14 December 2014

Mobility for a new generation

Car ownership has been an aspiration for generations of teenagers, but this is changing fast.  The next generation of drivers are less likely to own a car, and a lot more likely to access a car only when they need it.  And you can understand why:
  • Car's are not cheap to buy, insure or maintain
  • Cars depreciate in value quickly - and this will accelerate as new car technologies render older ones less attractive
  • Parking is not readily available for a lot of people
  • Congestion and pollution aren't being resolved in cities
For the car industry, this is a problem, as their traditional business model relies on selling volumes of cars to the public, or for fleets.  Car dealers too, will struggle to survive in their current form if cars aren't purchased as often.  Below are outlined some of the new business models being introduced, and the players who are vying to deliver a great experience and win customer loyalty.  It is interesting to note those manufacturers who have embraced these new business models.

Why is this relevant to sustainability?  Well, put simply, car sharing should mean less vehicles on the road.  That means less materials used in manufacture, less congestion, and less emissions.  In fact, a Frost & Sullivan study suggested that each car sharing vehicle available, it was equivalent to 15 privately-owned vehicles.

This blog will consider 5 different business models:
  • Car sharing
  • Peer-to-peer car sharing
  • Lift sharing
  • Car Lane Sharing
  • Taxi services
  • Parking space sharing

Car Sharing

People have been hiring cars for decades, but given the fixed costs of
rental agreement processing, cleaning and maintaining cars, it hasn't been suited to short-term rentals, so was only attractive to holiday-makers and businesses.  Local residents were stuck.  This is no longer the case...


Zipcar was setup in 2000, in Boston, US, merged with Flexcar in 2007, and in 2010, bought London-based Streetcar. In the UK, Zipcar offer a variety of VW/Audi cars/vans (plus Vauxhall Corsas) for hire, on an hourly or daily basis, in one of five cities (London, Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford, and Maidstone).

BMW DriveNow 

BMW i, Mini and Sixt have launched DriveNow in eight cities, including London.  In an all-inclusive package, once you have become a member, you can access a fleet of cars, and pay by the minute.  There's no need to return it to the same space it was collected from. 

Here's a promotional video:

Peugeot Mu
Peugeot haven't caught the imagination of the car sharing / sustainability media as much as they perhaps deserve.  Peugeot Mu started on the Continent, and was launched in the UK in 2010.  Its service offers a selection of mobility options for short-term rental, including cars, vans, mopeds and vans.

It seems to only operate from five Peugeot dealers in the UK (in London, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow), so its limited reach may restrict its wider acceptance.

Audi Unite

Audi Unite takes car sharing to a whole new proposition, by making car ownership between a group of people a lot easier.  A smartphone app allows you to locate the vehicle, reserve it, and see how much fuel is available.  And cleverly, the all inclusive running costs are then shared between the members of the circle, based on their respective usage. It's currently only available in Stockholm, so will be interesting to see if it gains further traction.


Car2Go (part of the Daimler AG group) operates in 30 cities across Europe and the US (but no longer in the UK).

 If you'd like to learn more, here's a video explaining the service:

City Car Club

City Car Club was launched in 2005 from Leeds, and offers cars for sharing in 17 locations in the UK.

Peer-to-peer car sharing

Taking the concept of car sharing to the next level, peer-to-peer sharing allows car owners to make their car available to other people, through peer-to-peer sharing.  Of all the collaborative consumption business models that exist, it may prove one of the most difficult, as trusting someone else with ones car is a tough call. One of the early pioneers, WhipCar, unfortunately is no longer in business, but there is at least one organisation still operating this model.

easyCar club

easyCar Club offers peer-to-peer lending, with driver vetting, insurance and RAC roadside assistance all providing peace of mind.

Lift sharing

Another twist to car sharing is offering spare seats to give the driver company for a trip they were already planning.


