Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

The Informal Industrial Ecosystem: An Introduction to REculture

The Art of Seeing Beauty in Garbage, Kenya, September 2010

This article introduces and explains some things I’ve been seeing in the informal industrial ecosystem in the developing world context for almost a decade now. First noticed in 2009, I then named it REculture, a neologism to capture the vast and complex ecosystem I saw in the revenue generating facility of recycle, replace, repurpose, reuse and resale. Given contemporary interest in developed country concepts such as the circular economy, and other sustainable and ecological initiatives, I thought it timely to sit down and attempt to synthesize the past work before proceeding to write more on current events.

What is REculture?

I thought I’d start from the beginning – is there, for example, a difference between “the entrepreneur” and “the producer”, “the creator” and “the innovator”, if at all? And if none, then perhaps start to fill in some few blanks based on our earlier thinking on the BoP “consumer” and their mindset, worldview or value system.~ June 2009

In July 2009, I was inspired by my observation of a man sitting under a tree in the administrative district of New Delhi with a visibly large bag of buttons by his side. His service, to the civil servants rushing to and fro from important governmental meetings, was to quickly repair a missing button from their suit jacket or shirt. Not unlike a shoeshine boy, this gentleman’s service was on demand, while you waited, his fingers flying rapidly with the needle as he sewed a reasonable facsimile of your missing button back on for you.

Look at the unusual yet welcome niche he had found for himself! A repair service that could only work in this part of the city where the common uniform was a suit and tie and important visitors the norm.

Once he opened my eyes to what it was I was seeing on the streets – the entrepreneurial opportunities squeezed out of the margins of daily life – I began noticing such services more and more. Repair, re-use, re-purposing, resale, and, in their own inimitable way, recycling of used up or abandoned products of industrialization were turning out to provide a significant chunk of the revenue streams of many of the informal sector’s service providers who now became visible to me.

In June 2009, I wrote:

…many other such observations got me thinking about the whole RE culture among the BoP. Stepping back, if you take the broad space of REuse, REpurpose, REpair and REcycle – its the low hanging fruit for the BoP entrepreneur’s opportunities for income generation. In fact, REpair is an entire professional service area in its own right, perhaps a subset of the opportunity space in the informal economy with varying degrees of skill and ability required.

But coming back to the other three, it seems at first glance that they look to be more or less the same thing i.e. how different is it to reuse a plastic bottle to contain some liquid from recyling it? particularly if the manufacturer had intended for it to be a disposable container? Yet, from the big picture perspective, one can say (and it has been said before) the whole concept of recycling is a cost in the OECD world whereas its actually a source of income, in a myriad ways, among the BoP.

The second thing that struck me, when I pondered these signs of a post-consumption economic ecosystem, was that the actors in the informal sector – whom we now discuss as traders, fabricators, service providers – were still then thought of as the “Bottom of the Pyramid” or the BoP – the economically vulnerable, the marginalized, the low income barely making ends meet on a dollar or two a day. There was no attempt at segmentation, this was the lumpen mass of the next 4 billion. Even though the late CK Prahalad had called them out as micro-producers, creators, and innovators, in his seminal book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, those who had grabbed the label with both hands and run with it were still thinking in terms of consumption. “How do we make products profitably for the poor?”

What about the creators, the makers, the innovators, and the producers in the informal economic ecosystem?

Again, back in June 2009, I wrote:

I am attempting to evaluate whether all our previous observations and learnings viz., “Life is hard” (the mindset and values of a customer at the BoP particularly one living on an irregular income) can help us begin to understand the other side of the coin, that is, the “innovator” or “creator/maker” or simply, the “informal business owner or service provider” at the BoP.

At this point at least, it seems to me, that rather than quibble about each individual word choice to describe “who” or “what” they are, perhaps we’re better off looking at the “why” and “how” – by this I mean, that the driver of motivation is to generate an income stream (the why) and the gaps observed, as mentioned above, are the opportunity spaces (the how). That is, the BoP seem to display more of a tendency towards ‘opportunity spotting’ (not quite the same as the word opportunists, though that may also apply in many cases or situations), filling the niche quickly with a service or product. Some of these services have arisen spontaneously around the developing world, mobile phone repair comes to top of mind.

It feels as though its a far more active than passive quality – poverty and hardship can be a powerful motivational driver in itself, though we tend to overlook the ingenuity and creativity involved.

