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Post-Pandemic Scenarios – XXII – Sustainable homes

Average life span of several appliances types in our homes. Newer models may have a shorter life span since it may be impossible to find replacement parts in case of breakdown. Image credit: Family Handyman

One point raised in the FTI’s report is the one of a possible change of paradigm, form “forced obsolescence” to “prolonged life span” for appliances and devices in our home.

The theory, and practice, of “forced obsolescence” goes back to the increased production capacity that required industry to sell more and more products to exploit that capacity (and therefore to cut amortisation and capital cost). This was/is also sustained by the continuous improvement of products, deriving from a relentless improvement of technology. Part of this is the design of appliances and devices without considering repair feasibility (sometimes even hindering). A good example is the design of smartphones that has made the change of battery, display, antennas tricky to the point that several users decide to change their smartphone when the battery starts to show depletion. Current lifespan of smartphone averages between 2 and 3 years depending on the geographical area and users’ age (getting shorter in the Far East Asia and in the 20-40 age range to average around one year).

The average lifespan of white goods appliances is shown in the graphic. Their life span could be extended if repair parts are available but usually we hear from the repairman that either the needed replacement part is no longer in production or that it is better to buy a new appliance (the repair may be more expensive or may not ensure a significant extension of the life span). Couple this with our desire (duly increased by commercials) of getting a “newer” model and you have all the ingredients for increasing waste.

The issue is just going to get worse, if left unchecked, because our homes are hosting more and more “devices”. This is particularly so for the electronic ones, since the rapid evolution of technology tends to make them obsolete in shorter time frames. The possibility of upgrading their features through software updates is not particularly interesting to companies that have their biz models rooted on selling “boxes”. A shift towards selling services (and the software upgrade can be offered as a service) is probably the way to go but it faces opposition from consumers that have become used to “free software patches”. Additionally, this goes against the general rule of economy stating that the price tends towards marginal cost (and the marginal cost for a software upgrade is “zero”).

It is worth noting, as highlighted in the FTI’s report, that the progression towards smarter and smarter appliances is leveraging on software capabilities. Today we are forced to replace our old PC because the newer software is no longer compatible with it (first is the OS that does not run on the chips of our PC and then the apps that would not run on the old OS). Imagine what would happen once your smart fridge can no longer support a new OS. Will you be forced to replace it?

The issue is a complex one since manufacturers have all the incentive to push for replacement, Additionally they have very little incentive of up-keeping costly spare parts warehouses that eventually will just undermine their sales market.

The pandemic, however, has steered several Governments in the direction of supporting, enforcing, sustainability and that involves decreasing the use of resources (materials and power). This has the additional benefit of decreasing waste on one side and on the other the design of repairable products eases their recycle (since a product can be split into more manageable components).

It remains to be seen to what extent Governments will be willing to enforce regulations forcing companies to release products with an extended life span. Clearly this would be a game changer.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.