Lyft operate in a large number of cities in the US, with passenger ratings, payments via an app, and additional insurance services.

bla bla Car

Paris-headquarterd bla bla car offer peer-to-peer services in a handful of European countries, including the UK.  

Car Pooling

Munich-based Car Pooling is Europe's largest carpooling community.

Car Lane sharing

Car Lane sharing, or 'High occupancy vehicle' (HOV) sharing gives drivers access to an exclusive lane on a highway, if they share with at least one other participant. The idea is that this not only reduces their journey time, but with less overall cars on the road, it should have a net total benefit.  The reality can be somewhat different, with the non-HOV lanes finding an increase in congestion, and sometimes the HOV lanes very sparsely used.  This is a shame, as it's a great concept which perhaps needs to be more dynamically controlled.

Taxi services


Uber is a smartphone app which had an impact in every city it's entered, for example the traditional black cab drivers in London staging a protest.  Via a smartphone app, you can book a car with driver to collect you and drive you to your chosen destination.  The passenger can choose the level of car they'd like (e.g. luxury), and the payment is all made via the app.

Parking Space Sharing

JustPark (referral link) allows you to earn money from renting out a parking space you have (e.g. your driveway), to someone that would like to park there (by hour, day, week, month, etc.).  It's so simple, that even I use the service to rent out a space. 


If a journey can't be made by foot or cycle, ideally public transport should be used to minimise the environmental impact of the journey.  Where this isn't practical, there's no longer a need to own a car - there are a whole host of options available, helping people get to their destination.

09 December 2014

Can 3D printing be sustainable?

Technology, innovation and engineering are going to be at the foundation of any step change in solving the greatest sustainability challenges of the next few decades, and the possibilities are very exciting:
 - mobility solutions with autonomous electric/hydrogen vehicles
 - platforms to embed trust in the sharing economy
 - smart grids, including demand management and community energy generation

Another example suggested as being a huge opportunity is 3D printing.  And although there are some positives, we need to be very cautious.


One of the key words which will support a more sustainable economy is 'repair'.  This requires that products can be repaired, plus there are viable services which can cost-effectively offer these repairs, without too much inconvenience for the user.

3D Printing can provide some opportunities here, as where products are modular, it may be possible to print out replacement parts, at a much cheaper cost than replacement of the entire unit.

An extreme case of repair is of course with our own bodies.  And although headline-grabbing in the last couple of years, there are genuine examples where bespoke replacement parts have been made for people.  DIY kits for self-repair haven't taken off yet, luckily.

R&D and light manufacturing

As new products are developed, or highly specialist limited items are required, 3D printing has an opportunity to minimise waste.  Previously, significant 'off cuts' may have been required to build a prototype, but 3D printing can now potentially create something precisely without any waste.  It can also be produced more locally, minimising transport costs.


When thinking about design sustainability, as well as ensuring products are durable, it's good to promote a secondary market, i.e. selling onto another user.  And this is where 3D printing causes some problems, as there are an increasing number of opportunities to print personalised gifts:

Asda's 3DME Service

Although personalisation can introduce an emotional connection to a product (so perhaps it's less likely to be thrown out in the short-term), it does mean it's also less likely to be attractive to anyone else, so ultimately will be thrown away, or stuck in a loft.  This is true, almost by definition, for any form of personalisation in product design, such as NIkeiD for trainers.

NikeiD trainer personalisation 

And if home printing takes off, will we end-up in a glut of weird looking plastic objects being touted on eBay, as well as plastic waste, where the nozzle calibration hasn't been done perfectly?

CUBIFY Cube 3D Printer

Still, it's better than printing 3D guns, I suppose!


For some serious applications, there are genuine sustainability advantages, like minimising offcuts and localising manufacturing.  However, it's unclear if the push for consumer-facing 3D printing services, or even 3D printers in the home is ever going to be sustainable.  And 3D printing serves as a useful example of how challenging it is to introduce personalisation into sustainable product design.

