It is becoming clear that the next few years will witness a transformation in how we generate, distribute, use and store our energy. Commitments to ban internal combustion engines; the reduction in the cost of renewable energy sources and rapid developments in the means of producing and storing power will impact on all our lives – possibly much sooner than anyone could have predicted only a few months ago.
There are huge opportunities and challenges for the product design sector in these changes – from vehicle development through to recharging stations, storage systems and a wide range of new domestic products. How should the design industry respond?
Time to get circular
The exciting challenges posed by the circular economy have been around for quite a while, but the concept of zero waste design assumes even more importance once we start developing products that are designed to use renewable energy. The issues touch on every aspect of design, from material choices to approaches to upgrading, modular construction, recycling and the aesthetics of products designed for long term use. Products like the Fairphone are showing what is possible if we use design to help minimise waste, improve production conditions and ethically source materials and components. Like so much of what is happening now, this is the transformation of what was once considered radical to an approach that can be applied to almost any product sector.
Even if we're not going for full-blown circular product design, we need to start thinking more about the materials and processes we are using. Does your new product really require a two-shot moulded handle, which can never be recycled? What will happen to that PU moulded casing when it reaches the end of its life? Can more sustainable materials be a positive aesthetic choice? The answer is a resounding yes - have a look at some of these ideas.
Changing attitudes to material use will not be easy or quick, but as designers we are in a unique position to influence change and make alternatives more acceptable. For example, nearly five billion toothbrushes end up in landfill each year. Could great design help make the bamboo toothbrush a fashionably acceptable alternative?
By combining more appropriate approaches to appearance and production with the new technologies and products that are beginning to emerge, it looks like being a busy time for the design profession. Solar power storage systems, recharging stations, smart products that turn themselves off to save power – the list is long and growing.
The challenge for designers is not to make ethical design just another marketing gimmick or piece of window dressing, but to weave issues of waste reduction, product lifecycle, manufacturing sustainability and pollution into the fundamental creative process. Good design has always been about problem solving, and this looks like a great opportunity to show what we can do!