Why we need more Disruptive Design and less Disruptive Innovation

A few years ago I was running a workshop for a group of designers on sustainability, and I started to talk about the practice of planned obsolescence, the act of building intentional failures into products. I explained how this approach had come into vogue in the industrial sector, post World War II, as a way to stimulate the economy, and that today, it is still pretty standard. Companies design faults and/or failures into products that limit the ability for consumers to maintain, or use, the product for longer than the time specified by the producers.

Sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s not. Sadly, it’s become the status quo.

Image: Gwyn Ellsworth

At the time of this workshop, I was pretty obsessed with the evils of this technique and how it came to be. I was frustrated by the progressive movement towards more and more products having locked out features (like Apple’s patented screws, or the planned life span of batteries), and the rise of the un-repairable product (so many electronic products are now intentionally designed in such a way that repair is not an option).

But, despite my research and interest into how this was playing out, I had never met a designer who had actually applied this approach in their practice.

So here I am going on about the un-sustainableness of designing things to break, when one of the designers in the room pipped up and said “oh, we just got a brief to make a disposable toaster.”

The client wanted a product that would break just after warranty so that the need for a replacement would send the customer right back to the store for another one.

Even if the customer purchased a competitor’s toaster as a replacement, they were still back in the market again, spending dollars and thus increasing the likelihood that they may yet again fork over money for the producer’s product. The producer was going after the low hanging fruit in the marketplace, the un-toasted consumer who would be enticed by a cheap and easy to access product.

There are many factors that lead to this type of behavior in the marketplace. One is the ever-lower prices consumers expect and demand. In a classic ‘chicken and egg’ scenario, a competitive market drives producers to lower prices to entice customers, and at the same time, this conditions customers to expect lower prices, which in turn means that producers have to lower prices even further. Eventually, companies have to find new ways of maintaining continual growth, and so planning a product’s death to manipulate consumption is a pretty simple and age old-practice to keep the economic wheels turning. Make no mistake, planned obsolescence (or what is also called ‘death dating’) is alive and well in our current economy (see here, here and here).

One might argue that planned obsolescence is part of the cycle of technological growth, where companies have to allow for continual improvements to keep up with technology changes. Sure, but that can be accounted for without designing in failures to manipulate the market. Closed loop systems can also be designed that take back products and recycle them into new products, like the techniques employed Fuji Xerox for example.

So, how does this relate to Disruptive Innovation?

Fast forward a few years and the rise of the ‘disruptive innovation’ culture has taken full force, and is basically used to describe any new technology. Even the original proponent of the idea, Clayton Christensen, has recently complained that it has lost it’s nuraunce:

“…too many people who speak of “disruption” have not read a serious book or article on the subject. Too frequently, they use the term loosely to invoke the concept of innovation in support of whatever it is they wish to do. Many researchers, writers, and consultants use “disruptive innovation” to describe any situation in which an industry is shaken up and previously successful incumbents stumble. But that’s much too broad a usage” (Christensen, Raynor & McDonald, 2005)

The very notion of disruptive innovation is to “find a way to turn non-consumers into consumers,” to basically add an extra blade to a razor or find a new way of convincing someone they need something that they didn’t know they needed before— thereby activating them as a consumer and increasing overall consumption. The concept facilitates price shifts downward through new competition in the market place. There is no consideration of the effect of these actions on society at large, other than the product and profit success.

Every mildly successful new player in the market is labeled as disruptive, often because they are seen as forcing the more established players to fight harder for the consumer’s dollar. Nowadays it’s common practice for a new app, product or startup to define their value based on who and what they are ‘disrupting’ — justifying their value based on what traditional market they are challenging with their new iteration. We have seen this contemporary version of ‘disruption’ occur in technology, accommodation, transport and a host of other arenas.

But what are the unintended consequences of all of this competitive disruption? Does it lead to more briefs for disposable toasters? Or, does disruption create change that leads to more effective, resilient and prosperous societies? Surely, the latter ought to be the desired outcome of the act of being disruptive?

