Here’s a common phrase that should strike fear in all our hearts: “It’s cheaper to just throw it away and buy a new one.” Of course, we hear that all the time. The “it” could be a mobile phone or an MP3 player, a printer or a pressure cooker, a cooler or a camcorder. As architect and author William McDonough asks, “Where is away?” And is it really cheaper?
Buying inexpensive, throwaway goods has become a way of life. But we rarely add up the costs of having to buy a new TV or camera or mobile phone over and over again. Or the costs to dispose of all that stuff, as waste.
There’s yet another by-product of the throwaway economy that’s rarely discussed: crappy design. Things that aren’t destined to be replaced in a year or two don’t need to be carefully designed. A product might look sleek or sexy, or have a lot of features, but that’s not the same as being well designed. Any meaningful definition of a well-designed product, like a Rolex or a Dutch bike, includes being built to last.
Bad design is the inevitable result of a throwaway economy. We tolerate it for one simple reason: selling more and more things drives business, growth, and jobs. At least until the recent collapse, manufacturing cheap goods (largely abroad), shipping them across the world, and selling them in big-box stores was a well-trod formula for business success. Many of the world’s biggest brands can hardly imagine making money any other way.
Now, happily, that’s starting to change. A new group of spry entrepreneurs and savvy communities are inventing and growing a new way of working, living—and designing goods, services, and systems. It’s called the “Mesh.” Fundamentally, the Mesh uses increasingly sophisticated mobile and information technology to make access to goods easier and better than owning them.
The Mesh is about sharing things, by design. And it will revolutionize the practice of design, by turning the throwaway economy on its head.
The Mesh is possible because we’ve become increasingly connected to each other, and to the physical world, by information systems. It’s already common to speak of having “access” to other people and to things. That’s a subtle shift in language, but one that’s profound in its consequences. In past decades, having “access” to things was essentially synonymous with owning them. To be able to just jump in the car (or, put another way, to get access to convenient transportation), we had to buy, maintain, and insure a car. But Zipcar, Relay Rides, BuzzCar, WhipCar, and other car-sharing services have pried access and ownership apart. These companies use information technology to give you convenient access to a car when and where you need it, without having to own a car. No car payments. No maintenance, wear-and-tear, insurance, and the host of other costs that go along with owning a car.
A focus on access completely changes the logic of design. Goods that are shared need to be durable, not tossed when one component fails. In fact, their components should be standardized enough to make it easy to repair and re-purpose parts. Shared “Mesh” goods should also be customizable and adaptable.
Take bikes. You don’t have to be an urban planner to perceive the multiple benefits of encouraging bicycling, especially in the city. Bicycles are cheap and light. They don’t hog up the road or create potholes. Bikes don’t emit carbon dioxide or require huge parking structures in prime real estate areas. They are safer than cars and allow people to gain a richer experience of their communities. Bikes might even help with our national obesity problem.
For all these reasons, many cities around the world have been experimenting with large-scale bike-sharing programs. The idea is to make it inexpensive and convenient to use a bike when you need it and easy to drop it off at your destination. It’s a great idea, but like all great ideas, the devil is in the design.
The Velib system in Paris was one of the most ambitious, and most watched, urban bike-sharing systems. And although it worked well for most users, problems surfaced quickly. The biggest was theft and vandalism. A significant number of the bikes were trashed or stolen. Several ended up on the bottom of the Siene. Climbing hills was another problem. People were happy to ride bikes down a hill, but many abandoned them at the bottom of hills, distorting the distribution and availability of the bikes.
Designers in Copenhagen, London and other increasingly bike-centric cities have come up with some ingenious ideas for solving these problems. Moving parts are enclosed in the bikes’ frames, making vandalism more difficult, while protecting them from inclement weather. Credit cards (or phone apps) can be used to unlock the bikes, identifying the user and making him or her potentially responsible for damages. Together with tracking devices imbedded in the frames, this system also discourages theft. And SoBi, a service in New York, has invented an inexpensive, all-in-one locking mechanism that attaches to most bikes and can be used with any normal bike rack. This innovation makes the storage, locking, and tracking of bikes in a share network less costly and cumbersome.
Other designs use solar batteries to power small engines that aid riders in climbing hills. Different bikes for different uses are becoming more common, including cargo bicycles that make it easy to cart purchases (and children) home. Still other designs allow the same bike to be customized for different users.
Designers are also working to better integrate bicycles into the public transport systems, mainly by placing large bike sharing stations next to transit stations. In several cities, phone apps and embedded sensors are making it easier to coordinate travel times among different forms of transport. These also provide data that allows engineers to continually improve the convenience and reliability of the city’s transportation systems.
Mesh design rearranges the priorities of the throwaway economy to create convenient, sharable goods and services that are durable, customizable, and sustainable. As the Mesh continues to take hold, we will unleash an extraordinarily creative and productive era of collaborative design.
Lisa Gansky, entrepreneur, instigator and author of the WSJ bestseller,The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing. Lisa speaks, consults and invests internationally with a focus on opportunities where access trumps ownership.