Digital sustainability & sustaining digital

The timescales of sustainable living and daily decision making are very different. Risks of exhausting energy supplies, raw materials and climate change seem far off and, understandably, struggle to hold attention against more immediate matters of daily work schedules, monthly payments and annual birthdays.

It is human nature to satisfy the immediate desire for the latest gadget or continuing a comfortable commuting routine when an alternative like riding a bike would do both you and the environment some good.

This makes it impossible to consider how digital experiences can help sustainable living without first considering how design can respond to, or change, customer behaviour.

It is an issue MEX has been examining for some time in Pathway #7, starting with a May 2011 working session facilitated by Franco Papeschi (watch the video of his related presentation). The impetus for this Pathway arose in user research, where we found customers choosing products which reflected their desire for a more sustainable life in several industries – automotive, travel and food – but a dearth of such options in the digital world.

Our explorations are focused in two areas:

  1. The potential for digital to facilitate sustainable living
  2. Improving the sustainability of digital products and services

Sustaining digital

The second is perhaps the simpler of the two. Consumers buy a new mobile device, on average, every 17 months. Every purchase has an environmental cost in extracting and processing the materials, generating sufficient energy for manufacture and then delivering the product to the customer. In addition, there is the risk of the old device being sent to landfill, thereby contributing to pollution.

The obvious answer is to extend the replacement cycle. What would happen if consumers replaced their mobile devices every, say, 10 years instead of every 17 months?

We posed this question at a previous MEX and the look of fear in the eyes of mobile veterans was clear to see. If users were to change their habits overnight and keep their phones for 10 years, the industry would collapse. Every aspect of the business is currently built around this replacement cycle. It defines the supply chain and sales model.

However, what if – for a moment – we ignore accepted commercial wisdom and try to imagine what a device built to last 10 years would feel like, and how it could be economically viable?

Immediately there are questions about durability. How do you think 10 years of constant use would affect a handset commonly sold today – a Samsung Galaxy, for instance? Given the materials currently employed and the way it is manufactured, would it still be something you’d want in your pocket after 10 years of knocks, scratches and drops? Would it even be functioning?

Users have also been conditioned to associate obtaining new features with buying a new device. In user research, one of the first questions people ask about keeping a device for 10 years is how they will gain access to new capabilities and not be ‘left behind’.

It might be possible to make device hardware more modular, allowing individual components, like camera and screen, to be upgraded without having to replace the whole product. It is an attractive concept, but more research would be needed into whether, once the manufacture and delivery of these individual components is factored in, the total lifecycle of a modular hardware device was significantly more sustainable than that of the existing model.

There would certainly need to be more emphasis on continuing enhancements through software. As a result, there would be a knock on effect on the culture of software creation, where developers would need to consider how they could build services capable of running on a much wider range of hardware specifications, so that their apps could function on a 10 year old device, just as well as the latest model.

There is no precedent for this in digital. Vertu, the luxury handset manufacturer founded by Nokia, attempted it in the early days, promising users they would be able to keep the same handset shell, often crafted from precious metals like gold and platinum, but upgrade to the latest screens and cameras as they came out. However, this approach seems to have quietly faded from Vertu’s marketing over the years.

It is still theoretically possible with some PCs, with modular memory, processor and disk upgrades, but in practice more and more manufacturers are moving to slimmer, smaller designs that are hard to modify.

Instead, we must look outside of the digital world for inspiration. Take bicycles, for instance (an example we’re fond of at MEX – see also Andrew Muir Wood’s analogy with mobile device form factors). It is possible today for any amateur equipped with a few basic tools and some patience to fit the latest gears and brakes to a bicycle frame from 20 years ago. When components wear out (and, in places like the UK with wet winters and lots of mud, they often do), users can buy new ones from a wide range of sources, and either fit them at home or have a local bike shop do the work.

The upfront costs of the average bike and a mobile device are of a similar magnitude, yet customers are able to keep bikes for much longer because they can easily repair and improve them. The bicycle industry has facilitated this by designing products which are intended to be upgradeable, keeping fittings relatively standardised and supporting a network of third party suppliers and service centres.