But right now, for the most part, that is not the driving purpose of “disruptive innovation.” Why? Because disruption for the sake of economic gains leaves out the core component of disruptive activity, and that is to create, with intent challenges and changes to the status quo. And the status quo right now is making cheaper, shittier products that don’t consider the social and environmental impacts of their existence.

I’m sure that many of the ‘disrupters’ of Silicon Valley and beyond have a clear intent; they want to shift markets, offer new services and make some serious money. The entire start up system is like a modern form of prospecting for gold, where you sell the idea of winning big before you have actually found anything at all! So of course you have to disrupt a space that already exists, you have to show how you are making better, stronger, faster versions of something that someone else has already proven their is a market for. Do it well and everyone gets paid. The market shifts, some people lose their jobs as old titans fall and some people gain new economic opportunities as the new players shift the market place.

Ultimately, disruption is about making change happen. It is a force, that when designed well, can have significant and wide reaching impacts on people and the planet. But, if we are not careful, after all of this disruption, we will end up with even more shitty, designed-to-break, toasters and a wide range of externalities that were previously not accounted for.

We are already starting to see a price war between Uber and Lyft, driving down the wages and working conditions for the drivers (I know — huge can of worms to open. I’m just going to close it right back up again here, but will quickly make a note that the proponents of the disruptive innovation theory recently wrote in a Harvard Business Review article that Uber is not disruptive, which was then counter argued in this Tech Crunch article… yep).

The thing about disrupting for economic gain, is that the economy has been designed as a closed system (a little bit like Apple’s products that lock the consumers out) and this closed system does not account for the externalities that lead to unintended consequences. We put no price on the collective cost associated with losing natural resources from economic activity. As a society we have not been able to find ways of accounting for the hugely important job of raising children, and it’s just now that we are starting to address the externality of 200 plus years of releasing carbon back into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate.

So why do I think we should be talking more about disruptive design and not disruptive innovation? Because innovation alone will not solve the problems that externalities bring, such as climate change, poverty and inequity.

To disrupt by design requires one to firstly have intent to make change, and then to creatively discover nuanced and agile ways of intervening in system to leverage positive change outcomes. You need to be hyper sensitive to the system dynamics you are intervening in and create products and services that minimize the negative externalities and maximize the ability for the system to be regenerative, not destructive.

I’m not saying that we want to kill the culture where a couple of designers who randomly rent out an air mattress on their kitchen floor to some other designer attending a conference in San Francisco can’t then go on to totally revolutionize the accommodation industry (I love airbnb!). What I am saying, is that when we disrupt the system based on economic motivators, avoiding the social and environmental consequences, this comes at a cost to us all. It puts a crude tax on current and future generations’ ability to live a prosperous existence on this planet. In other words, it’s unsustainable.

Currently, we have a completely normalized system in which consumers have very limited sovereignty over the goods we buy, and producers are finding more and more insidious ways of making things break, forcing the upgrade or manipulating the need. Designers, managers and engineers are often implicated in these acts, whether we are aware of it or not. We need more disruptive designers, those who are willing to challenge the status quo for outcomes that benefit all of us, not the creation of more stuff that detracts from our ability to survive prosperously on this planet.

So, What is Disruptive Design?

Disruptive design is an approach to creative problem solving that combines systems thinking, sustainability sciences and design thinking to explore and create unique approaches to significant real-world problems.

Essentially, disruptive design is a holistic approach to complex creative problem solving. It combines sociological inquiry methods with systems and design thinking approaches. Full disclosure here, I created a methodology for enacting disruptive design which involves a 3-phase process of mining, landscaping and building. Together these iterative processes create a tactical approach to sustainability and social innovation.

Intervening in the status quo requires a critical and flexible thinking framework along with a bit of rebellious flare. I see this as an applied approach to being a creative protagonist. What we look at in a disruptive design approach is the ways in which complex, dynamically evolving systems interact, identifying potential intervention points, and then developing creative solutions that activate and catalyze positive social, environmental and economic change.

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I am the founder of Disrupt Design and The UnSchool of Disruptive Design. I have a PhD in exploration around change making as a creative practice and I work in advocating for pro-sustainability actions being normalized in business and society at large.