that today’s society is greatly influenced by networks and no longer by products, as was the case in industrial cultures. 

However, networking not only restructures the energy market, it also decentralises energy production instead of centralising it, as well as linking sources and consumers via a smart grid. Wippermann sums up by saying that crowds are treated like data packets on the Internet.

He thinks that networking is the actual transformation and the crucial step. The control and use of data, either for products in the industry 4.0, for car sharing or for the participation of the consumer as a prosumer, have had the greatest transformational effect. 

The fact that the prosumer emancipates himself from the classical production and becomes more autonomous does not affect the capitalist system. Wippermann says that only the old industries have to give up their sinecure. He considers networking the decisive transformative trend: the single product combines with other products, the individual connects things he could not have connected before. 

His conclusion is that products are no longer important, but their connectivity for transformation is. In the end, Wippermann defines transformative products stating that products which cannot be combined are not sustainable.

Taking the Rebound into Account

Transformative products are products that can initiate processes of change within the economy and society, such as a new means of transportation or new form of travel which would allow us to move beyond private transportation.

To be more precise: products are transformative when they help to provide services that are not only more effective, but also more comfortable than previously possible. They also provide greater sustainability when they contribute to dematerialisation or decarbonisation, hence reducing the consumption of raw materials and greenhouse gas emissions considerably. This is how Ortwin Renn defines it in an interview. He is a professor for technical and environmental sociology at the University of Stuttgart and a renowned technology assessment expert for the factory magazine.

In the interview, Ortwin Renn says that certain product concepts contribute to sustainability by creating more simplified devices, such as using a clothesline instead of a drier or recommending a shovel instead of an excavator. However, although these products promote sustainability, they are not considered to be transformative. These products are only transformative when they perform the desired service more effectively or more efficiently, but consume less in terms of materials and energy.

Ortwin Renn, also an expert for risk research, believes that in order to address major future trends now, all products that contribute to dematerialisation and decarbonisation are transformative products.

Peter Wippermann considers networking to be transformative, but Ortwin Renn is of the opinion that networking, like decentralisation, is only a means to an end. These means are sometimes effective but not always. The key question is whether or not they contribute to decarbonisation and dematerialisation. Where they contribute to decarbonisation and dematerialisation, sustainability is not a concern. According to Renn, networking might contribute to decarbonisation, but it is not guaranteed. Networking is not sufficient to serve as a design orientation, as it is depicted by the rebound effects that are caused by the increasing use of smart phones.

Renn goes on to state that the ‘Internet of Things’ will presumably be the next wave of IT transformation and that smart phones will become loyal assistants that are able to carry out intelligent tasks on an increasingly independent basis. Yet he assumes that the effect on the consumption of materials and energy will vary.

According to Ortwin Renn, this assumption not only applies to the industrialised world. He recently spent three and a half weeks in Africa and reports that everyone there owns a modern mobile phone. He states that mobile phones have become the most widespread devices worldwide, surpassing washing machines, transistor radios and electrical pumps.

Renn, who works as a technology assessment expert, believes that we will be able to feed new technologies and forms of communication into societies of the poorest countries especially via the mobile phone culture. This is due to the fact that mobile phones represent the only infrastructure that functions consistently nationwide. In developing countries, the necessary transformation process will be much more likely to proceed via mobile usage than in Europe. The new communication through mobile phone usage offers to the African population entirely new opportunities that would have been impossible 15 years ago. In these countries, the exchange of information through mobile communication is the key to innovation, education and development. Smart phones have become objects of prestige due to the fact that users constantly have to own the most recent models; however, according to Renn, this is not problematic. He states that as long as the drive to own the most recent model is accompanied by dematerialisation and decarbonisation, there is nothing wrong with the symbolic link between product and prestige. After all, the production of a smart phone consumes less material and energy than the production of a Mercedes.

What causes him greater concern are the rebound effects. Because of the higher consumption of materials and energy when more consumer goods are available, the rebound effects compensate for the efficiency revolution of transformative products. This, however, causes a problem: the production of transformative products alone is not sufficient. Transformative products have to come along with lifestyle changes in order to avoid overcompensation. Although there is an increasing trend towards more public transportation and car sharing in metropolitan areas and although cars have lower fuel consumption, overall mobility is increasing. This compares similarly with other consumer markets. In Renn’s opinion, the ability for transformational products to avoid the rebound effects through behavioural motivation remains a wishful thinking. He observes two effects: some people are driven by ambition to decarbonise even more when concentrating on eco-efficient products, while others act on the basis of the motto ‘conservation allows for more consumption.’

