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Designers Can Save the Planet, Says Award-Winning Inventor, But Only if They Stop Creating Products Intended to be Thrown Away.

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Mechanical Engineering 131(09), 38-43 (Sep 01, 2009) (6 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2009-SEP-3

This paper presents views of award-winning inventor Saul Griffith on creating products that are environmental friendly. Griffith presents controlling carbon emissions as not so much a moral imperative, but as an active design choice. His start-up company, Makani Power, is working to tap the energy of strong, steady winds a half mile above the ground through use of high-tech kites. Another of Griffith’s projects, the web site Wattzon, was established to enable individuals to estimate their personal power consumption. According to Griffith, objects designed to endure over decades need to be not only functional, but also beautiful. Some of the conceptual framework that Griffith lays out as heirloom design is as much provocation as proposal. It is the increase in quality that Griffith said differentiates his concept of an heirloom-based economy from the idea that constraining carbon emissions is going to require undue sacrifice or even enforced poverty.

Tiny ecological messages pop up everywhere.

"This sleeve is made from 60 percent post-consumer fiber" reads the cardboard coffee cup grip from Starbucks. Chipotle Grill wants you to know that its napkins"are made without bleach and from 90 percent postconsumer recycled paper." Seventh Generation extols its disposable diapers made of unbleached paper.

While the messages may make consumers feel better, any actual ecological benefit is probably minor at best. Yes, some of the materials in the napkins and plastic bottles and candy wrappers and ballpoint pens and Ikea shelving units may have been recycled. But the energy used to manufacture those goods cannot be recovered. Indeed, from an ecological perspective, the energy embedded in everyday objects during production and distribution may be as important as the materials that go into them.

That, at least, is the view of Saul Griffith. The Australian-born mechanical engineer is a serial inventor who received a MacArthur Fellowship—the so-called genius grant—in 2007. Turning an engineer’s eye on his own energy use, Griffith realized that to bring down his consumption anywhere close to a sustainable level, he had to reduce the embodied energy in the stuff he owned. (That’s on top of cutting down on cross-continental flights and commuting by car.) And that led to an epiphany, of sorts, about the future of industrial design.

"The business plan for the next century should be to take every object you sell and figure out how to give the service of that object to the consumer with one tenth the power," Griffith told attendees of a technology conference earlier this year. The best way to do that, he asserts, is to make those products last ten times as long.

"It’s going to be challenging," he said, "but it’s the business model that’s going to win."

Griffith calls this new approach "heirloom design," and it essentially upends the model of creating consumer goods that has endured for more than half a century. It’s a vision of shoes that can be repaired, cell phones too beautiful to throw away, and watches and calculators that are bequeathed to one’s grandchildren. We would still have roughly the same amount of stuff in our lives as we do now. It’s just that the stuff would stay with us, for keeps.

Griffith unveiled his concept for heirloom design during a lecture at Greener Gadgets 2009, an environmentally oriented design conference held in Manhattan this past February. The talk was an adaptation of one Griffith has given a number of times on how he uses his engineering training to assess the problem of climate change and the best ways to address it. The message was well received at the conference, though some of the underlying math and science seemed to go over the heads of the young designers and creative types at the gathering.

Tall, boyish, and dressed in black cargo pants and an open-collar shirt rather than a dark suit, Griffith stood out in the New York crowd. His background was unique, as well. Griffith grew up in Sydney, the son of an engineer and an artist. After earning degrees in metallurgy and engineering, Griffith left Australia for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, where he researched micrometer-scale rapid prototyping and self replicating machines.

While an MIT student, Griffith became interested in reducing the cost of corrective eyeglass lenses, which can be prohibitively expensive in developing nations. Drawing on his research into rapid prototyping, Griffith created a low-cost system for producing eyeglass lenses by depositing UV-curable resin onto a programmable, flexible membrane. For this concept, Griffith was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Inventiveness in 2004.

Before he received his Ph.D. from MIT in 2004, Griffith had other inventions to his credit. His electronic rope senses the strain of the load it bears and warns if it’s reaching a breaking point. A 3-D printer made from Lego blocks and a small heater enabled children to print edible objects from chocolate.

Saul Griffith’s career to now has walked the line between the whimsical and the practical. He coauthored a science education comic book and co-founded a company to develop hand-powered electronics. His start-up company, Makani Power, is working to tap the energy of strong, steady winds a half mile above the ground through use of high-tech kites. If that idea raises a smirk, it shouldn’t: Google has invested a reported $10 million in the company with the goal of producing electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants.

"Mert Flemings at MIT once said that the mechanical engineering degree is the new liberal arts degree," Griffith said. "It equips you with a set of analysis tools and a framework for thinking about the problems of our times that makes you incredibly relevant."

Wattzon.com compiles estimates for the energy embedded in product such as plastic bottles. The "energy footprint" includes transportation.

Grahic Jump LocationWattzon.com compiles estimates for the energy embedded in product such as plastic bottles. The "energy footprint" includes transportation.