08 December 2014

Sustainable design - changing gear

Recently, I wrote about the wristwatch being a source of sustainable design inspiration. In this blog, you'll see some further inspiration from a very different product - the bicycle.  Are there sustainable features of bikes which can be borne in mind when designing other products?

Felt Z85
Felt Z85

Low-carbon, healthy transport

First, the obvious one - a bicycle is a form of transport which emits no carbon when it's used.  And of course it provides the rider with a form of exercise, so it's inherently a thumbs-up!  And if you think they can only carry one person, check out London Green Cycles who offer a range of styles to accommodate all sorts of loads.

Christiania Classic Light, from London Green Cycles


In most cases, bicycles are built to last.  'Planned obsolescence', where products are designed to fail after a certain time (to increase sales) and first seen in light bulbs, does not apply to this sector.  A bicycle's inherently modular design (i.e. comprised of many separate parts) means where aspects do break, it's not the end for the whole bicycle.  A similar concept is being considered in smart phones, with Phonebloks (and now Project Ara, by Google).

Repairs and servicing

If a bicycle does have a problem, the chances are it can be repaired, either by the individual, or in a cycle repair shop.  This might be anything from a new tyre, to a brake cable, wheel, or chain.  Many shops offer servicing, where bicycles are brought back to as close to their original condition as possible.

Shimano 105 brake caliper

Shimano 105 cassette sprocket

Secondary Markets

Bicycles rarely find their way to landfill, and there is an active second-hand market.  On eBay, when this blog was written, there were nearly 90,000 bicycles listed in the UK. Various local charities will happily take unwanted bikes, refurbish them and sell-on.

Emotional connection

People have an emotional connection with their bike. Much like a watch, a special relationship with bicycles may have started as a child, as it might have been a 'grown-up present' which was cherished far more than some toys.  And of course, at any age, a bike can bring adventure and exploration.

Social cycling

Although cycling is a solo effort (unless on a tandem), people are rarely cycling alone. Here's an extract from the 'Greater London Authority':

In the morning peak (7-10am), up to 64 per cent of vehicles on some main roads are now bicycles. Cycles make up almost half of all northbound traffic crossing Waterloo, Blackfriars and London Bridges, and 62 per cent of all northbound traffic crossing Southwark bridge in the morning peak are cyclists. They are the largest single type of vehicle on each of these bridges, outnumbering cars in each case."

In fact, cycling in London is gaining such momentum, that Transport for London (TfL) have recently been consulting on further segregation between cars and cycles, as part of a East-West Cycle Superhigway:

Visualisation of proposed segregated two-way cycle track on Victoria Embankment (TfL)
And for those who use cycling to improve their fitness, there are lots of platforms to support them, like Strava, which adds an element of competition to their pursuit.

Strava - a social platform for fitness

In the UK, there are over 1800 cycling clubs affiliated to British Cycling.  There are also many mass-participatory events organised throughout the year, like Sky-ride, and the Prudential Ride London.

Sky Ride logo

And we're starting to see a mini proliferation of 'cycling cafés' which not only offer a coffee and slice of cake, but also repair service for bikes.

Cycle Hire

In many cities now, there are options to hire cycles:

Cycle Hire in Guatemala

'Hubway' cycle hire in Boston, US

Foldable Brompton bikes for hire with South West Trains, UK
'Boris Bikes', London, UK

Cycle hire is great for sustainability - the positive benefits of healthy and low-carbon transport can be shared amongst many people, without each person needing to own their own bike.  This is a great example of 'collaborative consumption' or 'sharing economy', which is gaining real momentum across various sectors (e.g. Uber for taxis, AirBnB for homestays, etc.).

UPDATE: Spinlister is a peer-to-peer platform allowing users to share their underused bikes with others.
Bike Libraries

I've recently come across a great concept supported by Yorkshire Bank - help for people to setup bike libraries in one of England's counties, Yorkshire.  