Spreading Simple Lifestyles

Harald Welzer, a sociologist and professor for transformation design at the Norbert Elias Centre for Transformation & Design at the University of Flensburg, is also sceptical regarding the rebound effects of transformative products. He even doubts that there are products that are able to avoid rebound effects. During the interview with the factory magazine, he states that as soon as new products are created, expense increases due to production, development, trial and implementation of such products. He is calling for the consideration of expense reductions instead of putting the cart before the horse. He says that we have to consider how we can avoid the unnecessary production of new products for the world marketplace, and also how we can considerably reduce the amount of products that have already been manufactured. Otherwise he would not be able to conceptualise the ability of products to function as transformative.

Welzer’s concern is the disappearance of products. Unlike Wippermann, however, he does not want to achieve this goal through digitisation and networking, but through transformation design. In his eyes, it is not the design of products that has to change, because “that just wouldn’t be enough.” His institute deals with the question of how modern societies can be shaped in order to regain perspectives for the future in matters of dealing with energy and material. “Since we urgently need a transformation of our lifestyle and of the consumption of resources in order to not end in disaster, we need modelled transformation or, in other words, we need transformation design.” Instead of creating a different product design, Welzer suggests designing a new social practice that is characterised by avoiding products and thus eliminating them. 

Replacing “some energy feature” is not enough in transformation design. The process of social change is rather about changing sociological circumstances as well as psychological ones. According to Welzer, sustainable development has had little effect so far. The sociologist states that ever since sustainable development has been in demand, material and energy consumption have been moving in a rather unsustainable direction. “It is possible that modern societies deal with the problem in precisely this way – they increasingly talk about the topic in order to avoid having to work on the problem itself.”

Of course, not all products will disappear due to transformation design. Those needed on a daily basis as well as food would still have to be produced under changed production conditions. However, even in the area of building and living we would have to ask how much space one is allowed to use up, says Welzer. The transformation designer is even more radical in the area of mobility. He says, “For some reason, our mobility seems to be a manifestation engraved in stone or decreed by divine command, thus being unchangeable, irreducible and irreversible.” According to him, it is one of the great unsolved riddles of humankind why we constantly produce increasingly better means of communication, but have an increasing need for mobility at the same time. Even technological developments such as the Hyperloop, a sort of mega pneumatic transportation system for people, that is supposed to reduce travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to half an hour, are the wrong way to go in Welzer’s eyes. “I believe it is a mental distortion to optimise processes in such a malformed society.” According to Welzer, the optimisation and adding of new technologies only lead to new problems.

However, Welzer is not a preacher of renunciation in favour of transformation. In his concept of the responsible consumer, everybody decides for himself what is needed for a high-quality lifestyle. “Contemporary consumer behaviour and all this imaginary innovation are techniques of disempowerment,” he says. Certain forms of communal production and consumption would lead to a higher quality of life and to less substance and energy consumption. “I don’t even know how this could possibly be considered renunciation.”

In a research project entitled ‘Von der Nische in den Mainstream’ (from niche to mainstream), researchers of the Norbert-Elias-Center want to analyse how these resource-saving forms of production and community emerge from niche areas and transform to social dominant dimensions. Even though more and more best practice examples are developing in niche areas, the conditions for their widespread implementation and their scaling have not been examined yet. “The big issue for transformation is scaling,” says Welzer. Many projects can only exist in niches and are not conceivable on a mainstream scale. Other projects such as cooperative energy production are scalable without problems. “For designing transformation processes, it is highly significant to know what is adaptable to the mainstream and what is not.”

More on the topic of transformative products and transformation design in the complete interviews with Prof. Peter Wippermann, Folkwang University Essen, Prof. Dr. Ortwin Renn, University of Stuttgart, and Prof. Dr. Harald Welzer, University of Flensburg, later on www.factory-magazin.de.

More articles to the topic-range of transformation, transition and change you will not only find online than in our magazine Trans-form. The PDF-magazine contains additional facts and citations, is nicely illustrated and quite good readable on tablets and screens.

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