Solutions before Bans

When John Warner was discussing the need to remove harmful chemicals, such as red dyes that cause cancer, he made a point that replacements must be found before bans can be enforced.

He used a couple of examples, citing chemicals that had been banned, only to now become more used than ever  due to loop holes invented because there were no viable alternatives.

Any scenario of sustainability must be built upon this methodology. Change will not occur unless change is possible, and of course, either comfortable or required. In the context of green chemistry, John Warner suggests that industrial chemists now have two sets of tool kits available to them. The green set is the one everyone would like to use, but when you open the drawers it is more than 90% empty. Unfortunately the only option then is to revert back to the other tool kit and grab something that works, even if you know there is the possibility of some nasty unforeseen consequences.

John’s life’s work is trying to fill that green tool box, and motivating other industrial chemists to do likewise.

I think the analogy extends to most disciplines. Architects would love something to replace the fibreglass insulator batts, but even the natural fibre alternatives are treated with such nasty chemicals it is unclear which is better. We hear this sort of conundrum repeated over and over again in many different disciplines.

We need to make sure we don’t vilify the people who are doing the best with what we have right now, but it’s damn scary watching the known nastiness continue unabated.

So… I am going to use my humble blog to celebrate the people at the fringe who are pushing the envelope on the alternatives and hopefully creating the scenarios of the future. Here goes…

Cell Phone as Fruit Fly

I love using a cell phone as the fruit fly of industrial design. If you haven’t read Clayton Christensen’s extremely important “Innovator’s Dilemma” you might have just been confused by my analogy. In his introduction he explains that if you want to study evolution, you don’t want to study elephants. They live too long, and no human will be able to gain a long term view in their own lifetime. You want to study something that breeds quickly, with a short lifespan, so that you can observe evolution at it’s work, in a human-centric time frame. Clayton uses hard disk drives in his book and it is fascinating.

The internal mechanisms for the slowest computer ever. An incredible project.

Although on a side note, anyone interested in exploring a longer world view should have a look at the clock of the long now, a project to build an accurate 10,000 year clock that chimes once a millennia, reminding humans of the longer time scale that is often too difficult to comprehend.

Back to cell phones. They are the fruit flies of technology. Steve Jobs is likely to release iPhone 5 this year, which will undoubtedly be the greatest must have unnecessary item of the year. Which I’ll admit, I will probably lust after.

The reality is that cell phones are awful. They embody enormous amounts of energy, with ridiculously short life spans. You can’t upgrade them, you can’t repair them, and you can’t recycle them without being reminded of the lead poisoned workers who are ripping out the precious metals.

But despite our misgivings we can’t get rid of cell phones. We’re hooked to mobile technology and it is only going to increase. Now, if the polarities of earth shift in 2012 as some theories suggest and all the satellites start dropping from the sky, this discussion may become academic (if it isn’t already), but the validity of recent doomsday predictions have suggested that not a lot will be changing dramatically in the near future.

It is important then, to consider how to create alternatives that will continue to satisfy our desire for mobile communication, but create a more sustainable scenario.


I began to write a project proposal for “how biomimicry could evolve the cell phone” and then I was recommended to have a look at “Humblefacture”, by Dominic Muren. It highlights a superb discussion that should be shaping how we look at design in electronics.

His overview of the work is far better than I could summarize, so excuse the complete quote from his web site below:

Modern manufacturing produces wondrous objects, in massive quantity, at a low price. But the costs to the environment, social stability, and economic justice are large, and often hidden. Small-scale, localized, clever manufacturing would minimize the ability for this cost hiding to continue. More importantly, local production gives the customer a bigger voice to dictate what they need and want out of products. Manufacturing should be humble to people, not the other way around. But we can’t afford to backslide either – modern life demands complex technologies, and we can’t make them as subsistence farmers or hunter gatherers.

Humblefacture is Dominic Muren’s exploration of how to make small-scale, local, low infrastructure manufacturing that can still make the complicated objects modern life demands.

Sounds pretty good, eh? While the web site seems to have gone a little dormant, there are some incredible resources available, including lectures, presentations and links upon links upon links of communities of people hacking together the future of electronics. Here is a superb lecture that gives a great overview of Dominic’s vision:

There are a number of discussion points from here, but what is most inspiring to me is the evolution from open source innovation in software to hardware. This has always been a curiosity of mine, although I’ll admit as more of an outsider looking in due to a lack of hacking ability as of yet. It has also been a particular curiosity of Chris Anderson’s at WIRED magazine. He has some great articles exploring the future of DIY manufacturing and bottom up (crowd sourced) entrepreneurship.

For anyone new to this world, here is a short list of resources that might be of interest for further exploration (although I recommend chugging through the complete WIRED article for all the details):

Adafruit – open source electronics, includes tutorials, kits and resources to help you learn how to build, hack, share and create electronic products.

Instructables – my favourite of the emerging making community platforms, complete with instructions on building your own crafts, toys and power tools. I’m not kidding the tools people build from kits of random parts are amazing.

Kickstarter – a crowd sourcing funding platform that started with the motivation to help artists connect with funding to complete projects, but has now blossomed into a viable way for anybody to seek the masses of curious generous people to help fund projects.

Back to cell phones and my opening thoughts, what I’m discovering, is that the alternatives are actually beginning to emerge, it’s just that most of them are not at the scale to be practical and viable for application. Obviously there are some enormous challenges along the way for these changes to occur, but we must not forget how quickly the world of software has evolved. Android as a software platform has been an enormous struggle, but ultimately a roaring success within cell phones, but there is likely going to be far more opposition for the same evolution to occur at a physical level.

As usual, I’m not sure there is going to be a solid conclusion to this post, there are discussions that need to continue on many fronts. This includes the development of education for children that encourages hacking, which sounds scary but actually is very healthy. Discussion number two is the evolution of how we value things, we currently buy into the cult of the new iPhone, while looking down our noses on a hacked phone that has gone through 17 different modifications and is bashed and scratched. And finally, until we have real awareness on the true costs of things we will never realize the absurdity that a new phone has to cost more than a recycled one some day.

In the mean time, hats off and a huge round of applause to all the incredible work inventive and creative people are putting towards the development of future alternatives that we need as soon as possible.

One Comment on “Solutions before Bans”

  1. […] Warner made an interesting point during his presentation – Carl Hastrich expanded on in his blog Bouncing Ideas – that replacements must be found before bans can be enforced. So, before California bans another […]

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