I've been thinking a lot lately about innovation and how we may have emphasized one component at the expense of another. Here I'm talking about something that should appear obvious - the focus of innovation in building new things. We are constantly reminded that innovation is about building new products and services and experiences. And this definition is entirely right and proper.
But I think it neglects something very important. I was reminded of this recently when at dinner with an executive from a large manufacturing concern. This company makes many different products, one of them components for mattresses. Now, all of us want far more innovation to make mattresses more comfortable, to make them last longer and so on. But, strange to think, the internal coil mattress is actually a very complicated product, a virtual lasagna of layers of cover, cotton, and steel. While that finished product is very comfortable, it is very difficult to deconstruct when an individual is finished with the product. And herein lies the rest of the blog post.
How might we make our products easily deconstructable?
I've been thinking about this ever since that conversation, because when we bought a new mattress for our son we asked the company that delivered the new one (and hauled away the old one) what would happen to the old mattress. Goes into the landfill, they said. And I thought, what a terrible outcome. So much of the mattress could be reused - the cotton batting, the inner springs, some of the foam siding. But the cost of deconstructing a mattress, which wasn't designed to be easily taken apart, makes it difficult to get a lot of reuse from the components.
Here's the question - are we willing to accept slightly less sleek or beautiful products that would become far more easily deconstructed, and therefore far friendlier to the environment and creating components that could be reused? Why doesn't innovation focus on the obsolescence problem - what happens when a product reaches near end of life and should be easily deconstructed to reuse the component parts?
This is question of design, of cost and of conscience. For years consumers have acquired shiny new products and discarded them without a thought as to what happens to the finished good once it goes into the waste stream. If you've ever seen people taking apart circuit boards by hand, or seen large electronic devices or mattresses go into the waste stream, you'll know that we are 1) dumping a lot of stuff that won't decompose well into large pits and 2) there is inherent value in this waste stream but our designs don't anticipate or accommodate the simple deconstruction of a finished good.
What if innovation and design focused on deconstruction as well?
I think that there is a huge opportunity for companies to create products that can be easily taken apart once the product end of life is reached. Doing so may require changes to the manufacturing and packaging of a product. Making it easier to deconstruct may make the product less visually appealing or less sleek, but it is something we can do and should be thinking about as we design new products. Too often innovators think about building the shiny new product but don't fully consider what happens when a product reaches end of life, and frankly we ought to be far more concerned about how products are being deconstructed or simply dumped into the Earth.
Could we be as innovative in the deconstruction of a product at its end of life as we are about its initial design and development? Would it cost a lot more to build a product that could be easily deconstructed and taken apart for its components, to encourage reuse and recycling? I think the market for fully recyclable or reuseable products is out there, waiting for this. Good innovators should be thinking not just about creating new products, but how to quickly and easily build products that can be deconstructed as well.