'Greener Gadgets' Isn't an Oxymoron

Allan Chochinov of design network Core 77 explains why designers need to step up to embrace sustainability

The very idea of "green" technology is somewhat problematic. How can a product that's chock-full of electronics, wiring, complex components ever truly be environmentally friendly? What precisely constitutes "green," anyway? And what can or should designers do to act as standard-bearers, facilitators, or innovators in this confusing world?

These were some of the questions addressed at the recent Greener Gadgets conference, organized by green blog Inhabitat.com and consultancy Marc Alt + Partners. The day-long affair brought together companies and individuals to discuss the challenges of looking at the tech industry through a greener lens. Representatives from companies including Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Intel (INTC), Sony (SNE), and Nokia (NOK) were on hand to talk up their respective environmental programs. And it quickly became clear that there's a real lack of consensus or methodological approach to corporate sustainability, not to mention a gulf between corporate and consumer-focused green activities.

Programs to address this are under way. The Green Electronics Council recently introduced the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) to allow companies to gauge the sustainability of their products. But it's an optional scheme, and persuading companies to adopt the system or promote it to consumers is a hard slog. Likewise, the Designers Accord (BusinessWeek.com, 1/18/08) aims to provide focus for designers and their clients, ensuring that sustainability is an accepted, mandatory feature of every design program. But it's still early days.

As a part of the Greener Gadgets conference, the organizers and design network Core 77 held a competition with a simple challenge: to design a greener gadget. The entrants were many and varied—some entirely unlikely, others with promising real-world application. Innovation & Design editor Helen Walters chatted with Core 77 co-founder Allan Chochinov about the competition and its wider resonance for the business and design communities.

What are the challenges of designing a greener gadget?

I believe that there are challenges right from the get-go. In today's culture, the notion of planned obsolescence seems to be part of the definition of the word "gadget." So the first hurdle is uncoupling the more redeeming characteristics of the notion of "gadget"—utility, pleasure, portability, for example—from the assumption of a short, disposable life span. Rather than retiring the word, I think we need to work towards redefining it.

When is a gadget really green?

At a minimum, a greener gadget needs to give no less than it takes. Again, the perception of a lot of gadgets is that they are wasteful, indulgent products—playthings for people with too much time and money on their hands. But a greener gadget can be something that feeds you and provides value. Devices that depend on renewable energy sources (solar, kinetic, wind, for example) get you halfway there.

The other half is embodied in how the materials are sourced, manufactured, shipped, and ultimately disposed of.

And then there's the third half (if you'll indulge me) that is all about social sustainability: What are the labor practices in a gadget's manufacture, for instance? What social value does the device bring when it's in use? (Does it create a system for sharing? Does it isolate people from one another? Does it create greater digital divides? Does it promote the idea of cooperation?) These are some of the more humanistic concerns in creating sustainable products and services, but they don't get talked about very much. They're also some the best entry points to groundbreaking innovation.

Do you think consumers are confused or overwhelmed by the idea of sustainability?

I think that's the story the media is running with these days, and perhaps it's true that there is a general feeling of malaise. But the sensitization to the issues of sustainability on a popular level is just getting started, so I resent the fact that the media is telling everyone that it's already over, that people are tired and confused and overwhelmed. I think people on the contrary are just waking up, and for the design community, the challenges surrounding the creation of sustainable products, services, and systems are incredibly fertile.

What do you make of companies' claims that amount to little more than greenwash? Given the many standards out there jostling for acceptance or adoption, how can or should business progress in terms of adopting sustainable standards?

I believe that change needs to come both from the bottom up and the top down; that we need government regulation as well as a groundswell of initiatives from consumers, designers, and producers. I think that we will see a shaking out of standards over the next five years, but that designers—as the "first movers" of many products and services—must take the lead in their design thinking.

Which labeling systems do you think have potential?

Initiatives like the Designers Accord are all about getting the design community on board, equipping them with shared tools, and compelling clients to have discussions around sustainability right from the first meeting.

What should executives looking at the ideas submitted to this contest in particular take away as an important lesson?

Executives, managers, businesspeople—really anybody involved in business and innovation—should understand that one of the most powerful tools designers possess is the ability to visualize powerful ideas; that design is a way of trying things on for size using sketches, models, prototypes, or photorealistic renderings to enable us to imagine products and services that don't yet exist. My favorite entry from the competition is Green Cell, and in particular the image of the vending machine in Green Cell, because in one second, that image communicates an entirely different and totally defendable way of solving the problem of nonstandard power supplies and batteries, even going so far as gesturing toward a system of how they might be distributed. In that one image you have a new product, a new service, and a new business model—if not a few new business models. That's the power of design.

What role can designers play in the greening of tech products?

Designers need to play an absolutely central role in the greening of tech products. It's my belief that the problem with designers is that they do not understand the power they have—that when you are equipped with the skills to move decision-makers by imagining things in new and innovative ways, and the ability to communicate those ideas in visual, tangible, and strategic ways, then you have a direct line to their hearts. Designers can make things emotional, employing user-centered methodologies and storytelling techniques and that can persuade very effectively. So if designers have this power, then with that power comes responsibility…especially if they're involved with mass-production. I've said many times that designers think they're in the artifact business, but they're not. They're in the consequence business.

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