Disposable architecture?

Technology is now outpacing innovation, fostering a culture of disposability.

I’ve noticed a number of faint signals recently pointing to a general shift in the speed of technology and the repercussions it’s having on the products we’re seeing come to market. This recent Tweet from Tom Scott got me really thinking about it:

Scott’s comment brought me back to a recent conversation I had with Princeton architecture student Alastair Stokes. I’d asked Stokes whether the technology challenges of designing a building to last 100+ years are more difficult today than they were in, say, 1900 — or if it’s as difficult, just different. He said the challenges might be more difficult today, but regardless, maybe technology is changing the solution: we shouldn’t try to design buildings today to last 100 years, but design them so they’ll last for, say, 20 years and then be replaced.

Initially, I found the suggestion intriguing, but unlikely (and exhausting, considering how much I hate to move). Then a few days later, this story came out: “‘Ninjas’ and ‘skeletons’: Japan’s eccentric homes find a niche.” The story describes just such a “disposable” home:

“Houses depreciate in value over 15 years after being built,” says Tokyo-based architect Alastair Townsend, “and on average they are demolished after 25 or 30 years, so the owner of a house doesn’t need to consider what a future buyer might want. It gives them a lot of creative license to design a home that’s an expression of their own eccentricities or lifestyle.”

In this case, the homes are targeted at niche markets looking for eccentric designs and customization, but it’s not a giant leap to imagine a similar business model growing out of the connected home market — or connected buildings in general — offering customized connectivity in buildings designed to last about the life cycle of the chosen technology. Aside from my jesting about finding the idea exhausting, this prospect raises serious ecological concerns and would require not only technological advances and innovation in the connected home/building market, but in recycling as well — all of which speaks to another observation Stokes made during our chat: technology is now outpacing innovation, where in recent years, the reverse has been true.

This sentiment was echoed in a conversation I later had with a woman who works in product marketing at Corning when she noted that the company is finding itself able to work on prototypes and concept projects that they’d long shelved due to shortfalls in technology. That’s innovation from 10 to 20 years ago, or more. The line between what is technology and what is innovation is a bit of a gray area, but if you imagine technology as the “how” and innovation as the “what and why,” it’s becoming clear that technology has not only caught up with that innovation from 10-20 years ago, but has greatly surpassed it, leaving companies scrambling, developing quick-hit products without clearly identified — or fully developed — problems and solutions.

The idea of innovation lagging behind technology is perhaps most apparent in the rapidly expanding Internet of Things market. Mike Loukides touched on this in a recent post in relation to wearables, arguing that “wearable computing isn’t about Glass, it isn’t about the iWatch, it’s something bigger that we haven’t invented yet.” Jim Stogdill similarly lamented the lack of connected car innovation:

“Too much of the emphasis in the ‘connected car’ market so far has been about staying in touch with your Facebook friends while you’re driving. There may be stupider uses of technology than that, but no examples spring readily to mind.”

Innovation lag is apparent, too, as we watch companies simply make things that already exist “smart” — who really needs a $219 connected toothbrush? Or how is building “the next Facebook” or the “Netflix for X” innovating? And seriously: a smart toaster that begs you to make toast, “or at least to give him a reassuring pat,” and will sell itself if neglected for too long; Kyle Vanhemert notes in a story about the toaster, named “Brad,” that the idea evolved from the question, “What if the smart objects of the future aren’t just smart, but also potentially jealous, petty or vindictive?” The “what and why” are pretty big questions here (and I’m sure we can come up with more meaningful “what if” questions to inspire creativity); we’re not only living up to Sturgeon’s revelation that “90% of everything is crap,” but seem to be doing our best to surpass it. (Loukides had a similar revelation, and wrote about it relation to the culture war between Google and Apple.)

These types of products illuminate a key issue: the speed of technological advancement is fostering a rush to market as companies struggle to keep pace with product cycles and consumer demands for “the next big thing.” (Smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi might be the exception here, as the company has managed to achieve a one-week product cycle, releasing a new phone with updated hardware and software features every Tuesday.)

This rush to market can also be seen in emerging connected-home technology as companies race to connect everything from air conditioners to light bulbs to locks to pets — you name it, someone has probably connected it to the Internet, without too much concern for the actual problem the product addresses. The lag in innovation here isn’t in the connectivity, but in the inter-connectivity; as Alasdair Allan points out:

“Our things might be becoming smarter, but they’re also becoming selfish. Your light bulbs aren’t talking to your media centre, your media centre isn’t talking to your blinds, and nobody is talking to the thermostat. Instead of talking to each other, everything is talking to you. … Each device manufacturer creates a separate application to talk to their thing, and there’s an app to talk to your thermostat, another to your lights, and another to your weather station. None of the things talk to one another.”

The entire point, Alasdair notes — the actual problem to be solved — is to reduce friction in users’ lives. “If making our light bulbs smart makes them harder to use, rather than easier — if it takes more thought to turn your lights on and off than walking to the light switch — we haven’t succeeded.”

The lag in innovation together with the increasingly rapid pace of technological advancement is nurturing a culture of disposability, where product life cycles grow shorter and shorter as innovation struggles to catch up. Consumers installing connected-home gadgets today will almost certainly need to replace them in a few years’ time (or sooner) as the products and ecosystems develop — and good luck moving to a new house. This level of disposability — whether it’s a new phone every week, constantly updated connected-home gadgets, or even an “upgraded” house every 10-15 years — is unsustainable, economically and environmentally.