Another of Griffith’s projects, the Web site Wattzon, was established to enable individuals to estimate their personal power consumption. Exposing individual energy use has become fashionable in some quarters. The instantaneous fuel economy readouts available on car dashboards have encouraged some motorists to drive with a lighter foot. And gadgets that measure how much electricity appliances draw have become stocking stuffers.

While the tools available on the Web site allow for a quick-and-dirty approximation, Griffith himself has gone much, much deeper. For the calendar year 2007, Griffith tracked his own power consumption in as compulsive a manner as any person in America—every glass of wine, every drive to the store, every hour in front of a computer was catalogued and considered.

The story of his power consumption inventory has taken a central position in Griffith’s talks at green technology gatherings across the country over the past year. In the end, though, it’s the chart of consumption that stands out: the multicolor pie chart is sliced into dozens of slivers, each representing a major category and the power consumption it entails. For line items that involve discrete amounts of energy (embodied or otherwise), the energy is divided by time to produce a measurement of watts. Applying power consumption across the spectrum of a typical life gives some odd-looking results. Griffith rates his consumption of coffee at 20 W, an annual flight from Atlanta to San Francisco at 160 W. His share of the U.S. government’s massive power consumption is given a category.

Tallying up the power consumed by the various parts of his life, Griffith said he thought he’d come in well under the average American consumption figure of around 11,000 W; he was, after all, an environmentally aware, hybrid-driving resident of the San Francisco Bay area. Instead, his total was 18,000 W.

People who reject any coordinated action to deal with climate change often attack the messenger. Much has been made, for instance, of the lifestyle of former Vice President Al Gore, who jets from city to city when he is not at home in his Tennessee mansion. By changing the focus to Gore himself, his political opponents shift the spotlight from his message.

With a power consumption of 18,000 W, Griffith could be open to similar criticism, though he is an entrepreneur, not a politician. He is also mindful that the average human consumption is a mere 2,000 W, and that if we enter a future where carbon emissions are tightly constrained,overall power consumption in developed nations will likely decline. So he started striking things off his activity list, hoping to get down to around 4,000 W or thereabouts.

Paring back jet travel was an obvious start. (Griffith said that he thinks high-quality teleconferencing could make most business travel obsolete.) Biking to work would eliminate some 310 W of power consumption due to his commute.

"The really interesting thing about this exercise is it makes you think about what you value," Griffith said. "What are the things that matter? Obviously, you are going to sacrifice business travel for personal surfing trips."

He’d have no meat during the week, only locally grown vegetables, and just one glass of wine in the evening.

But one of the most fascinating and hard-to-figure energy items is the energy embodied in the manufacture of material goods—stuff. By Griffith’s calculation, more than 2,500 W of his consumption was tied up in the energy needed to make and deliver the cars and computers and clothes and everything else he owned.

The concept of consuming power just in the act of owning a static, inert object is not easy for some to grasp. It involves stepping away from the object itself —the laptop computer, say—and examining the product as part of a manufacturing system. Energy is used to make the plastic, stamp the metal, etch the integrated circuits, assemble the components, package the computer, and ship the box to the store. Amortize that energy over the three-year average ownership of the laptop, and you can calculate the power consumption for the computer as an object, regardless of whether it’s drawing power from an electrical outlet or simply sitting on a shelf.

One section of the Wattzon Web site allows users to view embedded energy estimates for various objects. Those estimates are designed to look like the nutrition facts on a box of corn flakes, with the estimated energy for each component of the product listed. A tee-shirt, according to the site, accounts for 0.4 W; a Barbie doll consumes 1.271 W.

"You would look at every product you ever consumed extremely differently if we had this labeling," Griffith said.

Griffith sees three routes to cut the amount of energy embedded in personal possessions. One is to simply have less stuff, though that seems more like poverty than efficiency. Another is to make goods more efficiently. That has a role, Griffith said, but a limited one.

"Through material and design changes, say you can cut in half the energy used to make the object," Griffith said.

"For an object that should have a lifetime of one year, if you just do those material changes and design changes, you can halve the amount of energy over that year.

"But because time is in the denominator of the embodied energy equation for an object, it dominates the equation," Griffith continued. "The easiest way to get the most out of your objects is to make them last a lot longer."

An object that lasts five or ten times as long embodies only 20 percent or 10 percent of the energy—the approximate level of energy reduction needed to make a difference in carbon emissions.

A car that one would drive one’s entire adult life or a cell phone that could be passed down to one’s grandchildren—turning such objects into prospective heirlooms would take more than new industrial techniques or design philosophies. It would mean turning away from the concept of planned obsolescence.

Some historians credit Alfred P. Sloan with introducing the concept of planned obsolescence into American manufacturing. Beginning in the 1920s, Sloan’s General Motors touted annual improvements to its products, though many of them were minor and some were merely cosmetic, as a way to sell cars in a saturated market. Through advertising, customers who already had a functioning car were coaxed into buying a new one. Soon, even the Ford Motor Co., which had prided itself on the simplicity of its design, adopted styling changes each model year.

