Let me start with an amazing “makes-you-go-hmmm” thought. It takes 13 tons of water to make your mobile phone.
Glug. Glug. Glug.
Let that soak in for few seconds. Then read on.
My first engineering assignment was in an organization which focused on repair of telecom equipment. This equipment was designed and manufactured by one of the top (if not the top) designers and manufacturers of equipment at that time. One of my assignments was to do a “road show”, traveling to the locations which did the equipment design and explain to them (all PhDs and most of whom had at least two or three patents to their names) how the end result of their design – the product – lived its life “in the wild” and also what defects or other reasons resulted in their return for repair.
I think this may be one of the reasons that I believe strongly in – if possible – repairing something rather than disposing of it and ‘just buying a new one’.
Yet, our culture, increasingly, has become a throw-away culture. Smartphones are tossed, laptops are only expected to last a year or two, and people by clothing to wear –maybe – once or twice, and then those also get tossed.
I came across an excellent episode from the “Costing the Earth” podcast from BBC 4 to which you should lend an ear. In fact, bookmark the podcast, not just this episode.
The feature in this 20-ish minute podcast is about “Restart Parties” – which is a real thing, increasingly popular in the UK and several other countries, and it’s not only right in line with that first engineering assignment of mine but also represents a project that is literally reducing carbon emissions and other waste by thousands of tons. They are also collecting data points from consumer who face failed products and getting that information back to the manufacturers – the organizers actually also used the phrase “how the product does in the wild”.
Some statistics: in the UK alone, 800 pounds of electric/electronic products are brought into households per year and a similar amount is disposed of. If that sounds like a lot, sit down, because according to Earth911.org, the figure for electronics disposed of annually by the US consumer is 9.4 million tons.
In smartphones from the US alone, this represents $60 million in gold. Literally.
In fact, if you decided that gold mining was your thing, you would be 40 to 800 times more productive mining in discarded circuit boards than in gold ore. If you’ll excuse the pun, I think we should treasure that fact!
But back to our podcast. People are doing something about this which I found fascinating and it’s also considered a project. It’s called The Restart Project, and you can read about this idea here.
Even better, have a look at this video from the Restart Project:
What do you see here? It’s about consciousness of the impact of waste, but there’s more than that – there’s a social aspect and even a sense of freedom from the thruway syndrome, which somehow emphasizes hope rather than just a cycle of discarding.
A lot of what you’ll find in this podcast and the other resources linked in this post has to do with the thought that goes into the design of a product – or for that matter, even a service – about what the long-term impact is of the product. We, as project managers, often have a say in decisions that could change these long-term effects, something like what we used to preach on our road shows of days gone by: make the products repairable. Make them long-lasting, durable, reliable. In general, we should be speaking truth to power when it comes to designed-in obsolescence. We should be seeking designs in which the hardware platform can innovatively use software to make the product compatible with the changing outside world. As an example, I just replaced my cable modem on the recommendation of my service provider. Suddenly my wireless router began to act up and provide unreliable service. The recommendation from the service provider? “Get a new router”. Even the manufacturer of the router (no big surprise here) said, “just get the latest-model router”. Friends and family said, “get a new router, it’ll be more likely to work with the new modem. No – not me. Remember? I said I had this background in repair engineering? So, I did 10 minutes of research, found that I could download a revised set of firmware for the router, did so, and voila! The old, about-to-meet-its-maker router, which is actually not all that old, is working fine again!
Multiply that sort of transaction hundreds of thousands of times and consider the impact of that 13-ton mobile phone – and we’re talking about a significant environmental impact reduction (in addition to saving a trip to the electronics store and the $50 for the new router in my case)!
So check it out! See if there are any Restart Parties near you?
You can join the Restart Parties Facebook page here and check it out!