How the next billion (or two) customers will influence industrial design

photo credit Rob Pettit

More than one billion cellphones were sold on the planet Earth in 2007. In the year 2009, almost 65% of all the human beings on this planet will have a mobile phone.  Nokia estimates that there will be 4 billion mobile subscribers in just over a year from now. According to the fancy UN type organizations, the definition of a mobile subscriber is not just the person who pays a monthly fee to a mobile services company (i.e. subscribes to the service) but also those who use prepaid cards or purchase airtime in advance. This means that once you take into account that Europe’s mobile phone saturation averages 115% and goes upto 150% in some countries, there are a LOT of mobile phones floating around the world today.

These numbers give pause for thought. Yes, everyone’s been through the discussions of recycling and reuse, refurbish and resale, one hopes that a greater number are used until they simply cannot be used anymore than simply chucked in the bin for being out of style.  Mobiles have already surpassed their ‘next billion’ and have maybe another billion or two left to sell, to be honest. If they sold a billion phones in 2007 and will reach the 4th billion customer in 2009, they’ll be ‘sold out’ by 2010 or 2012 when they hit bottom. Well then, we’ll let Novia show the way.

In the meantime, that wasn’t where I was going with this thought today. It struck me, even as companies begin to focus seriously on the ‘next billion’ customers (or two), that the very nature of the market’s preferences, characteristics and constraints will begin to influence the design of products in the near future. And I don’t mean simply in terms of cost alone or usability, like the eeePC that’s been created specially for reaching the ‘next billion’ in emerging markets – low cost, easy to use and durable.

That last point is what will begin to shift the trend away – for durable goods if not for mobile phones – from throwaway style based on planned obsolescence to long lasting, hard wearing products that bring meaning back to the word ‘durable’. “Out of date” and “replace with newest model” was a calculated effort by members of the manufacturing and industrial design fields back in the fifties inspired by industrial designer Brookes Stevens, who coined the term planned obsolescence,

The official definition he came up with was “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” It became something that he would be repeating for the rest of his career, and he took nearly every opportunity to present his philosophy. The idea was not that there was anything wrong with the old model, but that the new one was more desirable.

This conditioning of the consumer towards the latest styles and models has been what has kept the giant economic engines powered by “new and improved” going. Now, as the focus turns to the next billion customers, and the next billion after that, things will have to change. There will be no choice. They simply do not have the funds or wealth to replace on a whim any durable they choose to own. Even something as cheap as a phone (as compared to a television or DVD player etc) is a deeply considered serious purchase much the same as any consumer durable would be – will it last for the 3 to 5 years I intend to own it at the very mininum, will be it be easy to use and maintain, will it need a lot of repair, will it have resale value when I’m ready to sell it?

Timeless style, long life, ruggedness will become the norm for appliances and electronics again, if they are to be taken seriously at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Sustainable products that consume less power make more sense when you buy your electricity in advance every month and then must conserve to make it last. The luxury of planned obsolescence that fuels the growth of consumer markets everywhere else will be impossible to maintain even if somehow the marketing machinery manages to instil it in people’s minds. And even then, it will only go so far and no further. No amount of advertising can generate an income where there aren’t any funds. Someone who has his new phone robbed or stolen may indeed replace it, but more often with something that’s at the end of its life and very very cheap rather than with a new one as you or I might.

Until now, this was an overlooked and underserved segment, so design and manufacturing focused on the wants of the few. Now, as markets saturate and companies must look towards the needs of the many, will this influence a shift back to quality of design and manufacturing again? Can we look upon this as an opportunity to focus on sustainable affordable design for the many? An opportunity to innovate? To make a change? Or will we instead try to recreate ‘capitalism on speed’ ?

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