To Boost Innovation We Need To Make Ourselves Obsolete

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If you’re of a certain age you’ll sometimes find yourself reminiscing about an age where things were built to last.

My own mother swears her first washing machine lasted for over 20 years. Today,  Apple expects the lifecycle for an average iPhone to be just three.

Firstly – this is almost certainly a rose tinted view of the past.  I remember several breakdowns and days of hand washing in our house. Statistics back me up – In 1971 Which? found that 50% of washing machines broke down in their first year. Today the chances of a breakdown in six years is just 12%.

Secondly – the relative cost of technology has fallen dramatically. In 1970, the cost of a washing machine was extortionate – equal to about 8% of average annual earnings. Today it’s barely 1.5%. 

In truth – today’s goods are far cheaper and far more reliable than they ever were before.

The price we pay for this innovation is a much shortened lifecycle. And it’s known as planned obsolescence.

This is a strategy in which the process of becoming obsolete— unfashionable or no longer usable – is planned and built into it from conception.

Many see planned obsolescence as a driver for innovation.  Philip Kotler has described it as

the working of the competitive and technological forces in a free society—forces that lead to ever-improving goods and services.

Others regard is an exploitation of customers – driving them through a never ending cycle of wasteful upgrade or repurchase.

However – I propose that it has a place. And that includes a role in how we design our organisations and how we design our public services.

One of the questions I often hear asked is why aren’t our organisations embracing change, new technology, social innovation, more quickly.

The answer is pretty simple I think:

Getting rid of the old is harder than embracing the new.

All the talk and excitement of sexy new tech and ways of working runs out of steam when faced with legacy systems, established practices and policies. All formed in a very different age and stuck in place like a limpet on a rock.

Whilst organisations are generally very good at coming up with new ideas and practices they are generally not so skilled at decommissioning older ones.

  • So what if we designed all new services and products with the life cycle of an iPhone?
  • What if our customers and colleagues knew at the launch of a service that the infrastructure was in place for just four years , after which a newer , more powerful upgrade was to be launched?
  • What if rather than plan on our services being around forever , we designed for the very conditions in which they would cease to exist?

Wouldn’t that be a better future than yet more failed attempts by services to fix society? 

Over the next few months Bromford will be launching a completely re-engineered way of providing our core service. In fact it’s less a service and more a relationship. A relationship less about housing and more about people.

It’s the result of all the testing , piloting and exploring we’ve been doing over the past few years. The learning from all these pilots has brought us to an overriding conclusion: we can have the most impact with our customers when we truly get to know them and are freed from the shackles of how we used to do things. 

This redesign will be accompanied by a process of decommissioning.  And we’ll have dates by which we will know whether objectives have been achieved. Dates when we can begin again or decide we are no longer needed in the same way. Or even at all.

If we all planned for obsolescence we’d perhaps see a very different social sector. A sector where innovation wasn’t endlessly lauded so much as endlessly practiced.

A sector where things maybe didn’t last so long , but where services had more impact, were cheaper, and rarely broke down like they used to.

 

  1. […] all design ourselves out at some stage and never overstay our welcome in a given time and space. Paul Taylor better outlines in his post here about planned obsolescence and how this helps creates better systems for innovation. This in turn […]

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