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What is Sustainable Interaction Design? Part Two: Invention and Disposal

By Guest contributors on November 21, 2008

This is the second of three blog posts by our managing editor Jeff Binder exploring the concept of sustainable interaction design as put forth by Eli Blevis of the School of Informatics at Indiana University, in a paper entitled Sustainable Interaction Design: Invention & Disposal, Renewal & Reuse.*


What happens to your old laptop computer? The disturbing reality is that even under the best of intentions, many of our most advanced products can end up in developing countries, part of a “charity shipment,” where they are not only useless, but unrecyclable.

Such an outcome demands a new approach. In a paper entitled Sustainable Interaction Design: Invention & Disposal, Renewal & Reuse Eli Blevis presents the idea that we should be more cognizant of where products might end up when we sit down to design them.

“…any design of new objects or systems with embedded materials of information technologies is incomplete without a corresponding account of what will become of the objects or systems that are displaced or obsoleted by such inventions.”

Software, he explains, is not only a product of invention, but often its neglectful mother.

“…it is apparent that software is material that prompts physical qualities in the sense that it drives the demand for new hardware, and as such it causes pre-mature disposal of perfectly adequate physical materials through obsolescence – too often, software may be almost wholly defined as that insidious material of digital artifice that causes the premature obsolescence of physical materials.

“Newly invented hardware capabilities in turn prompt the invention of new software. To my knowledge, the data needed to understand the scope of this principle as an hypothesis does not exist-it would be an important undertaking to uncover such information in a systematic way.’”

Ironically, through the best of intentions, we end up ‘dumping’ our discards where they cannot be used, discarded, or recycled properly.

“Writing in the journal "Environmental Health Perspectives", Charles Schmidt [39] reports that: ‘Hungry for information technology but with a limited capacity to manufacture it, Africa has become the world's latest destination for obsolete electronic equipment. Much of this material is more or less functional and provided in good faith by well-meaning donors. But the brokers who arrange these exports often pad shipping containers with useless junk, essentially saddling African importers with electronic garbage.’"

Blevis notes that many manufacturers of personal computers have recycling programs. That is laudable…but could they go farther?

“The Hewlett Packard (HP) company does have a program that allows consumers and businesses to trade-in old equipment, even equipment that was not manufactured by HP… The company accepts any old equipment for recycling – non HP equipment is accepted at the consumer's expense. It costs $9.00 US plus shipping to recycle a laptop computer. The company claims to handle 3 million pounds of equipment per month, claiming to reduce such equipment to raw materials for the manufacture of new equipment. Apple Computer has a similar program, as does Dell, according to company web¬sites.

“While these programs are possibly laudable, the heart of the matter is much more complex than just providing an outlet for conscientious consumers to discard their old computing devices when they wish to acquire new ones. There are a lot of question to ask: What is driving this consumption? Why can't such devices be designed to be more easily upgraded to newer technologies? How many consumers will actually pay to responsibly dispose of old equipment?’”

Another answer, driven by consumer demand and fostered by a new approach to product marketing, is to make older (i.e. heirloom) products more desirable by making the idea of those products fashionable.

“Such preferences are a matter of fashion and design, rather than engineering and feature-driven marketing. For example, there are many mp3 players that preceded the Apple iPod, but Apple succeeded in turning the mp3 player into an item of fashion both through the design of form and through the design of systemic support in the guise of iTunes. A sustainability proposition in this case is that to be truly responsible from the perspective of sustainability, Apple needs to use its fashion and design talents to make it chic to want to own and keep an heirloom quality iPod, even if some of its components need to be updated from time to time and rather than making it fashionable to have the new and latest iPod. The hopeful corollary to this proposition is that if people begin to prefer long lasting digital products that can be updated rather than disposed, companies like Apple will respond with appropriate fashion, design, and marketing models, and other companies will follow.”

Sooner or later, manufacturers and consumers will come hard up against our need for novelty. It’s vital in this context for design to anticipate upgrades – to be “hardware-preserving.”

“The observation that the iPod looks to be inspired in form by the Dieter Rams 1959 design for the Braun TPI radio is so pervasive that it is hard to know whom to credit. The comparison demonstrates that the invention on Apple's part is not so much in the product form, but rather in many other aspects of the design's context. One would have hoped that the digital nature of the media that the iPod houses would be hardware-preserving and as timeless as a quality radio. Sadly, the re-invention by Apple of its own product from time to time – from the original iPod to the mini to the nano – is a deliberately unsustainable act intent on driving consumption and with the clear side effect of premature disposal.”

This is not an unreachable ideal. A good example of this approach to design is the Leica camera. Blevis notes that to many photographers, Leicas are professional objects of heirloom quality.

“Many of these cameras are still in use, even in the digital age. The lenses made for these cameras still fit modem versions of the camera, including the long¬ awaited and unimaginably expensive digital version which has just come to market and which looks not very different than these earlier examples – this backwards compatibility of such critical components as lenses is an act of sustainable design more typical of professional quality tools than consumer products.”

Recreating the Leica ideal in other products will require a deep shift in the way most products are designed and marketed today. It starts with the idea of linking invention and disposal.

“From a designerly perspective of sustainability, the issue of how invention drives disposal means understanding why people want new things and looking for ways to get them to prefer the alternatives to such cycles of acquisition and disposal. One hopes that the companies will respond to such changes in preferences should they be achieved with new marketplace models, such as models that create incentives for renewal & reuse, rather than acquisition of new things and disposal of old ones, or models that create incentives for shared use.”


* -- Blevis, E. (2007). Sustainable interaction design: invention & disposal, renewal & reuse. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (San Jose, California, USA, April 28 - May 03, 2007). CHI '07. ACM Press, New York, NY, 503-512.
Paper available for download from the ACM digital library:
Publications list for Eli Blevis: