Last night I had the honor of speaking at TEDxKreuzberg, which was a lot fun and the perfect opportunity to polish up some ideas and practice pontificating in front of a crowd. My talk was about Designing for Collaborative Consumption, and it was inspiring to hear such positive feedback to the design challenges and concepts in general. You can find the text of my talk below.
Thanks so much to the organizers Peter, Christoph, and Hans, and to the host, betahaus, for such a lovely evening!
Designing for Collaborative Consumption.
Firstly, I’m a remix kid. I come from the generation of sampling. So the talk you’re going to hear is a remix of arguments made by lots of great and interesting people, notably Aristotle, the Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, Lawrence Lessig, Sean Bonner, Fight Club, Bruce Sterling, and the authors of a book that helped bring these ideas together, Collaborative Consumption.
I hope to remix these thinkers to provide some context and examples and then push the concepts further by offering some design challenges.
The 20th century was the era of hyper-consumerism. I won’t be the first nor last person to say we’re still in deep in extreme consumption and overproduction. You know the stats: basically, the world is ending, and we, the insatiable consumers of the world, are at fault.
We want things, we buy things, we throw away things. And what’s worse, this endless cycle pitched at “good for the economy.” It’s our duty to BUY BUY BUY.
If you have to buy things all the time, then there are traditionally two types of solutions for what to do with all the junk you collect. You either dispose of it – by selling or throwing it away – or you store it.
Designing for the Dump:
The first solution, disposal, is very attractive to business folks. It’s a very lucrative. It means that you will buy an inferior product one day, turn around to throw it away the next, and then buy a new thing, preferably the upgrade from the same company. (cough, Apple!)
The name for this unsustainable design principle is planned obsolescence. Objects designed for a limited lifetime. And unfortunately, it’s the most predominate business strategy of our time.
We can see the remains of this throw-away culture in the paper coffee cups we drink from every day, to the shitty IKEA furniture that falls apart one year later, to the smartphones we replace faster than we can remember their names.
Designing for the dump means an overflow of junk in our homes, on the streets and landfills the world over.
Rise of the Self-Storage Industry:
So, maybe you’re a little more sensitive about throwing away good stuff the day after you unwrapped it. You want to keep it for a rainy day, or for the memories, or in the hopes that one day you’ll repair it and you’ll be so grateful you have it.
Enter the self-storage industry. It’s booming profits off the charts. Not only in the hyperconsumption nation of the US, but also in a country I always thought was more thrifty and consumption-conscious: Germany.
If self-storage is any measurement of junk we own and don’t need, then what does it mean that within 10 years, Germany went from having 0 self storage facilities to 70? In Europe, it went from a handful in the UK to well over 1500 across the continent.
We’re buying more stuff. So much so, we can’t even manage to keep it all in our homes, and have to pay a premium rent to store it elsewhere.
No matter where our stuff is, we still have to exert a lot of energy and euros to just maintain our collection of must-haves objects. As Bruce Sterling says, every moment devoted to stumbling over and tending to your piled debris are precious hours in our mortal lives, and time not spent with family, friends, your society, yourself.
Fight Club: The things you own end up owning you.
With so much effort invested in junk, you have to ask yourself: who is being owned by whom?
So, with all this doom and gloom, is there any reasonable way to take action? And even if a few dedicated, environmentally-aware kids take a stab at changing this horrible scene, can we even make a difference?
There is one clear advantage we have, in our generation: the power of the network.
We can be leverage our networks. Unlike any generation that came before, we can better provide and share infrastructure thanks to network technology. We can buy, build, and collaborate locally and efficiently. We can shop smarter, share better, and use our networks, both online and off, to reduce waste, improve the economy and environment, spare our bank accounts, and even have a good time and make new friends doing it.
That’s collaborative consumption, and I want to talk about its wonderful opportunities.
So, I’ve said a lot of scary and depressing stuff. But there is good news. Values are shifting.
Think about this co-working space, betahaus. You can rent a desk and share office infrastructure together with fellow digital nomads. No one, besides the people who actually the run the space, have to own any of the equipment, and even they can lease or rent it from other companies.
Let’s take an example of an office printer for a betahaus resident. Maybe once in a great while you actually need to print something. Do you really want to own a dedicated device for printing stuff? I mean, you have to refill it, repair it, and lug it around whenever you move, and one day, dispose of it.
A huge advantage with a place like betahaus is that they make it easy and attractive to share these resources, and by doing so, they make it more efficient (and let’s be honest, more fun and social) for all of the people working here.