That is, back then, just over 9 years ago, I connected the dots I was seeing in this space – the mindset and values of the low income customers and their post consumption behaviours, taken together with the “RE” space where visibly they were earning income – and framed it so:

That is, the lower income market tends towards maintenance and extending the lifespan of the products (through repair or repurposing it) they purchase rather than disposing it for convenience or replacing it for a trendier style. All very obvious, you say, but its this very same quality that leads to the wide variety of opportunities for the entreprenuerial or the innovative to make some money (or even a living). From the very basic, in terms of skills and ability such as the button repair guy to the complex, such as the mobile phone hacker, all of these services meet an ‘unmet need’ in the market, an opportunity gap which they can fill.

However, what’s interesting about this is the fact that these opportunities would very rarely be either a) spotted as one in mainstream consumer culture; b) not be a gap per se due to a difference in mindset/worldview OR even c) not be profitable enough, given the comparative cost of labour vs the price of the product involved. These conditions for making money, and more so, making money that is deemed a valid ROI seem only to be available among the lower income demographic and in the developing world.

For the precondition to their success is also a sufficient customer base seeking such a service and their willingness to pay for it,  and that, imho, emerges from their mindset as BoP consumers, one quality of which is their need to Maximise the return on their investment (purchase). This shows up in this context as a wish to REpair, REuse, REsell (for REpurpose or REcycling or whatever along those lines) – I doubt if they’ve stopped coming by from door to door among the ‘consuming classes’ in India to buy old bottles, newspapers and other sundry junk. (A sign of development if it stops?)

Once I could “see” the entire post consumption entrepreneurial activity in the informal sector, I went back to my research documentation conducted in rural Philippines and India for the original ‘prepaid’ economy work, and pulled out the patterns seen in the photographs that, when fitted together, showed all the evidence of an entire industrial ecosystem. As a working title for this seemingly vast economic space within the informal economy across Asia and Africa, I had called it REculture – the group blog went on spawn a magazine.

An entire industrial ecosystem within the informal economy based on the discards of the consumer lifestyle

A discarded Kraft cream cheese bottle would be picked out of the garbage by a waste picker and sold to an intermediary who would clean and sort these by colour and size and sell them on to a fabricator, who in turn, would convert these into affordable – and handmade mass produced – kerosene lamps, completed with spot welded wick tube.

An entire industrial life cycle from “raw material” through to “mass production” supported by distribution and retail. The only difference? The informal nature of the entire value chain and the post consumption adaptation of the materials and discards.

My concluding thoughts at the stage in which I’d left my explorations almost a decade ago can be summed up thus:

So, at this point, early stages of exploration though it is, one could say that the whole area of “post consumption” consumer practices – most of which have withered away like the appendix in the ‘rich’ world – forms one major  basis for both products and services, with value addition to varying degrees, in the ‘informal economies’ of the developing world.

There are insights to be teased out here on flexible, adaptable, ‘on demand’ business models ~ but applied outside the virtual world. Scarcity of resources and circumstance force lean overheads and inventory. Constraints of demand and customer purchasing power create their own flows in the chaos. Is there a pattern to the flow of the informal after all?

What next?

I summed up this history so as to provide me with the foundation and backdrop to pick up the threads of this conversation, now with the added insights of the past decade, and the increasingly sophisticated frameworks of framing the informal economy as a commercial environment in its own right, populated with entrepreneurs and niches that the mainstream overlooks.

As the topics of sustainability, resource conservation, and the circular economy become top of mind and critical, the early lessons from the developing world will only become more important going forward. I’ll be writing more under the category and tag “REculture” for old times’ sake.

Berlin’s sustainable lifestyle is our emerging future

Workshop on making your kitchen sustainable, Berlin, 4th August 2018

Berlin is to an environmentally conscious, renewable energy, sustainable ecologically friendly lifestyle what Tokyo’s Harajuku Girls used to be to fast fashion. The pioneer, the path breaker, the evidence of quality of life balanced with conservation. I envy Berliners their city. It is a world city and its still affordable.

Bio is mainstream, not an organic premium, and at the airport the plastic bottle of water was priced 4 times as much as water in a recyclable cardboard container.

There’s no mountains to climb in order to live with a smaller footprint, more leisure time, the calm re-ordering of priorities, the half day off in the sun taking the toddlers to the public fountain to splash and play. This was my introduction to Berlin.