The Bike Libraries originated when Yorkshire hosted the opening stage of the Tour de France in 2013, the Grand Départ.  In association with Cycle Yorkshire, its legacy aim is to give the local community access to a bike.  An enterprise fund (no longer available) supported not-for-profit entities to set themselves up and now 10 libraries support bike provision, alongside associated participatory activities like road safety and bike maintenance courses.

Cycle Racing

Cycling provides a source of inspiration, with professional teams, drawing large live crowds, and TV audiences:

Team GB Cycling during London 2012
A cyclist completing the Tour of Britain Stage 7, Guildford, UK, in 2013


There's nothing above that's a huge surprise about bicycles and cycling, but it's only when you consider all of these aspects, is it clear that it could be a source of inspiration in sustainability design.  So, when thinking about design of other products and services, consider:
  • Can the physical design of a product be easily repaired and serviced?
  • Is the physical product inherently durable?
  • Can the product be made available to others, either through some form of sharing, and/or via a secondary market when the user has finished using it?
  • Can the product be designed in such a way that it can substitute the purpose of another product which uses energy?
  • Can the product or service provide an emotional connection and/or an experience?

03 December 2014

A sustainable smile?

With 64.1 millions human mouths in the UK, that's an awful lot of toothbrushes sold every year, especially with the recommendation that they are replaced every 3 months - in fact, it's a £110m annual industry.  But is the design of a toothbrush as sustainable as it could be? Two areas of design will be considered, the product itself, and the way that they are sold.

Various toothbrushes for sale in Sainsbury's

Get a grip

Although dentists recommend replacement of a toothbrush every three months as the bristles wear out, the handle certainly doesn't - and that's where the majority of plastic (and retail packaging) is required.  

The proposal is quite simple - replaceable toothbrush heads, allowing the customer to keep their handle for longer.  The physical connection between handle and head would need to be considered, but inspiration could come from a bayonet lightbulb fitting, or even a hand blender (push on, then twist to lock together):

Connecting the handle and attachment of a hand blender

The toothbrush market is an oligopoly (a few dominant players: P&G own Oral-B, Jordan own Wisdom, Unilever own Signal, Colgate-Palmolive own Colgate, etc.), so with some industry collaboration, they could agree a common connector, much like the mobile phone industry has eventually done in the EU using micro USB chargers.  Such a connection could also support additional brush heads, for denture cleaning, or tongue scraping.

A new revenue model?

If toothbrushes were available where the head and handle were available separately, then could the head replacement be offered as a service?  It would go something like this:

  • Online, in-store, or at the dentist, a customer buys an initial toothbrush kit - simply a handle and standard brush head
  • The customer registers their details online, alongside a direct-debit instruction
  • Every three months, a new head is sent to the customer, at £1 per head (either from manufacturer, or via dentist)
It's a win:win:win:
  • Environment: It saves a significant amount of plastic, and packaging (envelopes for postal service would be fully recyclable)
  • Customer: has improved dental hygiene, as they don't forget to buy a new toothbrush; and it's cheaper and more convenient than the current approach
  • Manufacturer: gets valuable customer data, and can cross-sell discounted consumables like mouthwash and floss - building brand allegiance

Electric toothbrushes

For those that have electric toothbrushes, this isn't a problem of course, as such models offer interchangeable heads for any occasion.

Electric Toothbrush Heads from Oral-B

Unfortunately, much like many smartphones and tablets, they have a battery built-in, which isn't replaceable.  It is not clear how many years (or charging cycles) the battery lasts (at least one manufacturer is only offering a two year guarantee), but I'd assume there are increasing numbers ending-up in landfill, or treated according to the WEEE directive.
Electric Toothbrush from Oral-B

It would be interesting to see how the long-term Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of a manual toothbrush compares to an electric one, and also to see if there are different behaviours used between the two which has an impact on the amount of water used.


So, even for something as simple as a toothbrush, there might be opportunities to think not only about improving the sustainability of the product, but also a new revenue model.


...why are toothpaste tubes sold in cardboard boxes?!