Environmentally Progressive?

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CIBSE event pass 2012

I was asked to present at a recent CIBSE event in London on the subject of ‘Environmentally Progressive Design’. This really got me thinking, as it is a seriously provocative subject. What does it mean and are we doing our bit? Is 4c Design Environmentally Progressive?

Designers have a duty along with consumers, retailers, manufacturers and distributors to make environmentally responsible decisions. We all feel a little guilty when we ask for bags at the supermarket, or have to through food out.

Discussions around how the design process can reduce the environmental impact of new product development have been raging for many years… We have seen Cradle to Grave design, where we must at least be aware what is happening to our products at the end of their lives. This is evident when looking at any product, where you can see the recycle symbol and number, or the WEEE icon which is to encourage responsible disposal.

Recycle Symbols

The thinking has moved on slightly and is now called ‘Cradle to Cradle’, which I am sure most of you will have heard. This now encourages the re-use of materials and not the simple disposal.

I could now run through some examples of products we have worked on that follow this line of thinking, however I’m more interested in taking a further step back to the initial creative process we employ to ensure that these are useful products in the first place. In my opinion there is nothing more irresponsible than creating a mountain of novelty crap that no one needs or wants and therefore that is where design can be truly progressive.

This started when I looked up the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) website and saw that over 162,000 international patents were filed in 2010. Now that is a staggering amount of valuable ideas generated that have been deemed important enough to protect. It doesn’t stop there, over 500,000 patents were filed in the US in the same year. This got me thinking… Just how many of these are commercially successful. How many have paid their creators back with enough to cover design, development and manufacture and of course the cost of patenting. This, after a certain amount of digging rounded up at about 1 in 100, which I think you’ll agree is a little disappointing.

The figures I have seen for funding an international patent range from a conservative £5000.00 to a monumental £50,000.00, which clearly needed to be a success! If we take a figure of £10,000 and match that to our hit rate vs international patents filed, then we are looking at a waste of £1.6Bn in patent fees. Never mind the costs involved in taking that product to market.

Museum of Failed Products

During the event I was introduced to the ‘Museum of Failed Products’. This has to be seen to be believed. An article by the Guardian covered the story:


So what is going wrong?

I believe we need to focus on what a good idea is in the first place and ensure that the product has a fighting chance to survive in the marketplace. The conventional ‘lightbulb’ is too precarious, we need to dig a bit deeper at the beginning of a project and identify a need! Every solution needs a problem.

The design process has developed over decades as people have identified ways of taking an idea to market more efficiently and there have been significant developments in prototyping to help you visualise and test an idea within hours of drawing it up in CAD. However little is said about where these ideas come from in the first place, because design is conventionally the process employed after that Eureka moment!

This I believe is where the most change can be made, because it doesn’t matter if you design the most environmentally responsible cradle to cradle considered product in the world.

If no one wants it, it’s simply a waste.

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3 Responses to “Environmentally Progressive?”

    • 4c Design

      Good Question!

      You’ve sparked a debate in the office. Where is the line between Need and Want? How do you determine what is Needed?

      But if we had to pick one then we will stick with Want, you can’t stop desire and where do you draw the line? Do you Need art?

      • Kevin

        I reckon the article lends itself to a focus on need rather than want.

        “we need to dig a bit deeper at the beginning of a project and identify a need”

        If it’s not ‘needed’ then the only way to identify ‘want’ is mass consumer survey, or if it is innovative in design then a prototype. And if you’re going to prototype it you’re going to protect it with a patent….which may be useless if it turns out there’s not enough want……

        There’s probably a need to legislate on mass production of anything, whether it’s a want or a need, based on its cradle to grave/cradle cycle. For example the millions of useless iPads when I release my virtual hologramatic voice recognition surround sound semi-invisible personal assistant (4G enabled).

        But again there’s the argument that UK or US legislation is crazy if China and India then produce for a global market ‘want’ with no recourse to the environment and then you get into trade restriction based on environmental impact of goods.

        Anyway, the blog is Design led in focus and is a real thought provoker for someone like me who as no design skill, nor anything other than a social conscience on environmental issues. It’s money matters that I come across and it may not be Utopian for the purist but the way to focus design on environmental impact is through ‘the market’ and cash incentives. Tax breaks for environmental design, like R&D tax credits, but another step.


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