Clifford Brooks Stevens, the industrial designer who popularized the term in the 1950s, defined planned obsolescence as "instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." For some time, however, it was merely a superficial process: old television sets and vacuum cleaners remained perfectly functional and could be repaired quite easily.

In recent decades, older consumer goods have become not just unfashionable, but increasingly obsolete in their function. For instance, finding software for personal computers more than a decade old is nearly impossible. Analog television signals are no longer broadcast, rendering older sets unusable without a converter box. And the labor cost to repair a malfunctioning videocassette recorder is higher than the price of a replacement.

As a result, more than 40 million computers are discarded each year. And countless millions of old cell phones and other electronic gadgets collect dust in drawers and closets. In many cases these products are not broken. They still function as designed. It’s simply that new functions or software have become available which the old machines cannot execute.

To achieve Griffith’s goal of slowing the velocity of products through the economy, companies will have to encourage designers and engineers to revolutionize the way consumer goods are made. For one, designers will have to specify more durable materials and more robust mechanisms. At present, designing a gadget that could last 20 years is neither necessary nor desirable, since typically an electronic product is replaced long before then. Plastics may fall out of favor in an era of heirloom design, to be replaced by metals such as aluminum.

Griffith said that another key feature of heirloom design would be the ability to repair and upgrade products. Instead of buying a new cell phone to get new features, for example, consumers would just have new circuitry installed in their existing handset. And the kind of maintenance and repair that motorists routinely schedule for their cars could be adopted by users of computers, televisions, and other electronics.

"You can imagine making bicycles and washing machines and houses that last a hundred years," Griffith said, "but the real challenge is to design consumer electronics that way."

Finally, objects designed to endure over decades need to be not only functional, but also beautiful, Griffith said. A beautifully made object—whether it’s a wristwatch, an iPhone, or a Fender Stratocaster guitar—is more likely to be used and maintained. And if the objects we own are going to be with us for decades, it’s better not to have to look at something ungainly year after year.

It’s this increase in quality that Griffith said differentiates his concept of an heirloom-based economy from the idea that constraining carbon emissions is going to require undue sacrifice or even enforced poverty.

"We can talk about these things in terms of denial, but it’s really just a change," Griffith said. "You can look at doing without, say, so much packaging and processed meals as giving up something, or you can look at it as gaining a better experience because you are eating fresher food." To Griffith, the choice between eating a choice steak once a week and downing mediocre burgers every day is a no-brainer.

And while on the surface Griffith’s vision—with shoe repair common and air travel rare—seems decidedly old fashioned, almost quaint, he said our society doesn’t really have a model for what it would be like. "We have a lot of new tools," Griffith said. "We have social networking, computer-aided design and manufacturing, and robotics." It’s a future that still will be, for want of a better word, futuristic.

In his talks, Griffith presents controlling carbon emissions as not so much a moral imperative, but as an active design choice: How much damage to the planet you are willing to accept determines how deliberately you need to act on climate change. Fine with losing 90 percent of coral reefs? Then, he says, a 2 °C increase in global temperatures would be acceptable. If you can tolerate several billion people who lack sufficient drinking water (and the resource wars that might lead to), then you can handle a 3 °C increase.

When Saul Griffith examined his power consumption, he discovered that his personal possessions embodied some 2,500 Watts. Some of the largest items, such a newspapers and trash, were thrown out almost immediately.

Grahic Jump LocationWhen Saul Griffith examined his power consumption, he discovered that his personal possessions embodied some 2,500 Watts. Some of the largest items, such a newspapers and trash, were thrown out almost immediately.

Some of this is Griffith being a smart aleck, but it’s also a way to drive home the point that the engineering and design challenge for this century isn’t avoiding global warming—that ship has sailed—but rather finding a way to avert an irreversible catastrophe.

Likewise, some of the conceptual framework that Griffith lays out as heirloom design is as much provocation as proposal. In his talk in New York, Griffith spoke of presenting his soon-to-be-born son a Rolex watch and Montblanc pen, the only timepiece and writing utensil the baby would ever need. It was a beautiful illustration of how an heirloom economy would work—personal possessions would be freighted with emotional resonance in a way that a cheap click pen and $20 digital watch never would.

But when asked about this months after his son was born, Griffith said that, in fact, he hadn’t given his son such heirlooms, not yet. "He doesn’t need a watch, and at age three months he doesn’t know how to write," Griffith said.

Griffith did, however, make his son’s crib by hand. "It should last 200 years," he said. And Griffith and his wife are using hand-me-downs and used goods: A jumper that is worn by ten different children for six months each might not qualify as an heirloom, but it accomplishes the goal of slashing energy use all the same.

It’s that kind of connection—between friends and across generations—that makes Griffith’s idea of an heirloom economy so appealing. We are living in an age of consequence, he said, where every action we take has a very real impact on the lives of people we don’t know, who live on other continents, or who’ll be alive decades from now.

Will we be known as people who designed objects our grandchildren will want and left them a world that veered away from the abyss? Or will our society’s legacy be something far darker?

Copyright © 2009 by ASME
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