Imagine if you never had to buy another object ever again. With the exception of food and other essential consumables, consider a world where every product you need is not only already at your disposal, but is non-disposable. For years we have consumed a steady diet of cheap and instant goods. Quickly obsolete through malfunction or passing fashion, this mode of consumption has left us bloated, unfulfilled and frustrated. In response, slow movements across food, design and fashion have emerged. With a focus on the transparent and artisan, ‘slow’ has been an antidote to ethically and ecologically questionable mass production. Yet we can go even further, to a future where we rarely need to buy anything because our things last as long as we do. A future where we value, repair and update our objects, passing them on to others. A future, even, where we don’t own anything and rather view products as services that we share, hire, return.
Monohm, a California based technology start-up, have adopted this future focused approach and created a prototype for what is claimed to be the world’s first ‘heirloom’ electronic. The ‘Runcible’ device was presented in early 2015 as a smart phone made to last a lifetime. This is a radical approach to personal electronics, a category infamous for driving profits through functional obsolence. instead of a short life cycle, outdated once a newer, faster, thinner model is released, the Runcible is an example of what inventor Saul Griffith calls ‘heirloom design’. Made to last.
So what makes something worthy of the ‘heirloom’ title? According to Griffith it should last 50 – 100 years. To achieve this, a product must be repairable and, for technology, upgradeable. The Runcible’s open web concept, based on Firefox OS, creates a framework that anyone can create and develop within. Monohm claim that this allows the device to be endlessly renewed and customised, to keep up with the changing needs of the owner and the pace of technological development. This philosophy can be applied to all kinds of consumer goods.
In heirloom goods a promise is being made and the currency of promise is trust. Approaching design from this angle requires a complete rethink of the high volume mentality that has driven retailers for years. Put simply it’s about quality, not quantity. for generations companies around the world have built reputations and loyal followings on lifetime guarantees. US outdoor brand LL Bean, sock makers Darn Tough and Australian bag retailer Crumpler are notable examples. While this concept is hardly new, the notion of promising satisfaction is something that has fallen out of mainstream use, mostly because customers simply don’t expect it. Consumer culture has been driven by what is new and next.
The ecological ideals of heirloom design rely on a longer life cycle where each part of an object is carefully considered, able to be repaired or replaced, updated or reinvented. According to Griffith, more important than ecological production is how long a product lasts. for that reason, he suggests a Rolex is the most eco-friendly watch you could buy. Besides durability, it is argued a Rolex will endure for years by also maintaining aesthetic attraction. However could a focus on ‘timeless’ and ‘classic’ design, terms in themselves highly subjective, cause a reduction in innovation and creativity?
While heirloom design principles have been used for the Runcible, does this alone ensure longevity? For example will Firefox OS, Runcible’s operating system, still be widely used in a decade or a century? Will consumers find the exterior design, the circular shape, the wood paneling, appealing? Until the release, scheduled for late 2015, it is uncertain. Here we get to the very crux, and challenge, of heirloom design. How to design products that will endure unpredictable shifts in the market’s wants and needs? How to design products for a future we do not know?
Product longevity is currently being discussed at a national level by several governments around the world, most notably in France, where laws have been proposed requiring manufacturers to offer free repairs and replacements within two years of purchase. This kind of legislation could push the principles of heirloom design into mainstream practice. But, crucially, is this what consumers want?
With a global shift towards service-based models across many sectors, could we be moving towards a demand for more ‘life- time promises’? Imagine hubs where consumers bring in their items for a service, the same way they would with their cars.
Where consultants are available to offer advice and personalised options, adapted to suit the needs of the individual. Losses from reducing manufacturing volumes could be channeled into additional support roles across customer service, advice, repair, design and customisation.
Taking it even further, the idea of ownership itself could be deconstructed. Could we become a culture that doesn’t buy? Globally, transactions based on trade and sharing are emerging with platforms allowing us to offer up our homes and cars to others. Could this be rolled out across all categories on a commercial scale? Could retailers become lending libraries? The opportunities for facilitating such exchanges are comprehensive, both on a local community-based level and globally. heirloom goods wouldn’t necessarily refer to one owner for a lifetime, but could instead be borrowed and used by many. The implications of this could be profound for the retail industry and key players across design, manufacturing, logistics and distribution.
As we move away from a high volume, low quality model due to economical, ecological and ethical shifts, heirloom design can be seen as a radical alternative with numerous possible outcomes. Of all the challenges this model faces, perhaps the greatest of all is the revolution of our relationship with things. The potential benefits of this approach are limited only by the imagination. But the challenges are clear. Are we prepared to change the way we shop?