What happens to our devices after we’re done with them? About 70% of the world’s discarded electronics are not recycled, and much of the waste is illegally shipped to developing countries, where poor workers—many of them children—mine the contraptions for precious metals under dangerous, unregulated conditions. Ore Streams, one of this year’s Innovation by Design (IBD) honorees, proposes a novel use for all those old phones and laptops: Turn them into office furniture, such as filing cabinets made of aluminum computer cases and chairs inlaid with mobile phone components that literally force people to sit with the consequences of their consumerism.
The project hints at an important new role for the design industry. Since the early days of the digital revolution, design has catered to users’ insatiable appetite for instant gratification. Sleek interfaces let us hail rides at the press of a button and summon cheap clothes to our doorsteps. But all that seamless, fast design has a cost. It hides from us the immense environmental toll of our everyday habits, turning us into great consumers of technology, but terrible stewards of the earth. If there’s one thing that this year’s top designs illustrate, it’s that the Jobsian quest to create one perfect “revolutionary” device has ended. Today’s most compelling design innovations tackle big, systemic problems—including how to dispose of products without damaging the planet.
Take Futurecraft Loop, Adidas’s first foray into the circular economy (a term for using resources in a closed-loop system to minimize waste) and the winner in IBD’s Fashion and Beauty category. After you buy and wear a pair of Adidas running shoes made from knitted TPU (a type of plastic), you send them back, and Adidas grinds them up and turns them into new shoes—a process that the material can undergo many times, according to the company. At the end of its life, the material may be turned into something else entirely, such as flooring or furniture. Adidas has done exactly that at its new MyArena building in Germany.
Futurecraft Loop is an experiment. It’s unclear whether Adidas, which currently manufactures 409 million pairs of shoes a year, will scale up the program. (One crucial issue the company hasn’t resolved is how to persuade consumers to take the time to return something they’re accustomed to tossing.) But Adidas is clearly aware that athletic shoes are typically composed of 30 different components and are notoriously difficult to recycle. And that the sneaker industry emits roughly 375 million tons of CO2 a year—the equivalent of letting 87 coal-fired power plants burn nonstop for a year. New design solutions are a moral imperative.
Designers in the consumer packaged goods industry also recognize this urgency. Loop (no relation to Futurecraft) is a platform that lets you order household goods such as toothpaste, laundry detergent, and ice cream in reusable containers, which you drop into a designated tote when you’re done; Loop then picks them up, sanitizes the containers, refills them, and sends them on to other customers. Loop doesn’t ask the user to give up the brands she loves—just to take a baby step toward reducing single-use packaging. Historically risk-averse CPG players, including Unilever and Procter & Gamble, have begun selling their products through Loop, signaling that even the most stalwart companies see value in systemic design change, regardless of whether it adds a bit of friction to their business and their customers’ lives.
Architects also have introduced designs that risk inconveniencing people for the greater good. Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park, in Queens, New York, the winner in IBD’s Spaces, Places, and Cities category, features a recreational field that floods deliberately during heavy rains and drains slowly afterward to protect the neighborhood from rising waters. That means the field is periodically unusable. But as global warming renders coastal storms stronger and more frequent, it’s a vital resiliency strategy. (Local club soccer teams can always reschedule.)
Design alone won’t save the planet. It won’t make e-waste disappear, or improve recycling systems overnight, or eradicate the wild weather patterns that are now commonplace in the age of climate change. These are excruciatingly difficult problems that require deft handling by business leaders, policy makers, and academics—and a willingness among consumers to discard bad habits. Yet design can be a catalyst, urging us to look beyond our immediate wants and needs, helping us to embrace the complexity of doing less harm to the fragile world that sustains us.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.