City dwellers would recognize the simplified hyperbole of a short term visitor attempting to grasp the entire sense of the city in a few short days, but forward looking companies, startups, spaces, and people abound. If a “Silicon Valley” of Germany emerges, it will be Berlin.

Rocket Internet is already headquartered there as are any number of startups. The ecosystem is so mature that its hiving off into narrower and narrower specialities. All of which is a good thing to happen as the range and diversity of sustainable solutions that meet the bar of a bunch of EU certifications and regulations is now wide enough and broad enough to show clear patterns of consumer behaviour transformation.

Its almost like Berlin is the living example of the Post Climate Hoax Adapt Immediately era, and its clearly an economically viable and feasible one. And nobody’s apologizing for eating less meat and more vegetables.

Ecodesign, Ecolabels and the Environment: How Europe is redesigning our footprint on earth

What do chopped fresh green beans have in common with high definition flat screen TV’s? And how does this relate to design? In Europe, they’re both considered consumer products whose journey from raw material to shopwindow requires energy to process—emitting greenhouse gases that can have an adverse impact on the environment—and are considered to possess a ‘carbon footprint.’ In other words, they are products of a larger global industrial ecosystem.

When the postal service is setting down guidelines on the creativity and production of direct mailers so that their customers can better recycle them, it signals that graphic design needs to evolve the way its practiced entirely.


Acronyms and Initiatives
The European Union’s chosen approach to address the issue of environmental degradation and climate change is a combination of regulations, directives and voluntary activities. Industrial designers and engineers around the world are familiar with many of many of these already in effect—the EU Directive on the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and the EU Directive on the Waste from Electrical & Electronic Equipment (WEEE) are top of mind in the field of consumer electronics and other energy consuming products (EUPs)—the first sector to be addressed by these rules.

Just ratified is the new European law on chemicals, REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), which covers the toxicity and hazards of chemical substances, touching the nascent field of green chemistry. Also to be enforced is the EU Directive on the Ecodesign of EUPs – this will directly regulate the negative contribution to the environment across the entire lifecycle of the product, not just the use phase.

Supporting activities include the Ecolabel—a voluntary certification for a wider range of products beyond those that merely consume energy during their use—helping consumers identify products that have considered all aspects of environmental impact toward minimum ecological footprint, compared to other products in the same category. This includes the chopped green beans, as their total carbon footprint assessed across the supply chain would take into account the energy expended to grow them, process them, package them and deliver them to the neighbourhood supermarket.

All of these and more come under the holistic approach of the Integrated Product Policy (IPP), which can be considered the foundation for such decision-making and the design of the various directives, programs and certifications. The IPP is a systemic look at the environmental impact of the entire supply chain and life cycle of any given product, taking all aspects of the global industrial ecosystem into account: raw materials, manufacture, transportation, distribution, marketing, sales, delivery and waste treatment at the end of life.


The Power of Design
While design has been picking up speed in addressing issues of sustainable development, a quick purview of the larger ecosystem helps in understanding the long-term consequences of the decisions made in the studio. It is recognized that a significant proportion (ranging from 70% to 90%) of any given product’s ecological footprint can be addressed at the design stage. But the considerations mentioned above take into account factors all along the product chain that can directly or indirectly contribute to environmental degradation; decisions made at the design stage now become crucial in ensuring the best outcome throughout the entire system.

Carbon Trust UK‘s simplified diagram of the lifecycle of a typical can of cola, for example, enables us to visualize and correlate the relationship between product design choices and energy consumption at every stage of the supply chain.

Read On…

Consuming the future: a wide angled perspective

This was written at the end of August 2007; how far have we progressed?

Even as I have just written about sustainable design and ecodesign, I find myself pondering the larger issues at stake. I didn’t set out to go green and I’m not wholly sure what my outlook is on this topic as yet. There’s a sense of something much bigger than just design or a product or material or whatever here. Its almost as though we – the global we of humanity – are poised at an inflexion point. Is it a precipice sloping down towards utter disaster as some might argue and there is no point doing anything about it? Or are we instead reaching some a point on a natural trend curve that signals the end of an era – one based on massive growth, consumption and the pinnacle of the industrial revolution? Either way, it leaves me feeling like an ant contemplating the proverbial brickwall.

