room44 innovates

This may be a bit uncomfortable for some of you, so let’s start by talking about something that many people find funny.

I’m from Cornwall, and for many years there’s been a small but vocal movement for Cornish independence from the UK. Funny? It depends who you are and what your perspective is.

When Brexit first became a thing, some Yorkshire folk decided that it too had a claim for independence. ‘YEXIT’ was floated, and the arguments for its ability to stand alone sound pretty good: a population close to that of Denmark, a larger economy than some entire EU nations, and Yorkshire athletes won more medals than Canada in the Rio Olympics. Amusing? Not to Yorkshire. To the rest of us? Maybe, but stranger things have happened.

How we choose to look at issues reflects our perspective.

Here’s another one: according to a Hubbub, UK consumers buy, use and throw away 11 billion pieces of single-use packaging a year, and that’s just for lunch. That’s the equivalent of 276 pieces of plastic for every person in the UK – every year. On average, more than one piece of plastic every working day per person. Which kind of cancels out the argument that individuals can’t make a difference.

Now, as a consumer, I know that none of us wants to be responsible for plastic waste, but we do want to eat. The opportunities to use and refill our own food savers, reusable cups and rented tiffin cans are growing. The opportunities for buying single-use plastics are not yet decreasing, but they will.

Logically, the pressure on consumer behaviour and the financial penalties that will come to bear on the plastics supply chain will squeeze companies whose entire output is of plastic.

Most of these companies are still bullish. They think this is a problem for tomorrow because, today, their customers are supporting them. Phrases I’ve borrowed before are apposite again here:

  1. The difference between animals and humans is our ability to deny reality.
  2. When consumers stop buying crap, they’ll stop making crap.

Plastic manufacturers, on their websites, are still saying things like:

“We’re global specialists in packaging for food and drink, dedicated to making every consumer experience enjoyable, consistent, and safe. Our purpose is to help great products reach more people, more easily.”

“Make food look great.”

“A leading global design and engineering company in plastic products.”

With some simple research, you can see who is working to introduce pulp-based products and where the focus on plastic is still a priority. There remains a lot of ‘selling what we can make’ rather than ‘making what we can sell’ embedded in the psychology of these businesses.

In business, the CSuite is where strategic decisions are sanctioned. The Chief Marketing Officer is probably the person who gets to assess the options a company has. Every company needs someone in this position to battle against inherent short-termism that always bubbles to the surface when targets and financial planning are the focus.

Unfortunately, according to Seth Godin, the average tenure of a Chief Marketing Officer is about eighteen months. About the same amount of time a CEO takes to realise that there is no easy fix to the corner her or his plastic producing machines are in. Ironically, the person with the long-term strategic brain is the person your company is most likely to lose the quickest.

Whether you have a desire to change your business attitude to consumers’ and environmental issues, or you simply need to nail a new direction to the wall for everyone to buy into, you may well stumble at the first hurdle – picking exactly what to invest in, out of the noise in your market. Luckily, this is what we do.

Future thinking. Future-proofing.

Get in touch. Time is ticking.

One of the things I do as a side gig is to print t-shirts, the old way. Not perfectly Photoshopped, computer-created heat transfers, as most mass-produced (cheap) ones are today. This is a process that involves a craft knife, paper and ink. It creates a unique design on a single shirt and it’ll never be financially viable.

But that’s OK. It’s a pastime. It requires creativity and skill. One thing I know before I start is that there will never be another design exactly like the original. Single product runs, unique output, scarcity built in.

The freedom to change direction, create a new theme every time I do something, and not have to worry about uniformity, offers all kinds of possibilities. And t-shirts are the perfect medium. A recent exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum showed off the t-shirt’s ability to support protest, anarchy, fashion, campaigning and promotion: t-shirts as items that help align individuals to a tribe or a cause; t-shirts to connote wealth and the exact opposite. Whatever your story is, you can use this single piece of design as your tool of choice.

Now it’s a bit of a tough ask to pull this theme back to innovation and innovation strategy, but let’s see where it goes.