I’m not suggesting that we temper our advancements in technology — and there are certainly innovative, meaningful products being developed, even a connected washing machine that almost makes sense — but we need to step up our innovation game in general, and it might be in everyone’s best interest to start with the basics and work on stuff that matters.

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  • http://jeffmcneill.com/blog/ Jeff McNeill

    Houses are already designed to be disposable, at the expense of the householder and to the benefit of architects and builders. It boggles my mind that somehow this is about technology in a good/innovative way. It is about a failure of the building industry and government regulation. We already have technologies that make better houses, but no vision or concept of house owner protections and guidance. This is a very sad post from Oreilly, which I usually expect to use a bit of reflection in their posts. Asking too much, I guess.

  • Jim S

    Jeff, I don’t think Jenn is cheerleading for tear down houses. I think she’s suggesting that houses, with the advance of home automation and similar “technoloification” (I just made that word up) of our homes are likely to see similar pressures toward disposability that we see in other things we buy. I think she makes her position clear with this:

    “This level of disposability — whether it’s a new phone every week, constantly updated connected-home gadgets, or even an “upgraded” house every 10-15 years — is unsustainable, economically and environmentally.”

    There are some really interesting places where government regulation is in fact standing in the way of homes better suited to our current conditions. Read up on the obstacles to passive homes for example. These homes don’t need furnaces, even in cold climates, but most local building codes prevent their construction for missing a variety of requirements that don’t make sense for what they are trying to do.

    A book that I really enjoyed that discusses the idea of buildings being around for a while is called How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand. I would love to see how his take has evolved as more and more of the value of future homes (value in terms of cost to build) turns toward various kinds of rapidly obsolescing digital systems (automation, entertainment, etc.).

    After all, over 100 years after the invention of the automobile few of us bother to keep one more than 5 or 6 years because of the continued pace of technological change. When (if?) a home comes to have a significant portion of its value in rapidly changing technology it will see the same pressures for upgrade.

    p.s. I’m writing this from my desk in my 117 year old house.

  • BlueCollarCritic

    This just-in-time delivery system be it real goods for brick & mortar store shelves such as grocery stores or the updates for software in the virtual world has been pushed by big business to consumers for the last few decades so is it a wonder that people are now conditioned to expect quick delivery/turn-over? The days of the quality of an artesian are all but entirely gone thanks to the victory of greed over need. There’s nothing wrong with financial rewards from word well done but we’ve long moved beyond that. Today it’s about who can con the consumer the best and selling them the most junk for the least cost so as to increase profits the most and to hell with whatever impact this business model has on the future.

    For over 50 years the engineering field has taught, promoted and actively practiced a design principle known as Planned Obsolescence. Planned Obsolescence or PO is the philosophy that everything is designed to work for an artificially period of time or number of usages at which point the item is discarded and replaced with a newer and ideally improved version. This idea is supposed to increase sales and profits by creating a repeat sales model that otherwise would not exists. The light bulb industry was the first to experience widespread implementation of PO even though not all manufacturers wanted to participate. Those in the industry who pushed for pushed for PO used their power and influence in government to use regulatory power and force of government to make all light bulb manufacturers embrace PO because the model works only when all participate. What consumer would buy a bulb that has to be replaced annually if not more often (depending on usage) when for no more than 2 to 3 times the price they can get one that lasts for years or decades if not longer. I realize the idea today of an old style candescent light bulb lasting for decades sounds crazy but that’s because we have been conditioned to believe that light bulbs are supposed to last bit fir a short period of time when the truth is that the light bulbs life has been artificially shortened by the design process.

    I realize this sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory but it’s not. You can find plenty of info on Planned Obsolescence including in the wiki verse. Non one treats it as some kind of diabolic conspiracy because its taught as being necessary to commerce and society because it promotes innovation and advancements thru shorter life cycles of products. Shorter life means more turnover which means faster advancements. Even though the general design of the candescent bulb did not change much up until the last few years engineers and others in the field were taught that Planned Obsolescence was a necessity and most believed it. When Planned Obsolescence was first introduced in 1932 a few at the time foresaw the dangers of such a philosophy but they were quickly shutdown by those with the power and influence to use the power of government. This was early signs of corruption in government by private business.

    Jump from 1932 to 2014 and we can easily see the folly of this kind of massively wasteful design philosophy. Keep in mind that Planned Obsolescence is not about making short term recyclable products but short term products that more often than not end up in landfills. Now that this has caught up with us who is stuck with having to pay to deal with this? Its certainly not the corporate world that pushed Planned Obsolescence with the power of government and who profited greatly by it but we the people who were shorted by Planned Obsolescence at both ends; when we buy the products and now when its time to deal with the environmental mess that Planned Obsolescence designed products have caused.

    If you’re wondering how it is that you’ve never heard of Planned Obsolescence, why it wasn’t taught in public schools, the answer is very simple. Had the public been educated on Planned Obsolescence it would most likely have never taken root and become a brief design fad that the public did not embrace. By simply avoiding public exposure of Planned Obsolescence the corporate world was able to benefit from it at the future cost of the tax payer. The only reason you can find any info on it when you try is because the engineers of every generation as well as business leaders had to be taught Planned Obsolescence and so the thing was pitched as being a necessary evil in the drive to push capitalism. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that real capitalism and not this phony Corporatocracy model is a good thing. I just don’t believe it’s smart to build things that are cheaper and that are designed to work for an artificially shortened period of time of usage.

    If you’ve ever wondered why things aren’t built like they used to be, now you know. Now you should be asking yourself why is this an open secret.