Dame Ellen MacArthur, who made her name as a record breaking sailor, now heads a foundation which promotes this ‘circular’ approach to product design and sustainable industry. The underlying principle is that no product should be created without first considering how it might be recycled, upcycled or maintained.

MacArthur’s Foundation points out that, correctly managed, such an approach could increase medium term economic gains as well as ensuring long-term sustainability. However, for the mobile industry to operate in this way, it would need to completely rethink the current business model, where manufacturers make money only when they ship a new box full of plastic and metal. Instead, it would require an approach where manufacturers built a long-term relationship with consumers, making money from providing upgrades, service and support over a much longer device lifecycle.

Digital sustainability

Setting aside the sustainability of digital devices themselves, there is also the question of how technology is enabling humans to live more efficiently. The first benefit is so obvious that it is often overlooked: mobile phones have all but eliminated distance as a barrier to communication. The travel miles saved by being able to converse with anyone, anywhere, without physically being together has already made a significant difference.

There are also obvious and direct benefits in technology which provides more control over major consumers of energy such as heat and lighting, either domestically or in commercial buildings. It is now possible to control all of these things from a connected mobile device, although such deployments remain niche for the time being.

More subtle gains are being made because access to information is allowing users to make more sustainable choices. Devices equipped with Google Maps, for instance, provide a level of automated public transport planning unheard of just a couple of years ago. Google Maps on iOS can show me how to walk from my house in a tiny village, connect with a rural bus service and plan my train connections to almost any city in the UK in a matter of seconds. Not having to own stacks of timetables and maps can make the difference between using these options and falling back on the convenience of jumping in the car.

It won’t be long before users can scan the packaging of food products to find out exactly how far the produce has travelled, where it was grown and its nutritional benefits. There are already applications, like DriveGain (presented at a previous MEX by Simon East – video), which can monitor your driving style and suggest ways to save money and fuel. Further developments in this area will be ushered in by products like Automatic, which integrates directly with your car’s computer systems to provide even more detailed advice.

However, although all of these things are being made possible by greater connectivity and smart mobile devices, the number of users who have sustainability as their primary motivation remains low. The impetus usually comes from more immediate priorities. Simon East explained how the user research for DriveGain guided them towards a UX strategy which prioritised the financial benefits of driving more efficiently and simplified complex sustainability ratings into a clearer indication of whether the users was doing better or worse.

Employing language which communicates immediate benefits to users is just as important as the underlying technology. It is here that the skill of the UX designer comes to the fore. The most successful examples will identify obvious user benefits that also happen to lead to more sustainable ways of living. The difference might be as simple as presenting energy savings in financial units rather than more technically precise measures of emissions reductions.

At the March 2013 MEX we will be pushing further into this area, looking at techniques for guiding users towards a more sustainable life, and more sustainable digital tools. Some of the questions to be examined include:

  1. Is the contemporary nature of digital experiences incompatible with the more patient values of sustainable products? How can an industry reliant upon constant replacement cycles embrace a more sustainable approach?
  2. How might the design of digital products evolve in a future where sustainable and premium are synonymous?
  3. To what degree can digital experiences influence users to live more sustainably? In which areas of life are these applications likely to emerge first?
  4. How can users track and measure sustainable behaviour in units relevant to their lives?

The next MEX is in London on 26th – 27th March. Register for the last remaining tickets (£1499) here.


Add yours
  1. 1
    Roger Attrill

    I have to say I dislike the way in which the service providers push customers to view their phones as throwaway items at the end of a contract. Personally I have a Google Nexus S2 and I love it. It feels a little on the chunky side compared to Samsung’s more recent offerings, but I like the substantial nature of it, the ergonomic curves. I do actually want to keep it.

    Combine that with having bought the phone outright, and the contract separately (with GiffGaff), I’ve now escaped that ‘free phone with contract’ ongoing saga and have no plans to change anything until forced to in some way. I feel good about that – both for myself and for sustainability.

    People are more and more building a relationship with their phones. It’s not altogether surprising as the mobile device has become an extension of self. It allows people to access information, pass time, communicate with friends, navigate directions, and much more, earning its place as an item not to leave home without. As that increases, maybe we’ll see less people wanting to discard their beloved phones. Of course there will always be the early adoptors, but if the length of the innovation adoption lifecycle can be lengthened somewhat, that’s good for sustainability.