Back in the 1920s, around the time the word ‘t-shirt’ first appeared in print (thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald), technology was pretty rudimentary. Television was yet to be invented, colour photography was in its infancy and only for the wealthy. Movies were silent and actors’ faces needed to fill a screen to reveal any subtlety of emotion.

TV pictures today are in high definition. You can sit across a room watching a whole studio of people and see every audience member’s expression. Camera techniques haven’t kept up with the evolution that well. Using close-ups now can be downright troubling. I used to think actors had perfect complexions – not anymore. Now we can see every detail of their make-up and close-up can be too close. We can see the whole picture, pay attention to what we need or want to see, and exclude the rest, all in the time it takes to focus on a screen.

Consumer behaviour in almost every product category mirrors this. It wasn’t so long ago that every Sunday saw car owners doing their own mini-service: checking points, cleaning plugs – and still we weren’t certain that we’d get to work and school on Monday. Today, we get in and drive.

When we used wood-fired stoves to cook on, even children would know what kind of fuel to use to get enough heat to cook at higher temperatures, or what to burn for longer, slower cooking times. Today, we microwave. How that works, nobody knows.

Once upon a time, being a photographer meant also having a darkroom. Phones and cloud storage do that now.

And so it goes. As technology evolves, we get used to not having to understand how it works, just how to use it. Most of what we need is intuitive through the product design.

Innovators looking to enhance consumer experience are called upon to visualise a new condition and take us there through their execution of an idea. Designers develop the proposition by knowing what will improve our interaction, and the new product becomes gradually better and easier to use.

Today, you can design a t-shirt with a fingernail on your phone, get it back in a week and wear it until the heat transfer cracks. It may take a month and half a dozen washes, but the product isn’t designed to last. It’s designed to be functionally produced and not valued as a possession.

On the other hand, t-shirts that were given to athletes at the 1968 Olympics, or sold at Live-Aid, or used to promote bands like the Grateful Dead or the Sex Pistols, are now prized collectables. It’s not what they were designed to be, but the creativity and purpose that created them is now a sought-after commodity.

As Bradley Jacobs, CEO of XPO Logistics, puts it, “Music is really business…You have to be using all of your senses at the same time, and you have to be dancing with the circumstances and evolving.”

That’s innovation, right there.

Seeing it differently and future-proofing. It’s what we do.

Good design or circular design. Lego shows us how. There are more than 11.5 million children under 16 in the UK. Over the course of 2016 they were given, or bought, an average of nine toys each, costing £105 per child on average. That’s £1.9 billion in total.

The US accounts for around 3% of the world’s children and 40% of the toys bought globally. That’s a lot of plastic, among other things.

Of course, all this plastic has some long-term implications for the environment:

  • The raw resource too often finds its way into landfill
  • The raw resource is lost to the supply chain
  • The raw resource pollutes and kills parts of the ecosystem

Kids, huh?

Thinking about the long-term effect of product design is interesting. It’s easy for manufacturers to focus on shipping units and increasing turnover year-on-year. But, with some consumer pressure, we can drive change back into brand behaviour. We, as consumers, are starting to create our own trends and forcing brands to listen.

Looking back to look forward, we can see that trends in toys come and go. Everyone has a favourite from their era: train sets, Action Man, Barbie, Cabbage Patch Kids, Fidget Spinners… yet there are a few perennials. One is Lego. There are an estimated 90 bricks for every person on the planet, that haven’t changed in design in 60 years. If you bought and kept plastic Lego when it launched in 1958, you can still use them with modern bricks. More recently, Lego started selling its designed kits, but even the axles and fittings that were metal are now thermoformed plastic of the same material as the bricks themselves.

If you’ve ever tried buying a cheaper alternative to Lego, you’ll know why this is a false economy. As a design icon, Lego is already the most durable of toys featuring the best design of its kind, and now it has proved to be…  actually, no – not circular.

For a product to be designed to fit within a circular lifecycle, it has known obsolescence built in. A known tendency to break or a weakness is a larger part of the reason why toys fall out of favour. In Lego’s case, this doesn’t apply. Designed with longevity built-in means that the iconic bricks don’t stop being useful as they were intended to be.

