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Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation

Let’s Focus on Product Deconstruction

Why doesn’t innovation focus on the obsolescence problem?

Published: Wednesday, July 25, 2018 - 12:01

Ihave 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. This definition is entirely right and proper, but I think it neglects something very important.

I was reminded of this recently while at dinner with an executive from a large manufacturing company that produces many different products, one of them components for mattresses. Now, all of us want mattresses to be comfortable, and it would be great if they would last longer. 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 this 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 delivery men carting out the old mattress what would happen to it. “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 reuse much from the components.

Are we willing to accept slightly less sleek products that are far more easy to deconstruct and therefore friendlier to the environment? Will we accept less beautiful products that have reusable components? Why doesn’t innovation focus on the obsolescence problem?

This is a 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 dumping a lot of stuff that won’t decompose well into large pits. 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’s 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.

First published May 17, 2018, on the Innovate on Purpose blog.

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About The Author

Jeffrey Phillips’s picture

Jeffrey Phillips

Jeffrey Phillips is the lead innovation consultant for OVO, which offers assessments, consulting, training and team definition, change management, innovation workshops, and idea generation space and services. Phillips has led innovation projects in the United States, Western Europe, South Africa, Latin American, Malaysia, Dubai, and Turkey. He has expertise in the entire “front end of innovation” with specific focus on trend spotting and scenario planning, obtaining customer insights, defining an innovation process, and open innovation. He’s the author of Relentless Innovation (McGraw-Hill, 2011), and 20 Mistakes Innovators Make (Amazon Digital Services, 2013), and co-author of OutManeuver: OutThink—Don’t OutSpend (Xlibris, 2016).