    People are also using their mobile device more and more for work (BYOD) which helps the cause, and even using them as their primary computing device, although we’ve a way to go there. With the increased ease of use, increased accessibility of internet and wifi, and apps being easily available and upgradeable, I personally believe the rate at which the phone hardware itself feels dated should start to slow.

    Having said that, there’s a sense of still being on this edge of what mobile devices are really capable of, with projects like Google Glass and wearable tech showing us a glimpse of the future (well…present really!), it’s impossible to predict what a mobile device will even be like in 10 years time, let alone contemplate still using my Nexus – much as I love it.

    • 2
      Marek Pawlowski

      Roger’s comment makes a good point about the role of operator subsidies and contract durations. Looking at it purely from a monetary value perspective, if you’re on a 2 year contract, you’d be crazy not to take a new phone when you renew, as you’ve already essentially paid for it! Those phones may be advertised as ‘free’ but you’ve actually just been spreading the cost over the lifetime of the contract. Most of the time you’re better off buying the phone outright and using a SIM only network subscription (as Roger does with his Nexus and Giffgaff connection). You’ll also not feel the financial pressure of taking an upgrade if you’re happy with your current device.

      The way in which operators advertise these contracts and push the concept of ‘upgrades’ as an incentive for you to renew sustains the replacement cycle for handsets, encouraging disposal. However, there are signs of improvement: some operators now offer reduced renewal prices if you keep the same handset, most have a trade-in recycling programme and a few – like T-Mobile in the US – are actively moving away from the subsidy model.

      I’d also agree with Roger’s comment about a slowing in the rate at which phones are feeling dated. The apathy towards the devices launched at this year’s Mobile World Congress was in part due to the relative lack of change from the devices launched last year. For the functions which really matter to most users – fast web browsing, easy messaging, good quality camera and a great screen for viewing media – the difference between a high-end smartphone from two years ago (e.g. the Samsung Galaxy S2) and today (e.g. Samsung Galaxy S4) is much smaller than the difference between, say, the Galaxy S2 and a 4 year old device like the original Android-powered phone, the G1.

      Assuming the rate of advances in device hardware is slowing, perhaps users will start to focus more on which manufacturers offer the best prospects of software upgrades. Nokia, for instance, is still updating 3 year old devices like the N8 on almost a monthly basis, whereas some Android manufacturers take much longer to issue updates, not least because of the additional development time resulting from the mess of Android customisation and fragmentation.

      Apple devices, despite the high upfront cost, also perform well in this regard: you can run the latest iOS on the iPhone 3GS from 4 years after its 2009 release.

  2. 3
    Simon East

    Great article. While technology can present to people feedback on the consequences of some of their actions and maybe encourage those it engages to change their behaviour, it is engaging a mass audience that I think is perhaps a bigger problem to solve. That is really a marketing problem, and one I don’t think anyone has solved yet.

    • 4
      Marek Pawlowski

      Glad you enjoyed the article Simon. You’re right: changing behaviour purely for long-term sustainability goals is confined to a relatively small niche at the moment. I’m not sure that will ever change significantly, so the challenge becomes – as you say – the ‘marketing problem’ of presenting sustainable choices in a way that helps people to understand their short-term value, as well as their long-term impact. This is where I’m hoping the MEX community may be able to create meaningful guidelines to help designers understand the role digital UX can play in shaping that behaviour.

  3. 5
    Marek Pawlowski

    Dr James Taplin of Forum for the Future also got in touch in response to the essay to share some of the work they’ve been doing in this area.

    This includes a series of concepts about digital in the future, such as the Wandular, a modular, upgradeable mobile device that grows with you:

    It reminds me of a MEX session from a few years ago when Guillaume Largillier of Stantum shared his vision for a mobile device given to each pupil at the start of their school careers, which adapts its interface as their cognitive skills and educational level increases.

    Forum for the Future also wrote this report (PDF) for O2 on how technology can help people lead more sustainable lives:

    And a report on a recent event they ran entitled: “Are you wired for change?” –

    Thanks for sharing James!

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