Fix You: an outline of a master thesis

3 July 2013 18:13

(updated: 18 December 2016 18:19)

Fix You: an outline of a master thesis

Drawing a parallel to Coldplay, it would be reasonable to say that this post is offering to fix you, and your perception of things. I just arrived from San Diego slightly brainwashed after having interviewed 15 highly interesting people for my master thesis on sustainable business models. The work was not only fruitful for my thesis but also changed my perception of things in three ways that I would like to share with you.

A service, not a product

Firstly, where I normally would find it natural to address something as a product, I now see it more as a service. I have until recently perceived for example the smart phone as a product, where Apple’s or Samsung’s responsibility includes after-services only within the warranty signed on to the product. But now I see all things that cannot be consumed as part of a bigger picture where the existence of things do not make sense without the service provided with it. Apple or Samsung is offering a service, a thing that might make your life smarter, but was never meant to last you a lifetime. They know that new technology will out-compete their current thing, and that they continuously need to improve. When they intentionally make something that will turn into waste in a couple of years, they should be made responsible for taking it back and reuse the material. If we succeed in collectively demanding a holistic and sustainable approach to business the quality of things will increase. Producers will have an incentive to prolong the lifespan of their things because it reduces the cost linked to collecting the product after consumers are finished with it. Having to take back all the products will hopefully also make companies take a serious look at the possibility of reusing the material going into the products, and using material of higher quality and value.

Design done backwards

This brings me to the way I now look at material. At the conference I talked to William McDonough, inventor of the “Cradle to cradle” concept, an approach that makes the company responsible for its entire value chain, from start-suppliers to the reuse of end-product waste. He had just explained the audience how he plans to design from within a dumpster. By teaming up with Waste Management in the US he will take a closer look at the waste coming from all the things we make, trying to figure out how new designs can help eradicate waste. Taking on a limitless perspective when looking at materials will encourage your mind to question things that you previously thought were un-questionable. Just a week after having been in San Diego, I attended a session on resource management at the International Student Energy Summit (ISES) at NTNU in Trondheim. Ole Grimsrud, Vice President of Resource and Development at Scatec was confronted with the lifespan of solar panels during the Q&A session after his presentation. He revealed that the reason solar panels do not last longer is the material used to keep the different parts together, not the solar cells, themselves. In other words, we should take a closer look at the material used and ask for alternatives where the end destination is the dumpster.

Sharing is caring

The third perceptional change I would like to offer you is related to consumer behavior and how we are persuaded into believing that we need to own everything. Human beings are obsessed with owning things and so set in their ways that none of the people I interviewed believe that the shift we need towards sustainable consumerism will be consumer-driven. The answers I have been getting reveal a way of looking at the business model design as responsible for leading consumers on the right path. There are several examples, like Patagonia and their “Don’t buy this jacket” campaign, insisting on making fewer products of higher quality and encouraging consumers to own one jacket instead of 2-3.  The “Do It Yourself” company, Kingfisher/B&Q, have started leasing equipment to customers rather than selling. Why own a screwdriver if you only use it once every five years? The best thing about what nowadays is referred to as the “Collaborative economy” is the emerging possibilities for users to share the things they do not need to possess on a frequent basis. Many have long believed that these strategies would not prove profitable in practice, but they have. The challenge companies will be faced with is how to accommodate consumers that buy less, and borrow more. Not because the consumers will demand it themselves, but because companies will take on the responsibility hoping to differentiate themselves from their competitors. My thesis will look at how companies can accommodate the future need for sustainable business by changes in their business model. – “June 4th: Evening Plenary”