30 November 2014

Watch out for sustainable design


When we think about sustainable design, and associated business models, it can sometimes seem a little too unrealistic against the tide of consumerism and disposable fashion.  However, we don't need to look too far for inspiration - in the first of two blogs, I'll consider the wristwatch.

Below are couple of watches, with very different pricepoints:




A Rolex Watch



Casio F-91W

Now let's look at some aspects of their design which are sustainable.


Durability

In most cases, watches are built to last.  At the premium end, they are likely to last many generations, and in a lot of cases, with a timeless (excuse the pun!) design.  At the other end of the scale, I can personally testify that the Casio watch above will last 10+ years, and keeps perfect time!

Repairs and servicing

Where a watch is battery-powered, almost all can have the battery replaced at low cost.  We take this for granted of course, but perhaps helps us realise why it's so peculiar that our smartphones and tablets are unlikely to support this (yet).  Another part of the watch which can sometimes wear out is the strap, but of course, in most cases, these can be replaced.

More expensive watches can be serviced, where the internal mechanism is serviced to maintain its precision.  Spare parts are available to support this.

Secondary Markets

As watches are built to last, they retain their value well, so there's a well-established second-hand market.  This might be through jewellers, or eBay.  People very rarely throw out watches.

Emotional connection

People have an emotional connection with their watch.  It may have been given to them by a special friend or relative, it might have been something they've saved up for, and it's likely to be with them during the highs and lows which life throws at them.  This special relationship with a watch may have started as a child in their formative years, as it might have been a 'grown-up present' which was cherished far more than some toys.  I'm not suggesting adults still sport their Mickey Mouse or Transformers watches, but I bet they still have them somewhere (and they probably still work!)


Smart Watches

We are starting to see smart watches appear now - do these pose a challenge to sustainability?


Apple Smart Watch

Superficially, if we group them with smartphones and tablets, we might dismiss them (and of course they need a lot more energy to run than a traditional watch).  But, interestingly, they do retain some qualities which are positive:
  • They're expensive!
  • The emotional connection can still be made
  • They can be upgraded (via software, new straps, etc.)
Time will tell (another pun) if they have the durability of other watches, or as new models come onto the market, whether they are discarded like smartphones.  But if you look at Apple's website, they do give the impression they are designed to last.

*UPDATE: January 2015* BLOCKS are developing a modular smartwatch, with links in the strap allowing 'pick and mix' functionality.  Let's hope it incorporates the sustainability aspects of a traditional watch too.


Blocks modular watch concept





*UPDATE: January 2015* According to 9to5mac.com, Apple's upcoming Smartwatch may have mediocre battery life.  If only it were user-swappable!

Lessons in sustainable design

So, to summarise, when we look at watches as sources of sustainable design inspiration, we should remember to develop products which:
  • are inherently durable
  • are 'cushioned' from the aggressively cyclical end of fashion
  • can be repaired and/or upgraded
  • the user is likely to form an emotional connection with (perhaps from childhood?)
  • allow the retailer to derive long-term service-based revenues from, e.g. servicing, second-hand sales, helping them move away from a 'sell and forget' consumerism approach

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