Let’s think for a second about other types of resources. Who needs to own a moving van? Not many folks. That’s why services like Robben & Wientjes, the moving truck rental company in Berlin, are successful. The same holds true for platforms like the US-based Zipcar, a car sharing service. Or airbnb and Couchsurfing. Or even the Bahn bikes, Mitfahrgelegenheit, and stuff-sharing sites like NeighborGoods.
All of the many, many sites out there now make it easy to offer, find, and share goods and services: flexibly, agilely, and socially.
Here’s another example: the common household drill. How many of you own a drill? Can you even remember the last time you used it? Did you know that on average, a household drill is used a total of 5-10min its entire lifetime? That gives you what, like 20 holes max? Is that really an efficient object to purchase, maintain, and care for?
What if instead of all that time it spent idling on the shelf, it could be generating value, either by renting it out for cash or just helping out a neighbor?
Products like household drills, or moving vans, or a bike in a city you’re visiting aren’t necessarily desirable to own. Instead, isn’t it just better to accessing them? Aren’t the rights to use and access something more important than owning it?
I think this is a mantra for our times:
On the whole, you find wealth much more in use than in ownership.
You know who said that? Aristotle. A Greek philosophy who wrote that more than 2000 years ago.
Actually, the stuff I’ve been saying about sharing drills and expensive machinery and even lodging won’t have sounded foreign or even futuristic for many of the generations that came before us.
Practices like barn raising or the rise of cooperative individualism from the Great Depression are just a few examples.
The values of sharing resources goes back a long way.
What I’m talking about isn’t new, but I’ll argue that nowadays, thanks to networks, we can do it even better. And there are business strategies and creative opportunities to be had in modern collaborative consumption in addition to sharing economy.
Characteristics of Shared Objects:
So, can we distill any important characteristics of Collaborative Consumption? What are the rules of the game? Here’s a start.
Firstly, you need enough goods or services on offer to make the platform attractive enough for users. Supply draws more demand. Couchsurfing isn’t going to work with two couches on offer.
This is about spare cycles. All the unused, material surplus that bolsters collaborative consumption. And it not just about products that sit unused on storage shelves, but also untapped skills, times, spaces. These resources have to be available, like in the drill example, and sharable.
For these platforms to work, you need appropriate mechanisms for collaboration within legal, social and technical frameworks. There are great tools for this, and definitely the potential to develop more. Conflict resolution has to be cheap and easy, and resource providers need ways to participate in the decision-making process.
This is one of the most important pillars of collaborative consumption. Without trust, you don’t have continued and meaningful participation and growth. Trust has to be cultivated and facilitated. It’s not just available instantly, but grows organically through the service and positive experiences. Clearly defined boundaries of who’s participating and a way to key at bay trolls, spammers, and frauds, and other elements that harm the community. This requires effective monitoring and reputation management, plus graduated sanctions for people who violate community rules.
Building upon these principles and characteristics, I want to offer you a few design challenges.
Create open layers
Think about interoperability across key components. How can you use open standards to enable remix, modification, and improvements across products? How can open layers be applied to motors, power cords, outlets, connectors, joints, nibs for maximal customization and range of use?
Relatedly, shared objects should be easy to repair and amend. You shouldn’t have to throw away your entire phone because it’s scratched. Building modularity means fostering generativity.
Value added through usage
I think this is one of the most powerful design challenges. Think about an object that doesn’t depreciate with use, but is instead improved by it. One example is a baseball mitt. When you first buy it, it’s very stiff and hard to catch a ball with. Over time, with use, it becomes more flexible and a better product.
That’s just on the physical layer. What about value added on a data layer? Think about how objects can learn from behaviors the more they’re used. Like by collecting more data points. Or where the user contributes metadata, like marginalia, reviews, and fact checking for books.
Personalize shared objects
Are you familiar with these phones that hold multiple SIM cards? Those are really common in places like Africa where one device is used by multiple people. But each person inserts their own SIM card and all their address books and personal settings are ready for them. The personalization follows the user, not the device. Can we apply this to other devices and services? Cars, printers, refrigerator, coffee machines, or even drills?
Libraries are not just for books. Think about other ways to pool resources, be it for commercial or community aims. You could have tool libraries, or ones for electronics, cooking appliances, moving boxes/materials, jewelry and accessories, holiday decorations, toys, you name it.
There is lots of potential. There are many business opportunities, as well as many challenges for creative and adventuresome people.
Let’s break the mold.
Don’t design for the dump. Don’t design for 20th century hyperconsumption. Design for things to last, to be shared, and to be part of the future, a future of collaborative consumption.