The first inklings of a greater shift in outlook and perspective came during a visit earlier this year to the north of England. For a little more than two weeks, I was a houseguest in an English home in a small village, with a family whose lifestyle choices and purchasing decisions were as diametrically different from any I’d ever seen, in all my continent hopping life. My hostess chose locally produced organic milk sold in containers made from recyclable plastic though it was not as easy to find in the local supermarket which also sold organic milk that was cheaper. Her reasons were logical and manifold – from helping local producers who received a fair price to the fact that supermarket milk came in packaging that wasn’t as easy to recycle. She used cotton nappies on principle, washing them each night in eco-friendly detergent and then choosing to air dry them over the convenience of the clothes dryer or the simplicity of disposable diapers. Every scrap of organic kitchen waste was composted – even her choice of location to purchase vegetables was based on the fact that they provided compostable plastic packaging.  Fair trade and sustainability over convenience and cost, each decision could be rationally justified and defended. My eyes were opened.

While intellectually aware of the problems facing the environment, the issues of poverty and quality of life at the bottom of the pyramid and the link between design and a sustainable future – all topics I’d written extensively about – I’d never been exposed to an entire way of life based on these principles – in a developed country.

That fact was crucial in opening my eyes to the extent that the design of systems play a part in the challenges facing the earth’s future.

For in India, where I lived and worked during my twenties, many of the situations that require extensive municipal systems – recycling of waste, garbage disposal, composting of organic matter and food waste, reuse of containers, conserving energy and water consumption – were either ‘taken care of’ or an ingrained habit developed in an environment of scarcity. Let me explain.

Leftover food was rarely thrown away – there was always someone who needed it more. Ragpickers made a living picking over garbage heaps for scraps of cloth, paper, plastic, metal and anything else that could be resold for some money. Everything was reused, recycled, resold or refurbished. Equipment, appliances and other consumer durables were expected to either last a lifetime or could be repaired or resold – they were never to be thrown away. Scarcity of water and frequent shortages meant rationing, storage and conservation. Throughout my college years in Bangalore – where water in the taps rarely flowed for more than two hours a day from the city’s supply – this meant learning to bathe in one bucket of water, remembering to fill buckets and tubs at 6am, washing clothes by hand and boiling and filtering for potability. Ditto electricity.

On the other hand, growing up as I had abroad, luxury was going home to my parents in Singapore where the comforts of a full shower, uninterrupted power supply and abundant shiny shops were the norm. Who would want to go back to scrimping and saving, if they had a choice?

My friend in England would and did. And we had long talks about her reasons for doing so, especially when – to my eyes – she didn’t have to be as stringent in her lifestyle as she undoubtedly was. It was this new awareness that suddenly opened my eyes to the systems around me. You could call it the global industrial ecosystem, but basically its all that goes into producing, making, creating and doing to support and sustain our lives in the manner to which we are accustomed – those of us who can afford it.  It was a system designed for consumption, and to a certain degree, waste. It is a system based on the principle of abundance. Availability. Choice. It is a system whose future is untenable at most, precarious at best.

Ethical consumption, sharing, conserving what we have, managing it and harvesting it with an eye to the future – systems which echo nature’s systems are not new or untouched subjects.  While I may be the least educated and experienced  on the  subject, its cast a wholly new feel to the way I perceive the future. And the way I’ve analyzed business, design and strategy in the past. Its as though a filter has been changed in my perception of the systems I see. It is this nascent perceptual change of the world around me that I will be exploring further. I don’t know where this journey will take me but it should get interesting, at the very least.

Metadesign and designing culture

Two extremely thought provoking pieces of writing found their way to me recently. The first was Designing Culture by Colin McSwiggen, where he writes about the role that material artefacts play in society and culture’s embedded messaging:

This is a big deal because one of the main ways that people are socialized is through using, observing and contemplating material objects. The idea that people learn their places in society by engaging with the physical stuff around them has a long history in anthropology, but it was finally cemented into the theoretical mainstream in 1972 when Pierre Bourdieu published his Outline of a Theory of Practice. Bourdieu makes the case that we come to internalize the expectations of our particular social group by analogy with categories, orders and relations of things. Spatial arrangements of objects in the home, for example, or the use of different farming tools at different times of year, come to stand for intangible relationships between genders, social strata and the like, thereby anchoring abstract ideas about social organization to the physical world.

and the other article was by Prof John Wood, titled “Why User Centered Design is not Enough” where he writes:

What is remarkable about smart people today is how pliable and impressionable we become when the system puts us at the centre of our emotional universe. This is an aspect of ‘humanism’ that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and the early Christians. However, while it has many admirable qualities, humanism is an incomplete way to understand how things work. If we could see humanism as a picture, people and money might be shown in bright colours, whereas Nature, the universe and God would probably be in faint grey. It has made us confident about ourselves, but, in combination with consumer-driven technologies, it has turned us into babbling infants who are never satisfied. This is paradoxical. In the 21st century, never have so many people have had so much access to so much information. Yet, by manipulating and dumbing-down our perceptions of what is happening, our species has, increasingly, become disconnected from the complex ecosystem that nourishes and sustains it. What should worry designers, in particular, is that they played a major part in creating this artificial, user-centred world.

