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Complexity and contradiction: the sustainable designer's dilemma

The periodic idea of improvement – the model refresh cycle, advancing design, adding novelty and newness to drive sales – is at the heart of a dilemma any designer concerned with sustainability might be going through.  

What as designers are we trying to do? Solve problems? Design-in ‘newness’ to drive sales? Somewhere in between? 

There’s a simple truth right now that as the industrial product becomes more sophisticated and increasingly ‘digitised’ it becomes both harder to repair, reuse or upgrade. And it is ultimately likely to be thrown away at a younger age. Built-in-obsolescence has long been a core tenant of the industrial manufacturing process that the car industry is a leader in. Right now, it’s the consumer electronics industry that’s speeding replacement cycles. 

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But is that sustainable? On a recent holiday to France, I noted the array of simple, mid-century designed vehicles still in daily service on the roads. Renault 4s and Twingos, Peugeot 205 and J7 vans, Citroen 2CVs and C15s. The youngest of these vehicles is 20 years old, the oldest closer to 50 – many would be considered ‘classic’ and long past their serviceable best by many Brits and Americans.

Yet built simply, easy to fix and with virtually no electronics these vehicles have endured daily life rather well, while the fundamental basis of their conception – as extremely functional, rationalist products – has meant that their usefulness continues today, particularly in these more remote parts of France which don’t feel overly touched by the hand of the digital revolution.

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What can this teach us about designing sustainably for the future? Perhaps two central ideas:

    - Having a highly functional, rational basis for the car which provides versatile accommodation (for people and stuff) and easy means of cleaning, repair etc. – should help a product to endure. 
    - Much of the complexity that’s being added into modern vehicles derives from electronic systems, displays and on-board technology. While these are now critical – integral parts of the car – the rate of tech development means it is highly likely to be components of this kind that cause a vehicle’s useful life to be ended prematurely. Thus, ensuring separable (rather than embedded) or upgradable technology systems, ought to become a key factor in vehicle design.

It’s easy to be cynical and say that this hasn’t happened because it’s in no-one’s interest to extend the life of a product and have a consumer not buy another. Yet with increasing legislation, punitive taxes and even restrictions on new number plates being given out in certain cities, hasn’t the time to come to not only think more systematically sustainably, but also extend the business model beyond simply “let’s sell them a new one”?