So Circular Design is one way of helping the product lifecycle be more sustainable. Truly great design is another, and probably better.

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Future thinking. Future proofing. Innovation justified. It’s what we do.

Read any newsfeed or journal, on any day of any week, and among the top stories will be how Amazon is taking over everything retail. Post-apocalyptic predictions of wasteland shopping malls and the demise of the consumer supply chain are legion.

Twenty years ago, Amazon was widely derided when it was thought to be responsible for the closure of Borders, and the downturn in the fortunes of stores like Barnes & Noble and Waterstones. We may never have bought a book from these stores, but we felt aggrieved at the thought of an interloper changing our towns. Now here we are predicting the end of the high street – again.

“The retail apocalypse is upon us, Wall Street analysts say. Amazon dominates e-commerce and is rapidly moving into offline. Stores are closing by the thousands. Brand icons of the industry from Sears to JCPenney are dying. Yet, retail bulls argue, there’s more opportunity than ever in the space.” Fast Company

If history repeats itself, Jeff Bezos will soon be moving from revered to reviled. Think back – didn’t everyone love Rupert Murdoch once? Donald Trump was interesting – now he’s differently regarded (to put it politely). Margaret Thatcher was The Man during the Falklands conflict but blew it over the Poll Tax and 15% interest rates. Even Boris Johnson was funny until Brexit – now, he’s a self-promoting outlier. All people doing what they thought to be the right thing. We’re a fickle bunch.

The signs are all there for Jeff. A company growing in dominance the way Amazon is can only be great for so long. Once we notice what a plague delivery drones are on our summer Sunday afternoons, I suspect Amazon’s popularity may start to wane. Google ‘bring down drones’, and see what you get.

Trouble is, by the time we realise that we’re all paying for a single company to dominate the consumer landscape and take a still larger slice of our spending, it may be too late. All things are cyclical and all things are temporary. We could, collectively and individually, think beyond the downside of convenience and the immediate gratification of ready consumerism.

Want to get hold of a second-hand book? There are alternatives: Freecycle, Gumtree, charity shops, independent resellers, libraries… Not as clean and easy to navigate as Amazon perhaps, but that’s the point. Value what you’ve got while you can or, at least, think about it.

The second most used resource on this planet after water is – wait for it – sand. Sand is literally the foundation on which our urban landscape is built. Why is this interesting to innovation? In a nutshell, we’re running out.

Thinking of sand as a finite resource may seem strange. But desert sand is too smooth to be useful in construction, so we mine it from river beds, coastal deposits and sub-soil. The trouble is, modern day construction is running at such a rate that the planet’s natural ability to replenish sand stocks can’t keep pace. The UN forecasts that the number of mega-cities (those with more than 10 million inhabitants) will rise from 31 to 40 by 2030. China claims to have built over 32 million houses between 2011 and 2014, using more cement than the USA got through in the whole of the 20th century. Whole islands have disappeared through a combination of sand mining and rising sea levels.

Recycling materials like concrete can help to reduce the pressure on sand; but any such initiative must be part of a bigger, holistic change. When plastic was first created as an easily processed and multi-functional material, we didn’t look for downsides. We know differently now. In today’s design environment, where the absolute need for speed isn’t the primary driver for planning approval, things can change. Buildings are no longer necessarily considered permanent, and design hasn’t always anticipated a second use for the materials used.
We’re slowly waking up to the need for a new way of thinking. Reduce, re-use, recycle isn’t enough. Built-in recyclability seems like an obvious thing to plan for and yet it’s a pretty recent concept.

Alongside design thinking, which puts consumers at the top of the design decision tree, circular design is becoming an important concept. While sand mines may not take notice of a single architect making a few different decisions, as the price and ongoing access to a traditionally cheap material gets harder to maintain, alternatives will be sought and worked into product design.

Without a huge change in consumer awareness and our individual willingness to get involved in the specification of building materials, the rate of change will inevitably be slow. It may be too late for some rivers, beaches and even eco-systems. But the long-range signals of change are there to see.

This is where you can read about circular design. Please take a look.

Future thinking. Future proofing. It’s what we do.

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