What we have here, by taking together two seemingly unconnected articles, is an interesting phenomena. Asking design to indulge in teh navel gazing they are so fond of, but this time from a macro systems level overview of the impact of their own design work. Design for social impact is so popular now, but tends to be focused on the needs of the poor and downtrodden, whereas if indeed we are defined by our choice of material good, is it not the case then that designers are defining the material standing of the poor?

And resource scarcity is one condition which defines the operating environment of this lower income demographic.

On the other hand, the premiums paid on greener products and an eco friendly, homemade, handmade lifestyle seem to imply the way sustainability issues have been co-opted into consumption driven design initiatives after all.

Is there a way out or is it a vicious cycle?

Are we saying “Ok, stop designing” or are we saying “Wait a minute, lets look at what we’re enabling (consumption) even as we apply our energies to create products that the poor will want to consume”

And if so, is the solution as simple as leaving them to their kerosene and candles and wood burning stoves, or then, is the moral imperative of environmental protection require substitution with better products?

There is as much of tension inherent in good design but from which context and on the continuum of consumption, as there is in the business models continuum of profit maximisation alone through to triple bottomline.

What will changing design itself, as Wood wants to do, solve?

Time to plan the obsolescence of consumerism

Consumers did not exist prior to WW2. People did.

It was after the postwar boom in the United States that a variety of existing professions evolved and morphed to meet the needs of Big Business as industrial production and wealth increased. Consumers were created to meet the unmet needs of the producers.

The Waste Makers, published in 1960, states that inventories in post war industrial America were piling up as the durable goods, cars and services were saturating markets even as people were not buying or replacing their possessions that frequently. They’d not thought of entering other markets yet. That would wait for another 20 years before Theodore Levitt wrote his “Globalization of markets”.

Advertising, marketing, promotions and products were all swept up in an integrated national attempt to encourage the American consumer to buy more. [BusinessWeek 1955 cover story on Planned Obsolescence in the auto industry broke the news!] The industrial designer Brookes Stevens coined the term “planned obsolescence” where products would be designed to go “out of style”. This concept spread widely amongst the giant manufacturing sectors of automotives and white good in the fifties. Even in the 30′s and 40′s GE had specified that their bulbs be designed to burn out hundreds of hours sooner than could actually be designed and built.

“Consumer culture” and “the good life” and its specifications built on consumption of goods and services spread outwards from the US but its reach and thinking not as embedded in other parts of the world or restricted to the top 10-20% of the population. Or, in the case of countries with large numbers of the underprivileged, there was always someone who could use an old pair of shoes or would buy your empty bottles from you along with the newspapers for recycling.

This cycle of consumption, dispose or throw away, buy anew, rinse repeat refresh has gotten shorter and shorter, and not entirely due to Wall Street’s insistence on monthly and quarterly earnings reports. Its also heavily conditioned society in three or more generations of exposure to mass media on the largest scale around the world in recorded history.

Giles Slade wrote the book on the history of planned obsolescence “Made to Break” in 2006, where he said:

“This was a significant development in the history of product obsolescence,” he writes. “As a throwaway culture emerged, the ethic of durability, of thrift, of what the consumer historian Susan Strasser calls ‘the stewardship of objects,’ was slowly modified. At first, people just threw their paper products into the fire. But as the disposable trend continued, it became culturally permissible to throw away objects that could not simply and conveniently be consumed by flames.”

People started filling landfills with things like old vacuum cleaners so that, as time went on, “disposable” came to mean nearly everything, not just old paper collars.

Where are we today with regard the culture we are crafting anew, if at all? How does the conversation shift towards considering the triple bottomline of people, profit and planet if maximizing profit is still the underlying design principle of the existing system? Can we dispose of the now obviously “disposable”?